Part 2—A disturbing situation obscured: In last week’s Economic Scene column, the New York Times’ Eduardo Porter painted a remarkable portrait of some American schools.
Porter discussed “the persistent gulf in the test results between the rich and the poor” in our public schools. For our previous report, click here.
On average, kids from lower-income families perform much less well in reading and math. Next week, we’ll quantify some of these gaps in academic achievement.
Low-income kids do much less well. In this remarkable passage, Porter described the size of the gaps which can be found in some of our middle schools:
PORTER (5/21/14): Addressing the vast disparities between students’ abilities will not be easy. In some public schools, children who are entering the sixth grade with the measured proficiency of first graders are mixed in with children who perform well above the sixth-grade standard.How wide can the achievement gap be within a middle school? In some middle schools, some entering sixth graders are “working with the measured proficiency of first graders,” Porter said. Other sixth-graders in these same schools are performing “well above sixth grade level.”
Schools struggle to teach this mix. Teachers are frustrated: Almost half leave the profession within five years.
Porter didn’t say how many schools are struggling with this “vast disparity between students’ abilities.” (For our money, “student achievement” would be the more accurate term.) Truth to tell, he didn’t say how he knows there are any such schools at all.
That said, Nikole Hannah-Jones recently offered a similar, sobering portrait of the vast achievement gap which seems to exist within one city’s high schools. In a 10,000-word report in The Atlantic, she described the underside of our achievement gaps, as displayed by the senior class at Tuscaloosa’s Central High.
Hannah-Jones describes Central High as follows: “A struggling school serving the city’s poorest part of town, it is 99 percent black.”
How poor are the students at Central High? “More than 80 percent of them come from families with incomes low enough to qualify them for free or reduced-price lunches,” Hannah-Jones reports. (According to greatschools.org, the current statistic is 83 percent.)
For the record, this is not a measure of poverty. Nationwide, about 50 percent of public school students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. By federal measures, the number of children living in poverty is more like 20 percent.
That said, Central High is plainly a low-income school. And as Hannah-Jones described the school’s senior class, she described the academic performance which obtains at the lower end of the “vast disparities” in achievement to which Porter referred.
Based on Hannah-Jones’ report, the students in this low-income school are not performing well academically. Hannah-Jones focused on one student, D’Leisha Dent, a superb young person who is president of Central High’s senior class.
Hannah-Jones reports that Dent is one of Central’s brightest students. At one point, she even says that Dent “excels in school.”
But other parts of Hannah-Jones’ profile of Dent should be extremely sobering. In the following passage, Hannah-Jones captures a scene from Dent’s Advanced Placement English class:
HANNAH-JONES (4/16/14): [Dent] eventually broke free from a tangle of girls to enter Tyrone Jones’s Advanced Placement English class and take her seat at the front. She dropped two black bags taut with notebooks and binders beside her desk.Only two seniors at Central High had passed the AP exam last year. Nor do things look much better for Dent’s group, though Hannah-Jones makes no attempt to complete a full portrait.
Jones didn’t waste time setting the boisterous class to task. The AP exam was approaching. Students who didn’t score high enough wouldn’t get college credit for the class. Even though the 17 girls and boys gathered in front of him made up Central’s brightest, their practice essay about a poem hadn’t gone so well.
D’Leisha raised her hand, her brow furrowed. How many kids had made the cutoff last year? she asked. Only two students had, but the teacher dodged the question. “I really do believe all of you can make those scores,” he said.
Given Dent’s status as one of Central High’s brightest seniors, Hannah-Jones’ portrait of her struggle to attend college ought to be deeply distressing. Based upon enrollment figures, those 17 kids in that AP class seem to be roughly the top ten percent of Central High’s senior class. Dent’s inclusion in that group might lead you to think, or even to say, that she “excels in school.”
But at the very end of her lengthy report, Hannah-Jones profiled Dent’s college prospects. The great disgrace, and the challenge, of American history are both on vivid display in this passage:
HANNAH-JONES: Standing one day last fall outside the counselor’s office at Central, D’Leisha looked up at the college bulletin board. It was dominated by National Guard and Army flyers, with some brochures for small Alabama colleges tucked among them. Students with D’Leisha’s grades and tough honors coursework often come home to mailboxes stuffed with glossy college brochures. But most days, nothing showed up in the mail for her, and no colleges had come calling. She had taken the ACT college-entrance exam twice already. The first time she scored a 16, the second time a 17. Her mother’s alma mater, the University of Alabama, expects a 21, the national average. Many four-year colleges will not even consider students who score below an 18.Dent seems to have been in the top ten percent of Central High’s entering freshman class. Hannah-Jones describes her as one of Central’s brightest students.
