December 29, 2003
Mischaracterizing the Achievement Gap

The Seattle Times yesterday was correct to call for serious efforts to improve Seattle's schools:

IT'S time for those who care about Seattle's future to get past the bitterness and finger-pointing of the last year and look ahead to a time when all of the city's children regardless of race or zip code have access to a top-notch public education.
But the Times repeats the same mischaracterization that it has made many times in the past:
The wide gap between the city's white and minority students is unacceptable.
That there is an achievement gap across ethnic lines is undeniable, but it is not as simple as "white" vs. "minority". As I've mentioned before, certain Asian groups consistently outperform whites.

Accordingly to the Seattle School District's own data [large PDF], students of Chinese, Japanese and Korean origin outperform white students, on average, on most standardized tests, and on high school GPA and graduation rates. They also participate in gifted and talented programs at higher rates than do whites. Vietnamese students also have higher high school grades and graduation rates than white students.

Unfortunately, spinning the achievement gap as a difference between "white" and "minorities" is not only inaccurate, but the "white vs. minority" dichotomy implies that racism is at work, and distracts attention from the real problem and its solutions. Perhaps if we focus, for example, on understanding the home environment of the kids (of all backgrounds) who are doing well in school -- high parental expectations? high value on education in the home? -- we might work on promoting the same attitudes and habits in the families of the kids who haven't caught up yet.

Posted by Stefan Sharkansky at December 29, 2003 11:30 AM

It's the culture, man! A complex mix of social, economic, ethics, morals, beliefs, and personal characteristics. Way too complicated for a political sound bite -- so point to race instead. That's as easy to differentiate as black and white.

Posted by: ipsofacto on December 29, 2003 07:39 PM

You're right to fisk the Seattle Times for perpetuating this mischaracterization. Be fair, though. The Times is spot on when naming the solutions for our problematic public schools:

"There's nothing flashy about the solutions. Good leadership, high expectations for all students, curricula that align with tough standards, professional development for teachers and a shared focus are among the most important factors. Good communication between adults and parental involvement in schools are also essential components."

As far as race goes, maybe commentators should just be more honest. What is unacceptable is not that there is a gap between white and some minority students. After all, no one laments the success of many Asian communities relative to white students. The problem is the lack of educational excellence amongst the black and hispanic community. How can we expect to solve a problem if we don't have the courage to even say what it is?

Posted by: Gary Manca on December 29, 2003 08:51 PM
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