Facing Up to Realities: Harvard economist investigates the racial achievement gap.
As an economist, Dr. Ronald F. Ferguson often applies quantitative analysis to public policy dilemmas, which yields data models and quantitative measures of complex issues. In tackling the racial achievement gap, the Harvard-based social policy expert has added investigation techniques from sociology and psychology to explore what might seem a forbidding topic for an economist. During his career, Ferguson has consulted and has served as a policy adviser on education, employment, youth development and urban development issues. As a father, he understands the challenges of raising African American children and brings that knowledge to his writings on teacher and parental impact on student academic performance. In his investigation of minority student achievement in Shaker Heights, Ohio, Ferguson has conducted considerable survey work learning first-hand from students about their lives and school experiences. The research effort in Ohio, called the Tripod Project, “is to increase communication and build knowledge among teachers about ways of achieving success in the classroom by attending to all three legs of the instructional tripod — content, pedagogy and relationships — with the aim of helping all students, but especially African Americans and Latinos, to achieve at higher levels,” according to Ferguson. Ferguson’s project recalls investigation efforts also undertaken in Shaker Heights by the late anthropologist Dr. John Ogbu. In contrast to findings by Ogbu that Blacks students are “disengaged” from their studies, Ferguson reports that they are just as motivated as Whites, but often lack the study skills necessary to improve upon their learning. Black Issues caught up with Ferguson in late January for a discussion on the racial achievement gap.
BI: Why is it important to investigate and close the racial learning gap?
RF: You can think of it in a few different ways. You can think of it in a historical context insofar that it has been on the national agenda for a long time to pursue racial equality. You can put this in the context of the agenda of the earliest abolitionists looking forward to bringing to being a state of affairs that reflects some modicum of social justice. And so it’s the current generation’s social justice agenda. Another way, however, to look at it is in the context of the future. It’s important for the health and future stability of the society to attend to the achievement gap. There are at least two major trends in the society that increase the salience of this issue. One is the change in the relationship of skills to earnings that is related to the importance of skill in the business world. As people have become quite accustomed to saying by now, there aren’t many jobs where physical labor alone is likely to be sufficient to earn an income sufficient to support a family. So, this phrase “the knowledge economy” has some content to it insofar as there are people who are strong with regard to the skills and knowledge that schools teach. That’s from the perspective of the individual. You can take it from the perspective of the national economy in terms of what interests we have in one another’s productivity and academic achievement. And even here for the United States to continue to be the pre-eminent economy in the world, we have to have the pre-eminent work force of the world, which means the work force that has the strongest skills.This brings me to the second major trend that I was about to mention, which is the trend toward increasing percentages of the society being made up of Black and Brown people. The Whites will be a minority in a few decades from now. So every racial or ethnic group will be a minority group, and non-Whites collectively will be the majority and this will be the polity — the voters — and among the work force. And so the health of the future economy depends upon the quality of the education that Black and Brown children receive.
BI: What do you believe are the most effective strategies available to close the racial academic achievement gap?
RF: Some combination of changes in parenting practices and changes in schooling practices. The messages that children get from the society at large matter; messages they receive from their peers matter. But parents and teachers are the two most influential groups with regard to children’s schooling. Either or both could be argued to be the most important. For any particular child, it could be either or both. It might be a parent for one child, and teachers and school for another. The simple answer to the question of what we need to do is more high quality time on tasks, and learning tasks. That is achieved either by increasing the quality of what we do with children, or increasing the amount of time that we spend with children on academic activities, or both. And parents, and or teachers can do those things. The data are accumulating that there are racial differences on average in time on tasks with academic activities even for pre-school children. These differences remain even after you adjust for parental education. So changes in what I like to refer to as home intellectual climate, and by that I mean the degree to which the life of the mind is actively, consciously nurtured at home. The thing that comes first to mind when people talk about this is reading to children. But there are different ways to read to kids — one is just to read the story. Another is actually to discuss the story as you read it and have kids talk about the explanations for what they see happening in the story and predictions for what’s going to happen in the story. And thinking about what might have happened if you change one or two of the details.
