It’s not often that we receive solid evidence that we in American education have been doing something right, and it was a joyful experience to learn the following fact: according to the Chicago Tribune (7/25), “Researchers comparing the math scores of 7 million students nationwide from 2005 to last year found that girls and boys do equally well on math tests taken from the 2nd to 11th grades.”
In other words, girls are now doing just as well as boys on school math tests. This was not the case 30-40 years ago.
The fact is that we have closed a very significant academic achievement gap. I believe there are several important lessons to be learned by examining the causes of that gap, and the actions, strategies and resources that were needed and used to successfully close it.
Why? Because we are faced with an equally important, but more complex academic achievement gap that is similar in nature in terms of its causes and its consequences: The gap in general academic achievement between black and white students in our public schools.
I believe the most significant causes of the two gaps are almost identical:
1) a widespread centuries-old belief among school administrators, teachers, and parents themselves that one group (girls or blacks) was inherently inferior in its ability to perform in a given arena (math or general academic skills) than the other group (boys or whites);
2) lower expectations of those students on the parts of both the teachers and the parents of female or black students, and consequently the students themselves;
3) markedly lower levels of encouragement of girls and black students on the parts of their teachers, their own parents, and other significant adults in their communities to perform just as well as boys or white students; and
4) significantly lower levels of tangible as well as psychological rewards for female or black students who did as well as boys or white students.
Notice that I did not list the way in which money was spent as a significant cause of either gap; it can, however, be part of an effective strategy for change.
The actions, strategies, and resources that were used to close the math achievement gap between boys and girls were a complex assortment that included the entire feminist movement (beginning in the late 19th century). Its major thrust was convincing an entire generation of teachers and parents that girls and their daughters were just as “smart” as boys, and that they actually deserved to be treated as being of equal value as boys.
Of greatest importance was the fact that it involved convincing those teachers and parents that they had a right to expect just as much effort from girls and their daughters as they expected from boys and their sons. Finally, the “math achievement gap” was defined and measurable, which made it possible to determine the extent to which it was being closed.
The actions, strategies, and resources that are needed to close the black-white academic achievement gap are no less complex an assortment, but the basic causes are nearly the same.
While most teachers and parents can accept the intellectual proposition that blacks can be just as “smart” as whites, the acceptance of that as an emotional reality is not nearly so easy.
We express wild admiration of black superstars (especially those whose names begin with the letter “O”), but when we look at ordinary black teenagers, it somehow is not so easy. A few centuries of conditioning makes it far more difficult to believe that we have a right to expect as much from a black kid as from a white one, especially when that black kid acts and talks like he/she grew up on the South or West sides of Chicago.
Teachers (both black and white), black parents, and the black kids themselves still have to be convinced that we-and they-can and will expect black students to work just as hard as white (or even Asian!) students.
The prospect is no more daunting than the prospect, 30 or 40 years ago, that we could expect girls to do math just as well as boys.