Columns » Derek Jennings

Bridging the gap

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Jim Hunt, on his way out of the governor's mansion, has been almost universally lauded for the strides North Carolina's schools have made during his tenure. A combination of early intervention and accountability measures (Smart Start and The ABCs) have spurred across-the-board improvement, garnering national recognition for the state, while teacher salaries have risen from their previously dismal depths. I must admit I have admiration for those accomplishments (it was embarrassing when I first moved down here, reading those "First in hog farms, 49th in education" bumper stickers). Nonetheless, I find those gains less impressive when viewed in light of the educational achievement gap, that persistent chasm separating white and black performance on standardized test scores.

In an increasingly knowledge-dominated culture and economy, and with almost half of black children in North Carolina performing under grade level, the future looks grim. Particularly as the more punitive elements of North Carolina's educational initiatives kick in, and the roughly 30 percent gap between white and black students on standardized test scores gets translated into who gets promoted and who does not. Where does the gap come from? There are myriad factors which influence student academic achievement--environmental, cultural, economic, personal and institutional variables combine in an alchemy of educational determinism. Careful examination of these factors, their relative roles, and identification of solutions is greatly complicated by the fact that race, the great unhealed scab of American society, is one of the key components of the dilemma.

As task forces are established and solemn pledges are made to fix the problems, the shape that the proposed solutions take will likely be shaped as much by politics as by research. Many posit that the source of the achievement gap is institutional racism, that there are flaws and cracks deep down within the gears of our national educational machinery, predisposing it to malfunction when schooling our youth. Others prefer a class-based analysis, citing the limited resources of African Americans and the schools that serve them as the foundation of the gaps in test scores (although this doesn't account for the fact that the gap cuts across all economic levels). The tests themselves, which provide the damning data, are cited by some who see in them a cultural bias that works to our detriment. Lack of parental support, role models and individual motivation, others assert, are to blame, while still others go further, declaring that black youth culture itself has, over the years, devalued education and now serves as a major disincentive for academic excellence.

Conservatives absolutely love to emphasize culture and attitude as the primary causes for the gap. This laissez faire approach conveniently absolves the nation of any responsibility for addressing structural inequities, while holding millions of individual children accountable for shrugging off the effects of conditions forged in the crucible of collective experiences. Further out on the conservative wing are those who hold up the gaps in test results as some sort of Darwinian proof of black folks' innate intellectual inferiority, smugly asserting that society make itself comfortable with our position at the lower end of the bell curve. While patently false, and easily disproved by a fair accounting of black people's achievements under the most adverse conditions, this line of thought is nevertheless disturbing.

Liberals, on the other hand, tend toward structural rationales, often downplaying the individual or cultural responsibility angles for fear of giving credence to conservatives. They seem generally more comfortable with institutional and societal explanations, and are particularly fond of class-based analyses which fit into a color-blind, kumbaya, one-size-fits-all view of the world.

I personally favor the Bell Jar vs. the Bell Curve theory for explaining these gaps. I don't know where the original quote came from, but I recall hearing a minister break it down like this years ago: African Americans are like grasshoppers that have been kept in a glass jar 12 inches high. Out in the open, the grasshopper would be able to jump to a height of about 3 or 4 feet in the air. Within the jar, he constantly bumps his head. If he's kept in the jar long enough, he'll adjust so that he never jumps higher than 12 inches. And if he reproduces, his children will grow up knowing that it's impossible to jump higher than the height of the lid. So, when you eventually remove the lid, they'll be so conditioned to bumping their heads that they'll never jump above 12 inches.

That's not to say that the lid is now off for all of us, or even most of us. It may be slightly askew, with room for just a few of us to jump through, or it may be able to take all of us at once. For the sake of discussion, though, let's forget about all of those structural issues which form the lid, and just deal with the grasshoppers. What could make us forget how to jump, or not want to jump?

When you control a man's thinking you do not have to worry about his actions. You do not have to tell him not to stand here or go yonder. He will find his "proper place" and will stay in it. You do not need to send him to the back door. He will go without being told. In fact, if there is no back door, he will cut one for his special benefit. His education makes it necessary.

--Carter G. Woodson, Miseducation Of The Negro, 1933.