BI: What does the academic performance lag among Black middle-class students tell us about the achievement gap?
RF: Part of what it tells us is that middle-class Black folks have to face up to the fact that we’re not just talking about a problem of the underclass. I’ve been in discussions with middle-class blacks and we get on this topic of parenting, and they continue to take the conversation back to what single parents need to do differently with their kids, what poor folks are not doing right in the inner city, and so on — and conducting the conversation as if everybody in the room is a great parent, and the problem is just people outside. Or people who aren’t like us. …I run into a lot of African Americans who grew up in the South and they have these fond memories of how good an education they got, how supportive the community was, and how great things were, and if only we could recreate communities like that. During the time when they were growing up, Blacks in the South had the lowest test scores in the nation. It’s true they felt great growing up in those communities but the quality of the education they were getting compared to the quality that some folks were getting in other places was still not what it could have been or should have been. They were being taught in a lot of cases by teachers who themselves had come up through very lowly resourced, poor school systems.
BI: Is there a connection between teacher preparation and student success?
RF: The first project that I ever did in education was to look at the degree to which teachers’ test scores helped in predicting their students’ test scores. … For anyone who cares about the racial composition of the teaching force, we have to find folks who can pass these tests to be in the classroom, which may mean encouraging more people to go into the teacher-training pipeline. It may be increased emphasis on alternative certification programs to bring professionals from other specialties, other careers, back into teaching. There is some evidence that high-quality alternative certification programs do attract academically strong people back into the profession, including non-Whites.
BI: Based on what you have found in your research, how critical is the examination of Black culture in understanding the racial achievement gap?
RF: There’s limited usefulness to trying to list the ways our culture isn’t what it could be or should be. Probably, because people get real defensive about that. If one person asserts that Black parents don’t parent as well as White parents do, then some folks will say how dare you say that. What are your cultural standards for that; you’ve got a Eurocentric perspective on what quality parenting is. And Black parents have all these strengths that have developed historically. Think of the strengths we had to have through slavery, Jim Crow and all these various things. We should be celebrating the Black family and Black parenting rather than tearing them down.That’s just not a very useful conversation. But it’s one you’re very likely to get stuck in if we go back to examining Black culture and how it affects achievement. A much more useful conversation to get into is let’s talk together about all the ways that we can imagine going about helping our children to do better in schools. Let’s look into what research — both that’s about our people and research that’s not about our people — that says what effective parenting might entail. And let’s ask how can we go about trying to do more of these things.The main point is to get to the change piece as opposed to the discussion of what you already do. So, I think trying to find ways to enhance our culture as it relates to school achievement is a worthy thing to do. And I think as we do that we need to avoid getting bogged down in critiques of our culture.
BI: Why has this issue taken so long to come before the public and policy-makers?
RF: In various forms, this issue has always been before the public. What has evolved over time is the implicit, or even explicit, understanding of what’s possible, and what the goal should be, could be, or is. In times of slavery, the debate was on should we even allow Black folks to learn to read — not should we give them the quality of education that Whites have, or help them try to reach the same standard of achievement that Whites reach. Earlier, I talked about changes in the racial makeup of the society and changes in the needs of the economy, making it in everybody’s interest to deal with the achievement gap. I think part of what’s been happening also is that there’s been an evolution in the plausibility of the proposition that there are no important genetic differences that affect intelligence. I think that we all have an interest in believing that now. It’s also partly that there have been enough bright, very successful African Americans to be what I call an existence proof. People know it can happen because they’ve seen it now. The question is now can we bring the whole group along in that same way. And I think it’s out of style now to question whether that’s possible. It may not stay out of style; it depends upon how much progress we make. …It’s important to be serious about the effort and to manage expectations. There is a limit on how fast we can go with this. We’ve got to develop the tools to do this before we can get it done. We’re talking about right now starting from a place where we have to work with what we have in terms of teachers’ existing skills, the way school is scheduled, the messages in the society, the quality of the textbooks and other materials. It’s a generational agenda, not an agenda for a few years. We need to manage our expectations so we don’t declare failure too soon.
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