Racial gap in learning discussed

Better teaching seen as key to improving black pupils' progress

October 20, 1999|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK -- Maryland's political, educational and business leaders vowed yesterday to take whatever steps are necessary to correct the state's continuing gap in academic performance between black students and white students.

"Starting today, we must intensify our efforts to make certain the success of every student," said Gov. Parris N. Glendening. "And, quite frankly, it is our economic obligation to these young people and to future generations of Marylanders."

Gathered at the University of Maryland, University College for the state's first Executive Summit on Minority Student Achievement, more than 100 leaders representing almost all of Maryland's 24 jurisdictions were told by two of the nation's leading academic achievement researchers that the most effective step would be to improve the quality of teachers.

"All other things are trivialities compared to the impact of an effective teacher," said William Sanders, a statistics professor at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. "African-American kids tend to be overrepresented in the least-effective teachers' classrooms by 10 to 15 percent, and they tend to be underrepresented in the most-effective teachers' classrooms by 10 to 15 percent."

Simply improving the quality of teachers for minority students could close half to two-thirds of the achievement gap, said Donald N. Langenberg, chancellor of the University System of Maryland.

"Students do not learn what you cannot teach, and you cannot teach what you do not know," Langenberg said. "We've got to get serious about this."

In Maryland and the rest of the nation, black students -- the largest minority group -- tend to score significantly lower than white students on achievement tests, ranging from early reading exams to the SAT.

On Maryland's third- and fifth-grade reading exams, black pupils score satisfactory at only half the rate of white pupils. On achievement exams in general, black students from middle-class families score at lower levels than white students from middle-class families.

"In the 21st century, there will be two classes of people: those who are educated and those who are hardly employable," said state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick. "We must find a way to uncouple academic achievement from race, class and ethnicity."

For educators, among the most frustrating aspects of the achievement gap is that huge progress has been made, but only until 1988. From 1970 to 1988, the reading achievement gap between black pupils and white pupils was cut in half, said Ronald Ferguson, a professor at Harvard University.

"If we had continued to progress at the rate of the 1980s, we could close the reading gap in another 12 years," Ferguson said.

Instead, the gap in reading scores in Maryland and much of the rest of the country has widened slightly in the 1990s. Educators are struggling to figure out why.

Ferguson said the only way to close the gap between the performance and potential of black students is for the participants of yesterday's conference to create a statewide movement dedicated to that goal.

At the end of the summit, participants broke into smaller groups to develop specific ideas for the state and local school systems.

To oversee the effort, Grasmick announced she will form a task force, called the Achievement Initiative for Maryland's Minority Students.

While the full membership is not set, Grasmick said she will chair the group. People who have agreed to serve include U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, state Sen. Delores G. Kelley, retired Chief Judge Robert I. H. Hammerman of Baltimore Circuit Court, and baking company executive John Paterakis Sr.

Pub Date: 10/20/99

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