The above quote, made by the eminent historian Carter Godwin Woodson, echoes across the almost 70 years separating us from its original utterance. His words speak to the centuries of conditioning that inform the African-American experience. During slavery, scant decades before Woodson's comments, it was illegal, punishable by death in many cases, for us to learn to read. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries particularly, the African contributions to world civilization were systematically purged from the historic record by European "scholars" tasked with dehumanizing blacks in order to reconcile the Christian psyche with the reality that these people powered their economies. In the United States, by the time Miseducation was written, and only a generation or two removed from slavery, we managed to produce the Niagara Movement, jazz, blues and the Harlem Renaissance. By the '50s and '60s, despite rampant segregation, blacks went to college, with most studying for careers in teaching or in the clergy--the two major professions available to them. Some studied other fields, with the knowledge that they'd either have to fight for a position commensurate with their skills, or resign themselves to a life of chronic underemployment. Yet they persevered. It's important to note that, in the face of overt discrimination, we overcompensated for racism. As such, it wasn't unusual for kids to be told that they'd have to work twice as hard to get half as much as their white counterparts.

Contrast that scenario with today, where despite general improvement in the number of African Americans graduating from school and attending college, our cultural attitude toward education seems to be moving in the opposite direction than that of our forebears. Why?

American culture, never high-brow to begin with, is becoming increasingly anti-intellectual. You don't have to be an avid Hal Crowther reader (but it helps!) to realize that we're headed at breakneck speed toward our collective lowest common denominator. Suffice it to say that last year we actually had "journalists" and political analysts, whose jobs are presumably to be smarter than the rest of us, opining that certain candidates were "too smart" to be president. I've heard that newspapers and business communications are usually written at a sixth-grade comprehension level, but I swear I've been in sixth-grade debates that were judged more stringently than those leading to the election of our current commander in chief.

But even if overall society seems hell bent on getting dumb and dumber in a hurry, how does that explain the achievement gaps for black children? One of the major differences I can see between recent generations and the ones up through the civil rights era is in social preparation. We're entering school academically more prepared, but the parental-community support that provided our grandparents the will to struggle seems to have been lost by the wayside. It's like the generation immediately following the civil rights movement, through the '70s and '80s, believed that we overcame, and told their children that if they got a good education they'd be OK. The message about being twice as good, in essence overcompensating, didn't get transmitted. That generation of kids (to which I incidentally belong) came out of school and ran headlong into the recession of the '80s, in which even folks with technical and advanced degrees were unemployed and underemployed. Add to that the resurgence of racism and scapegoating engendered during the Reagan years (to deflect the attention and energies of working-class whites hit hard by the recession) and you have a recipe for cynicism. The equation of "hard work plus education equals success" no longer held true for a lot of us, so we collectively decided to stop bumping our heads against the lid.

This all serves to make the current situation more dire. Parents are not putting the same emphasis on the benefits of education because many of them no longer believe it. Teacher expectations, already low (and a major part of the problem as revealed by studies), continue to drop, further lowering achievement, which in turn lowers expectations again in a vicious cycle. The dumbing of the larger society continues, with a major symptom being the overemphasis on sports and music, two of the only "safe" spaces where African-American achievement is celebrated ('nother whole article), to the exclusion of any other major positive representation. Kids take this as an endorsement, and disproportionately focus on these as aspirations, to the detriment of more attainable goals. They also note the small number of their peers tapped as academic high performers, watch them get taken out of their classes and put in classes with white kids, and make the connection that these high achievers are consciously leaving them and choosing to be with or like white kids. In the absence of strong parental participation, the kids' peer views on education assume primacy, leading them to consciously or subconsciously de-select academic achievement as a desirable option. Which tightens the lid on the jar.

We know there are ways out. Despite the tremendous disadvantages and downward pressures we face, there are African Americans in leadership positions in every industry, black folks have pioneered space medicine for NASA and developed technology which enabled the development of the personal computer. But how do we get all of us out of the jar? It's going to be hard. We need to be steadfast in working toward policies and strategies to open up the jar, remove the structural impediments. But irrespective of what we ultimately do to the jar (pry it open, drill a hole through it, break it), it's clear that for our kids to get out, we're gonna have to teach them to jump. EndBlock

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