Gap in achievement a lingering vexation

The Education Beat

Problem: The learning disparity between white and black students continues, defying attempts by school officials to fix the situation.

March 07, 2001|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

THE MOST vexing problem in Maryland education is one that few talk about - the persistent achievement gap between black and white students.

The disparity continues to defy those with sincere intentions and well-meaning programs.

"People should be raging about it," says Barbara Dezmon, a Baltimore County school official who heads the steering committee of the Achievement Initiative for Maryland's Minority Students. "The attitude is that it's all right if it's someone else's children."

The problem defies the media, too. A new study conducted by Dezmon's group for the State Department of Education received little attention. Like a chronic disease, the achievement disparity shows up year after year in statistics, and most statistics don't make for good photographs and television footage.

A 1998 report from the same group warned that statistics can have an anaesthetizing effect: "Just as people become acclimated to physical pain, they can become accustomed to painful truths. All children deserve quality education, and nothing should block that outcome - not traditions, not people, not systems."

I helped cover the release of the 1998 study, which carried the headline, "Minority Pupils' Poor Marks Publicized; Officials Hope New Report Draws Attention to `Grievous Situation.'" The follow-up this year could have had the same headline.

Both reports document what might be called the symptoms of the illness: higher-than-average suspensions and dropouts among African-American and Hispanic students; lower-than-average attendance; the close relationship between students' family income and their achievement on every test taken by Maryland kids.

Especially the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program. To the credit of state education officials, who are well aware that minorities will make up half of the state's student population by 2015, they have put virtually every piece of MSPAP datum out for public inspection so that researchers can make all kinds of comparisons by race, gender, economics, test scores and teacher staffing patterns.

The picture is not pretty. This year's report concentrates on teacher preparation and staffing. John Y. Lee of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County investigates teacher staffing in four Central Maryland school districts. "Schools today are segregated not only along student backgrounds, but also along teacher expertise," says the report. "Without dramatic improvements in the quality of teaching that poor and low-achieving students receive, the minority student achievement gap is unlikely to narrow significantly."

One statistic is a little old, but it caused me to sit up: In the 1996-1997 school year, Baltimore City had 1,800 applicants to fill 826 teacher vacancies. It hired 46 percent of the applicants. Howard County had 5,336 applicants for 270 positions. It hired 5 percent of the applicants. Moreover, recent reports show that while 23 percent of Baltimore City's teachers lack state licensing, the proportion of unlicensed teachers in city schools on the MSPAP failing list is 33 percent - nearly a third.

In short, the report says, "The economically disadvantaged and [ethnic and racial] minority students have access to the smallest pool of and least qualified teachers."

None of this is to say that the effort isn't there or that there hasn't been improvement. Looking at MSPAP test results for the six years from 1993 to 1999, the researchers concluded that Maryland doesn't have a production problem. All racial groups improved their scores over those years. What Maryland has is a distribution problem. There's an uneven allocation of benefits across racial groups.

The researchers looked at variations between and within racial groups in similar districts, such as Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties. What they found is that the achievement gap between poor and middle-class blacks, and between poor and middle-class whites, has been nearly as wide over the years as the gap between poor blacks and middle-class whites.

What this means to Dezmon and others is that the problem lies in the quality of instruction and the learning conditions in schools. It also means that the achievement crisis is related as much to economic class as it is to race.

"What MSPAP has uncovered," says Dezmon, "is a lack of quality education that many of our children have been subjected to for years. God help us."

Dezmon quickly adds that there are bright spots. "There are even some roses out there." She praises efforts in Charles, Harford, Howard, Kent and Montgomery counties, "and even little Worcester" on the Eastern Shore.

The researchers ordered 700 copies of the report, and they quickly sold out. Maybe that's a good sign. As Dezmon points out, we live in a time when African-American males stand nearly as much chance of going to prison as they do of earning a diploma.

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