Achievement gap narrows as attitudes change

The facts are right there, in black and white: If you're an African-American student going to public school in America today, education is more likely to be a struggle than an opportunity.

In what some say is a lingering effect from Jim Crow days, it's still true that, on average, American white kids - no matter from what socioeconomic strata they hail - score higher on standardized tests, drop out of school at lower rates, and go to college at higher rates than their black counterparts.

Durham, N.C., is the city that coined the phrase "keep your eyes on the prize," the civil rights-era call to desegregate society, primarily through the schools. But now, something altogether revolutionary is happening here: A few changes in the very "slum schools" that were once considered unfixable are having profound results. Black students' test scores have improved dramatically, and the dropout rate is dropping.

Experts say the evolution in Durham illustrates not just the problems inherent in closing the so-called achievement gap, but the kind of subtle social changes that are making improvements possible.

Indeed, new reforms here and around the United States have less to do with busing students to different neighborhoods and more to do with ensuring higher standards right where they are.

The education bill passed by the US House last week and expected to be approved by the Senate this week, requires schools to adopt plans to close racial and income-based achievement gaps.

Schools already take a variety of approaches, making sure, for instance, that all second-graders are reading up to snuff, that high-schoolers have a math class every day, and that minorities have a fair shot at making it into advanced classes.

In Durham, such efforts have led to inner-city students of African descent making a leap in both reading and math skills. Today, 9 out of 10 black second-graders can read "at or above grade level"; their enrollment in "academically gifted" classes has risen 83 percent since 1998; the number of dropouts was down to 362 in 2000-01, from 532 in 1999-00; and suspensions went down 39 percent in a year. In addition, the gap in SAT scores between whites and blacks has been closed by 10 points since last year.

With its fervent black involvement in local affairs, a strong history of civil rights, and a determination to adopt pragmatic reforms that don't cost a lot of money, this hilly Piedmont city is a beacon of hope, says Duke sociologist Claudia Buchmann.

"The achievement gap is closing, and, in some places like Durham, it's closing rapidly," she says.

The trend - in cities ranging from Dayton, Ohio, to Elizabeth City, N.C., is mostly the result of changing attitudes among parents, teachers, and other community members, education experts say. In Dayton, some black leaders have called for an end to busing and for fresh resources to be sent to the inner-city schools. Even the federal courts now tut-tut busing reform.

In Raleigh, N.C., a report released earlier this month identified "attitude" as the most important instigator of real change. What's more, the school-choice movement in many districts throughout the country has energized parents to take a more substantial role in shaping local school policy.

What about desegregation?

To be sure, much of America's black leadership isn't ready to give up on the old ideal of integrated public schools. The National Black Caucus of State Legislators, for instance, released a report Nov. 27 that questions the school-choice movement and calls for more, not less, national oversight of states' efforts to bridge the gap.

The Black Caucus has good reason to warn people about charter schools and other things it labels "quick fixes," says Roslyn Mickelson, a race researcher at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. "If we want to understand why there's an achievement gap, a major factor is that our schools are resegregating, so that racially isolated minority schools simply don't offer the same opportunities to learn as racially balanced schools," she says.

Because Durham is 95 percent black, it never saw much busing before 1992, when, at the behest of black leaders, the county and city joined forces under one school system. After a few stabs at a reassignment system based on racial percentages, the district abandoned those efforts and allowed any student to go to any school, as long as there's room. The catch is, they've got to provide their own transportation. In the end, the racial makeup of most the city's inner-city schools remains largely African-American.

While the city has narrowed the gap, it's also a microcosm of the problems that still exist.

The Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, one of the country's strongest and most durable black groups, has been on the school board's back, calling its policies "a tyranny of the majority" because three members are white and only two are black.

There are clearly still signs of racial antipathy on the board: racially split votes, hollering at board meetings, and widespread suspicion about the district's white superintendent.

Critics of the school board here want more-drastic reform than even the Black Caucus is suggesting. They say the district needs to focus all its resources on solving the achievement-gap problem - even at the expense of suburban kids, if necessary.

Fueling the fires, the Office for Civil Rights at the US Department of Education cited the school district in 1998 for not doing enough for its low-achieving black students.

The issue came to a head in November, when the Durham Committee, along with the local NAACP, lobbied for a "no confidence" vote against a $51 million bond issue. But in the end, most black voters supported the school district and the bonds were granted. The recipient of the most money - $11 million - is a black, inner-city school.

"Victories in Durham aren't easily won," says Bert L'Homme, the Durham Public Schools associate superintendent for instruction. "But we're winning some."

Looking beyond race

Ron Stokes is one of those who think the system is on the right track. He has two sons at Durham's Northern High School, both of whom are doing well. He voted for the bonds, and believes that race-based assignments are a thing of the past.

"I was taught that you shouldn't judge people by skin color, so why are people [in various parts of the country] still spending so much money on busing when that money could be spent on the local schools?" says Mr. Stokes, who lives in one of Durham's clean-cut black neighborhoods.

To Mr. L'Homme, the achievement gap comes down to a literacy problem among parents and students.

While white kids usually come to kindergarten with an average of 2,000 hours of instruction in math and reading, the average black child comes with 50 hours, he points out.

Still, the district has decided improvements can be made - without sacrificing opportunities for high achievers.

The first solution: Teachers must spend 45 minutes alone with each second-grader to evaluate his or her reading abilities. For those who stumble on their ABCs, it's off to individual tutoring until they get it right.

To give more minority students the opportunity to be involved in honors and advanced classes, local high schools scrapped the idea of admitting people based solely on IQ tests and began looking at work samples and teacher recommendations.

"One of the big shifts in my career has been that it's gone from being that a school is doing OK if most of the kids are successful to the idea that your school is only doing OK if all kids are successful," says Alan Teasley, a former teacher who now heads up Durham's gifted program.

Most elementary school teachers in the district have received up to 40 hours of training in how to identify and stimulate those who show lots of ability, but haven't been exposed to as many educational experiences at home as other kids.

Math in Mississippi

If Durham is leading the charge to raise up the achievement levels of inner-city black students, then Jackson, Miss., is bringing up the rear.

Bob Moses, a teacher and notable civil rights leader, describes achievement in Jackson as being at the bottom of the country, and Lanier High School, where he teaches, is at the bottom of Jackson.

The founder of the Algebra Project, a tutoring program devoted to boosting math literacy in the black Delta, Mr. Moses says technology and local action can work together to finally solve the problem.

At Lanier, the math department fought for a grant to get one more teacher so all the students could have math class every day instead of every other day.

It's still too early to tell if new reforms will have an impact. "But we've seen that students in my class are learning more, and we're trying to spread those methods to all the classes," Moses says.

"There is no cookie-cutter solution," says Moses, who disagrees with some of his Harvard mentors who put the "policy spin" (emphasizing busing) on the 1960s government report that first outlined the "achievement gap."

Instead of spending money on buses, school districts should be spending more resources on the very neighborhood schools that have been shunned for so long, he says.

"You've got several hundred of these schools, where 50 percent of black males don't graduate, scattered around the country.... [They] are essentially sharecropper schools, schools of low expectation, and they're the ones that need help," Moses says.

Change starts with 'we can'

Indeed, in Durham, administrators credit a shift in perception about the roles of the inner-city schools as crucial to the district's successes so far. Teachers are seeing the value in the new initiatives, and a majority of blacks are behind the push, local officials say.

"We have a long way to go," says L'Homme, the deputy superintendent in Durham. "But the main thing, I think, is having a real change of attitude, and just getting together and saying, 'We have seen the light. We can do this, we can close this gap.' "

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