What's going on at Beye? Teacher expectations are the key

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Oliver Pergams, One View

I have been trying to work with Oak Park District 97 on minority achievement gap issues for almost four years. In an Nov. 9 Viewpoint, I presented my most recent analysis of the last four years of ISAT scores in Dist. 97 elementary schools. Beye School was a severe outlier, with the worst gap each year. Beye's four-year average achievement gap was 55 percent vs. a 31-percent average for the other seven elementary schools. Over the past four years, only 38 percent of black students at Beye met standards in reading and math on average. One year (2002) only 23 percent of black students at Beye met standards. We must remember that these are black and white kids in the same classes with the same teachers, and that Beye has very similar demographics to at least three other Oak Park elementary schools. So there is unquestionably something unusual going on at Beye. I ask again, what is it?

I am gratified with the public response to this issue, including the great concern voiced at the Jan. 17 Beye PTO meeting. It is important that Supt. [Connie] Collins and Asst. Supt. [Kevin] Anderson were present and engaged at this meeting, and it looks like the district does finally seem to be making this a priority. But most of all it was gratifying to hear numerous African-American parents finally speak out about how their children had been treated in the past, and by the subsequent emergency establishment of a Beye African-American Parents Association to further deal with these issues. It cannot be over-emphasized?#34;unless African-American parents speak out about their specific experiences, nothing will be done.

In an effort to provide some background to dealing with these issues, some recent educational research may be of relevance, and I thought I would summarize some of it. I hope it is of interest and of help:

Harvard's Ron Ferguson (1) published a ground-breaking study in 2002. Unsurprisingly, African-American and Hispanic students in Minority Student Achievement Network districts [districts 97 and 200 are members] have fewer family background (socio-economic) advantages on average, compared to white and Asian students. They have lower grade-point averages and report less understanding of their lessons. They have lower homework completion rates than white classmates but report spending virtually the same amount of time doing homework. Skill gaps and differences in home academic supports?#34;not effort or motivation?#34;appear to be primary explanations for why they complete less homework and get lower grades than whites.

Very surprising, however, was that the other primary explanation is the distinctive importance of teacher encouragement as a reported source of motivation for non-white students, especially African-American students, and the fact that this difference is truly a racial one, mostly unrelated to measures of socioeconomic status. In other words, teachers, even in high-achieving suburban schools, tend to treat black students differently, regardless of other factors.

The Educational Testing Service's Paul Barton (2) showed that minority students as a group experience a less rigorous curriculum. Lower teacher expectations of these students often preclude the opportunity for them to take more rigorous courses, because of inadequate prior preparation.

At a recent Special Colloquium on the Mathematics Achievement Gap (3) Uri Treisman of the University of Texas at Austin and a MacArthur Fellow, emphasized that "demography is no longer destiny." The problem in the U.S. is whose children we decide to teach. His work shows that many teachers cannot see through a "thin veneer of urban fierceness;" in other words, teachers often treat minority students differently because of their own fear or discomfort.

At the same colloquium, Danny Martin of UIC and author of the book Mathematics Success and Failure Among African-American Youth, did not know any African-American children unable to learn math at the highest level. Past discussion of the gap reflects the reluctance of educators to talk about racism itself. The commonly acknowledged hierarchy of math achievement (Asian-Americans at the top, African-Americans & Hispanics at the bottom) is accepted as a "natural" starting point, and the resulting differential expectations are in themselves racist and prevent real advances.

Oliver Pergams, Ph.D. is a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

References: (1) Ferguson, R. F. 2002. Addressing Racial Disparities in High-Achieving Suburban Schools. NCREL Policy Issues 13. (2) Barton, P. 2003. Parsing the achievement gap. Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service. (3) Treisman, U., L. Khisty, D. Martin, O. Moses, R. Slaughter, and M. Small. 2006. Reflecting on the Mathematics Achievement Gap. Special Colloquium held 1/26/06 at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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