Last year, fourth-graders in Massachusetts performed higher than the national average in reading and mathematics. The data, which was collected by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also show the trend continuing through the eighth grade. But as students in the Bay State consistently outperform their peers nationwide, their scores also reveal one way in which they are no different — the persistence of a racial achievement gap.
Consistent with national patterns, African American and Latino students across the state scored lower in both math and reading than white and Asian students. Thirty-nine percent of black fourth-graders were rated “below basic” reading level, compared to 11 percent of whites; and just three percent of black students are considered “advanced,” compared to 18 percent of whites.
For decades, educators and policymakers have debated what makes some groups of students excel and others fall behind. Popular explanations have ranged from geography (black students go to bad schools because of the neighborhoods they live in) to culture (black families don’t value education) to biology (black students are innately inferior) .
It is this last claim, the inadequacy of black intellect, that veteran educator Lisa Delpit has spent her career adamantly refuting. “The primary thing we need to learn is that every human being is of limitless potential,” said the MacArthur “Genius” Award winner, “and that our goal as educators is to bring forth that potential.”
In her new book, “Multiplication is for White People: Raising Expectations for Other People’s Children,” Delpit debunks the myths of the achievement gap and explains how racism has shaped the nation’s education system, from kindergarten to college.
Delpit begins with an under-reported fact: there is no achievement gap at birth. As she explains, research has consistently shown that black babies are at no intellectual or developmental disadvantage when compared to white children; in some cases, they even outperform white babies.
“African American children do not come into this world at a deficit,” Delpit writes. “When we educators look out at a classroom of black faces, we must understand that we are looking at children at least as brilliant as those from any well-to-do white community. If we do not recognize the brilliance before us, we cannot help but carry on the stereotypic societal views that these children are somehow damaged goods and that they cannot be expected to succeed.”
It is this widespread view that African American children are somehow inferior that Delpit credits for the achievement gap: it leads teachers to teach less, to teach to a lower level than students are capable of and to blame students, instead of changing their curriculum to figure out what works.
Moreover, it affects the way students perceive themselves. As Delpit explains, research into the “stereotype threat” shows that when students fear their performance will confirm a negative stereotype, they are more likely to deliver poor results.
Delpit’s first experience with these issues came in pre-integration Louisiana, where she grew up. Through eighth grade, Delpit attended an all-black Catholic school that she says had “a very strong community base.” Later, she transferred and became one of the first black students to integrate her high school. There, she and her black classmates were at the top of the class and “won all of the awards.”
Delpit believes it was the communal ties of her former all-black school that gave her and her black peers the foundation to succeed — they were never told they couldn’t do well.
As she details in her book, the loss of community-based schools to integration had many damaging effects on black education. The first step in integration, Delpit said, “was to take the most experienced and successful black teachers and put them in the white schools. The young, less confident white teachers were put into the black schools.”
During this shift, thousands of teachers also lost their jobs. Eleven years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision, 38,000 African American teachers and administrators in the South had been laid off.
And because many young white teachers were desperate to leave the black schools where they had been assigned, there was a “high level of turnover.” This revolving door of inexperienced teachers, Delpit suggests, parallels what happens today, when programs such as Teach for America place college graduates in poor neighborhoods to teach for just two years. Research has shown that teachers need at least four years to reach a high level of instruction, so “the constant replacement of second- and third-year teachers with new recruits will mean by definition that we will provide a substandard education for children in low-income urban schools,” Delpit writes.
This isn’t to say that Delpit longs for the days of segregation, but rather, that education reform today must include the hiring of African American and other culturally competent teachers who will recognize and affirm the potential of their students, and teach in a way that is relevant to those in the classroom.
But most importantly, society must face its underlying racist assumptions about black children. “When you have a society that believes that blackness equates to ‘less than,’” said Delpit, “it means that many kids may be less willing to try because they don’t believe they can achieve it, and many teachers are less willing to teach to a high standard because they believe their students can’t do it.”