Books explore why achievement gap persists

Racism and low expectations continue to limit the academic potential of young African- Americans in this country.

One of the most perplexing and stubborn problems haunting US education today is the racial gap. While measures of black achievement in other areas of life are on the rise - income level, home ownership - the distance between black and white students' test scores is not narrowing at the same pace.

And although many more African-American students attend college today than in the past, their dropout rate is 20 percent higher than that of white peers, while their marks average about two-thirds of a grade below that of white students.

It's a problem that four new books by black authors come at from different angles. Although three of the books are about personal experiences, while a fourth approaches it from an academic viewpoint, all shed light on a common problem: the damage that racism and low expectations continue to inflict on black academic achievement.

The most immediately practical of the four is Morning by Morning: How We Home-Schooled Our African-American Sons to the Ivy League by Paula Penn-Nabrit (Villard Books, 285 pps).

Home schooling was an option Ms. Penn-Nabrit and her husband Charles came to only with reluctance. Mr. Penn-Nabrit's uncle James Nabrit was one of the attorneys who argued Brown v. Board of Education before the US Supreme Court in 1954, and the family valued the public-school experience.

But after their sons encountered racial incidents at both public and private schools, their parents worried that continuing to learn in a predominantly white atmosphere might be harmful.

Many parents will look enviously at the result of this family's home schooling experiment: Two sons were admitted to Princeton University in New Jersey, while a third attended Amherst College in Massachusetts.

In the book, however, Penn-Nabrit is candid about the things she felt she could have done better. Each chapter finishes with advice for parents, most of which transcends issues of both race and homeschooling. ("Education is more than academics." "It's okay if your kids get angry at you - they'll get over it!")

Ultimately, this is a how-to book for parents with children of any color, but it carries with it a troubling subtext: These talented young men might have remained in public school if their parents had believed they would get a fair shake.

Very different was the experience of Horace Porter, who tells his story in The Making of a Black Scholar: From Georgia to the Ivy League (University of Iowa Press, 149 pp.).

As a child with a powerful hunger for books, Dr. Porter was bewildered when white staff at his local library treated him as if he didn't belong there. There were few adults to encourage him. But largely on his own, he read and studied his way to a scholarship to Amherst College.

At Amherst, however, he encountered other forms of discomfort. Some were simply cultural - he didn't know his roommate would think it odd when he knelt to say his prayers at night, and he had trouble choking down the rare meat and less spicy food the other students considered standard fare. There were also racial slurs and an awkward sense of difference to endure.

Porter persisted, however, and worked his way through graduate school and teaching posts at some of the country's most prestigious schools.

He eventually left Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, however, for the less-competitive University of Iowa in Iowa City, feeling that the sense of kindness and human values at the state school were closer to those imparted to him by his African-American family.

Salome Thomas-EL recounts his own tussles with racism in the world of higher education in I Choose to Stay (Kensington Publishing, 304 pp.) When he was a freshman at East Stroudsberg University in Pennsylvania, his white roommate refused to share quarters with him and someone painted a swastika on his door.

Mr. EL, too, persisted and when he graduated took a job with a sports cable channel in Philadelphia but couldn't escape the nagging feeling he should be teaching minority kids. He finally took a position at Vaux Middle School in a low-income Philadelphia neighborhood, a job he refused to leave even when better-paying offers came his way.

He soon discovered that Vaux had once been famous for its chess team in the days when the school was more racially mixed, but that the activity had been dropped after the student body became mostly black

Armed with this knowledge, he set out more or less single-handedly to teach chess and restore the school to its former glory.

Within a few years, EL's students - almost all from minority and low-income families - were playing in the US Open chess tournament and racking up honor after honor.

The fourth book, Young, Gifted and Black: Promoting Higher Achievement Among African-Americans (Beacon Press, 183 pp.) is by three black academics.

Theresa Perry examines certain black-white cultural differences and concludes that African-American students are less comfortable in schools that are highly stratified and competitive, and perform better when surrounded by a strong sense of community.

Claude Steele looks at some of the negative stereotypes that may be preventing young black students from excelling, while Asa Hilliard III reviews educators and institutions that have consistently called forth the best from minority students.

One message, however, resonates clearly throughout all four books. The trust, comfort, and high expectations that are necessary to support children as they learn are still not wholly available to black children in many American schools. Until they are, these authors suggest, fully closing the achievement gap may remain an elusive goal.

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