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The Racial Achievement Gap: What Can a Local School District Do?

July, 2023


I am a big fan of Ray McNulty's "My Take" column which appears in the Vero News (of Vero Beach, Florida). He regularly reports on the tribulations of the School District of Indian River County (IRC) and its Board. His coverage of the scandalous reign of a previous superintendent was worthy of a Pulitzer.


However, his 'take' on recent school board acrimony ignored the uncomfortable story he didn't want to see. The acrimony in question was the School Board's repeal of its Racial Equity Policy. The policy's anti-racist rhetoric had run afoul of Governor Desantis' war on woke vocabulary, so it had to be repealed (and eventually reworded). Sensibly, McNulty portrayed the repeal as a looney right wing whitewash. Unfortunately, he failed to notice how the policy itself was detached from reality.


IRC's racial equity problem is this: in 2021-22 the District's black children were half as likely as white kids to pass Florida's math assessment - 29% vs 59%. It was almost as bad for Reading. So, it's no surprise that the Racial Equity Policy explicitly targets the racial achievement gap:


"This policy confronts the institutional racism that results in predictably lower academic achievement for students of color. To eliminate these disparities, the Superintendent shall...find adaptive solutions which address the root causes...rather than technical solutions, (and eliminate) practices that result in lower academic achievement for any student racial group."


This expression of good intentions is unrealistic for two reasons.


First, as legacies of institutional racism, the 'root causes' of the racial achievement gap are beyond the control of a local school board. To attack the problem at its roots, massive Federal and state intervention is required. The main 'root causes' that the school board is powerless to change are:


1. Socioeconomic inequality. Scientific studies corroborate what we already know: the primary "root cause' of black students' lower performance is the huge income disparity between black and white households. At 27%, the national poverty rate for black children is 3 times that of whites.


Consequently, Black kids have less access to home-based learning resources, such as married parents; healthy food; adult supervision; private space; books and computers. That's why white children enjoy a cognitive head start on the first day of kindergarten.


2. Segregated schools. They are a byproduct of entrenched residential segregation. Consequently, many school districts are stuck with neighborhood schools that are disproportionately non-white and disadvantaged. Fortunately, most IRC public schools are racially balanced. Only Dodgertown Elementary is majority Black.


School segregation exacerbates the racial achievement gap by actually causing it to widen as students advance to higher grades. The culprit is insidious peer pressure. In schools with a high concentration of disadvantaged Blacks, students with the highest potential are sabotaged by an anti-academic peer group culture, the symptoms of which are less time spent on homework and more time spent truant or suspended. Had these bright students attended more integrated schools, they would not have fallen as far behind their white counterparts over time.


Furthermore, students in predominantly black schools are more likely to be taught by rookies. Research shows that the percentage of teachers with less than 4 years experience is deleterious to student achievement. Indian River County is no exception. At Dodgertown Elementary, where 52% of the students are Black, 55% of the teachers are inexperienced. But at lily-white Liberty Magnet Elementary, only 22% have less than four years experience.


Second, the appropriate metric of Black students' progress is NOT the size of the gap, but the absolute size of the gains. It's gains in achievement that students take to the bank, not gap shrinkage. Research leaves no doubt that higher scores in math and reading at the end of high school translate into higher future earnings.


Interventions that raise student performance can narrow the racial gap only to the extent that the benefits are racially skewed. Imagine, for example, a highly effective program of intensive tutoring for students who are falling behind. If that program is reserved for "failing schools" that are predominantly black, it will narrow the gap because few white students benefit. But if it were universally implemented in a school district like IRC, lots of white kids would also benefit, to the detriment of gap-shinkage. Lesson: a program or reform that promises to boost achievement regardless of race should not be demeaned because it fails to close the gap.


Mitigating the effects of inequality is the best a local school board can do.


Again, the 'root causes' are beyond the reach of the school district. It cannot equalize household income and wealth; nor can it eliminate segregated schools. (The history of forced busing is a cautionary tale for politicians). And anyway, most of the District's magnets and charters seem to be havens for the County's upper-middle class -- hardly a recipe for school desegregation.


Unfortunately, the most effective and essential mitigation strategy - Mandatory Universal High-Quality Pre-K education beginning at age three - is also beyond the means of a local school district. Its purpose is to eliminate the Pre-K "readiness gap" that inevitably ripens into a Post-K achievement gap. Research shows that truly high quality pre-schools improve the readiness of disadvantaged kids significantly more than well-off kids. It's a solution that promises to narrow the achievement gap.


But, to finance this ambitious reform alone, the IRC School District would have to accommodate perhaps 2000 additional children at an annual cost of about $26 million (not including the initial capital cost of expanded facilities). And that would require a politically lethal increase in local property taxes.


So, what can a school district do?


The 50 year record of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) strongly suggests that America's public school systems are maladaptive and ineffectual.


In the '70s and '80s, school districts were mandated to end segregation, which forced them to improve the quality of long neglected schools. Only during those two decades did NAEP's achievement scores for black children rise fast enough to significantly reduce the gap with whites. Never since.


From 1990 onward, the improvement in NAEP scores of 13 year-olds has been moribund, and the trend for 17 year-olds is absolutely flat. In other words, a 30 year cavalcade of educational nostrums (Teach For America, Common Core, Success for All, CAI, Equity Financing, School Choice, and No Child Left Behind) has left no impression on achievement. And that's despite a 44% real increase in per-pupil spending since 1990.


Here's what I would do to improve student performance.


I would copy success! Plagiarize the recipe of a proven winner!


And I would start small, with a trial-run.


Gifford Middle School, which is disproportionately black and poor, scores 12% below the district average on math proficiency, and about 9% in reading. This school is a good candidate for a make-over.


The obvious way to ensure a productive make-over is to replicate an established pedagogical system that meets the following criteria:

  • Its superiority in boosting the achievement of disadvantaged students has been demonstrated in large scale randomized trials, i.e., natural experiments.

  • Its scalability has been demonstrated by successful cloning of the original model, i.e., replications of the system produce the same large gains.

  • And replication is easy because components of the system are standardized and precisely specified, (and there are plenty of experts-for-hire to help with the set-up)

This gold standard is met by charter schools that adhere to the "No Excuses" system or close relatives thereof. When those charter schools were initially deployed in the Boston school district, they were oversubscribed. So a lottery determined whether applicants remained in their traditional public school or won a coveted seat in the charter. Researchers found that the randomly chosen winners outperformed the randomly chosen losers by a huge margin. The No Excuses charter schools generated test score gains large enough to close racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps.


Furthermore, experimental evidence from the second wave of No Excuses schools proved scalability. The same large gains were realized in the new locations.

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Of course, who am I to bloviate about education policy? If the foregoing suggestion is a good one, I am sure the District's leaders and experts have already thought of it, or certainly something better. So when the Board comes forward with its own make-over proposal, I will look forward to reading Ray McNulty's take. I'm waiting.


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