The march toward parity between blacks and whites in education has advanced significantly in the United States during the last third of the 20th century.
But, in a sobering new finding, it's become clear that overall progress in closing the education gap came to a halt a decade ago - and in fact has been widening since the late 1980s.
"The racial gap in academic achievement is a national emergency," says Abigail Thernstrom, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute in New York, who is working on a new book on racial disparities.
Results of a new study show that racial achievement gaps are not as large as they were 30 years ago, before the federal government targeted billions to improve educational opportunities for minority students. And there's clear evidence that schools are succeeding in bringing all groups of students up to a minimal, basic level of skills, such as the ability to add, subtract, and make sense of a simple paragraph.
But nearly all the reduction in racial gaps took place before 1988. Since then, progress for minorities in math, science, and reading has faltered. "Another way to look at the data is that the average scores for 17-year-old black students in reading and math are about the same as the averages for 13-year-old whites," says Michael Nettles, vice chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress is the most respected and comprehensive national test. The 1999 NAEP Trends in Academic Progress report, released yesterday, measures the progress of nine-, 13-, and 17-year-olds in reading, mathematics, and science since the early 1970s.
Competence in basic skills does not ensure that all students will have the higher skills they need to succeed in college or the 21st-century workforce. By 2020, the majority of US workers will be among those groups now labeled minorities.
"The data released [yesterday] is disappointing - especially for students of color and their parents - but hardly surprising," says Kati Haycock, director of the Education Trust, a Washington-based group that works on school improvement.
Lack of political will
"Over the last decade too few states, school districts, and schools have done the work that it takes to close the gap," she adds. "And the federal government has turned a blind eye to the gap and to the students who most need its help by failing to require gap closing as a condition of receipt of federal funds."
In fact, a consensus is emerging across the political spectrum on ways to solve this problem. These include making sure all students have access to quality teachers and a high-powered curriculum.
"It's clear that the nation needs a major new targeted initiative to improve reading. The time for feel-good reading programs has clearly ended," says Michael Casserly, executive director of the Washington-based Council of Great City Schools.
A solution also includes coming to terms with cultural factors that are impeding the progress of minority children.
"In the Information Age, education unlocks the door to the economic mainstream. Lousy education leads to economic apartheid," said Hugh Price, president of the National Urban League at the group's annual conference last month.
"Solving the problem is not rocket science. It's facing the facts about what these kids need and running with it," says Ms. Thernstrom.
A crucial first step is finding the political will to confront the issue squarely. Only a handful of states currently focus on the problem by disaggregating student scores by race and income.
Texas pioneered this trend with its landmark accountability system in the 1980s. Since then, Florida and California have made closing the racial gap a goal of their state education programs. About 36 states collect such statistics, but do not yet make them available to the general public.
"When such data is there in black and white before the parents on a report card for the school, it makes a great deal of difference," says Kathy Christie of the Denver-based Education Commission of the States.
Another element is to redirect resources to the schools that need them most. Minority students are much more likely to be taught by unqualified teachers than are white students. They are also much more likely not to have access to a high-powered college-preparatory curriculum.
"If we are to close the student achievement gap, we must first and foremost close the teacher talent gap," says the Education Trust's Haycock. "As it stands now, minority students are taught by more than their fair share of unqualified and inexperienced teachers. This simply has to stop."
At the same time, poor schools that serve much of the nation's minority population often come up short on rigorous course offerings. A Hispanic student in a South-Central Los Angeles high school has a choice of only three or four advanced placement courses, whereas a student in Beverly Hills has up to 18, for example.
"By and large, the wealthier the school district, the more likely you will find in place rigorous coursework for students," says Frederick Wright, associate director for equity and access for The College Board.
The vanishing bookworm
The 1999 trends report also signals cultural factors that could undermine student progress.
*The number of different types of reading materials in the home has decreased for all three age groups between 1971 and 1999.
*A smaller percentage of 13- and 17-years-olds read for fun daily in 1999 than in 1984.
*A smaller percentage of 17-years-olds saw adults reading in their homes in 1999 than 1984.
*A greater percentage of 17-year-olds were watching three or more hours of television each day in 1999 than 1978. (This statistic does not include hours watching videos or playing computer games.)
Such cultural issues are especially acute for minority families, experts say.
"Many would argue there are residual elements of racism that are difficult to avoid no matter what class you're in," says Edmund Gorden, acting dean of Teachers College at Columbia University in New York and an activist on equity issues.
"Minority kids too often experience their education as a constraint, rather than a liberating force.... They resist engagement in the educational experience because they feel that to fully engage will leave them to be perceived as 'acting white,' " he adds.
Good teaching, adequate books, school buildings in good repair are important. "But improving the social, political, and economic context in which these students operate will be more important," he adds.
In the past, criticisms that targeted the culture of black families or communities were viewed by many African-Americans as simply racist. That's changing. It's not out of bounds today for black activists and scholars to take up culture as a part of a solution to student-achievement problems.
"If we rear our children so they aren't serious about learning, if we send them off to school too agitated, too alienated, too sleepy, or too abused to learn, then we've failed our own flesh and blood.
"I don't care what their buddies say, if we allow our youngsters to grow up believing that academic achievement is above them, beneath them, or beside the point, then we've failed them," said the Urban League's Mr. Price in a keynote address to this group last month.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society