Because D’Leisha excels in school and everything else she’s involved in, her teachers and counselors don’t worry about whether she’s on the right track. They’re stretched thin trying to keep in class the seniors—roughly 35 percent of them—who fail to graduate each year. But in December, at home texting with her boyfriend, D’Leisha admitted that she’d filled out only one college application. Lately, she said, she’d been looking more closely at those military brochures, just as her grandfather had, something that angers her mother. “I am kind of clueless how to get stuff done for college,” D’Leisha told me, looking down and fidgeting with her phone. “They are supposed to be helping us, but they think because I am the class president I know what to do. Sometimes I don’t speak up, because I know people have expectations of me.”
For black students like D’Leisha—the grandchildren of the historic Brown decision—having to play catch-up with their white counterparts is supposed to be a thing of the past. The promise was that students of all colors would be educated side by side, and would advance together into a more integrated, equitable American society. Polls show Americans embracing this promise in the abstract, but that rarely translates into on-the-ground support for integration efforts.
Late last year, D’Leisha took the ACT for the third time, but her score dropped back to 16. So early on a Saturday in February, she got up quietly, forced a few bites of a muffin into her nervous stomach, and drove once again to the community college where the test is administered. A few weeks later, she got her score: 16 again. She contemplated a fifth attempt, but could see little point.
She says that Dent “excels in school.” She seems to say that Dent has received good grades in classes with “tough honors coursework.”
By the standards of her low-income high school, Dent is a top student. But by the standards of her nation, she rather plainly is not.
Her score of 16 of the ACT places her around the 20th percentile among test-takers nationwide. Even though she’s a three-time individual state champion in track, she can’t get a nibble from a four-year college.
In his column in the New York Times, Porter referred to the “vast disparities” in academic achievement between “the rich and the poor” in our public schools.
Almost surely, Dent’s family isn’t “poor.” According to Hannah-Jones, her mother, a university graduate, has had a substantial full-time job for many years. She owns the family home.
But Dent keeps scoring poorly on the ACT—and she seems to be one of her high school’s best students! Inferentially, this supports the claim Porter made about those vast disparities in academic achievement.
How can an entire high school be performing this poorly? Put another way, if Dent is one of Central’s best students, what is the academic profile of the bottom half of her senior class?
Despite the great length of her report, Hannah-Jones makes no real attempt to answer that second question. She complains that Dent and most of her classmates have always attended all-black schools. She describes this state of affairs as “resegregation,” recalling the days when an Alabama governor stood in the schoolhouse door.
In a fleeting set of claims, Hannah-Jones suggests that Dent would likely be doing better academically had she attended schools with black and white kids.
That may be true, although it's a supposition. But Hannah-Jones makes no attempt to quantify this supposition, which she says is based on research. And she makes no real attempt to develop a fuller profile of Central High’s many struggling students, many of whom are presumably faring much worse than Dent.
How poorly are all those other kids doing? Hannah-Jones makes no real attempt to say.
In his column in the Times, Porter discussed the achievement gaps which obtain between “the rich and the poor.” In the process, he completely ignored the very large gaps which obtain between our white kids and our black kids—and as we’ll see next week, those two gaps are not two different versions of the same phenomenon.
In our view, Hannah-Jones largely avoided this topic too—the size of the very troubling gap between our white kids and our black kids. Tomorrow, we’ll see her joined by other writers in a form of open deception about this enormous national problem, which needs to be fully discussed.
Black kids are doing much better in school! For years, we’ve begged the nation’s journalists to report this important good news, all to no avail.
The public is almost never told about the large score gains which have been recorded by black kids on our one reliable testing program. That said, a very large black/white achievement gap still exists.
A great deal of energy is expended in avoiding that basic fact. We think those efforts to avoid and evade are bad for the future of black kids.
Tomorrow: Outright avoidance
Our plan for this series: We expect this series, “Our month of the gaps,” to extend four or five weeks.
All next week, we’ll be discussing the size of our nation’s various achievement gaps. How large are the achievement gaps between higher- and lower-income kids? How large are the gaps between our black kids and our white kids?
Beyond that, how large are the gaps between lower-income and higher-income kids of various groups? A lot of energy is expended in avoiding such facts.
Our achievement gaps are very large; they ought to be very troubling. Hannah-Jones’ evasive report has finally convinced us of one point—all these gaps should be discussed, every single one.