Closing The Gap

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HONORS CLASS: Sterling Cross, far left, is one of the few black students in AP at Pioneer High in Ann Arbor, Mich.

As superintendent of schools in Ann Arbor, Mich., George Fornero can tick off the kind of statistics that might cause ambitious parents to consider moving across the country to get their kids into his schools. The class of 2004 in the city's three main high schools racked up a combined average score of 1165 on the SAT, 139 points higher than the national average. Eighty-five percent of their seniors go on to four-year colleges. And last year they had 44 National Merit finalists. But there are other numbers of which Fornero is less proud. The district's African-American students typically score 100 points lower than their white classmates on the SAT. The grade average for black kids is a C, a whole grade below the B for whites. And African

Americans are almost four times as likely to fail a class.

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The discrepancies baffle Fornero because the median family income in the integrated city is $71,293 and the district spends a generous $9,234 on each pupil. Furthermore, the vast majority of students come from homes in which at least one parent is college educated. "How do I market the district to African-American parents with these numbers?" he says of the black students' performance. "We can't have one set of facts we put on billboards in front of the schools and another set we don't talk about."

Similar questions about the achievement gap between blacks and whites are perplexing school administrators in suburban communities across the U.S. Nationally, black students in the class of 2004 scored 104 points lower than whites on the math SAT and 98 points lower on the verbal section. In the past, the academic-achievement gap has been attributed to the economic and social disparities between black kids attending inner-city schools and white kids going to those in the suburbs. In their controversial book exploring the issue, No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning (2003), the follow-up to America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible, Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom, senior fellows at the Manhattan Institute, argue that black underachievement stems from such factors as low birth weight, which can impair intellectual development, and a high number of single-parent households led by mothers too young to give their children proper educational guidance. Other experts have cited inadequate funding for poor schools and the difficulty of recruiting good teachers to work in them.

It's harder to explain the gap in places like Ann Arbor, where so many students come from seemingly similar backgrounds. After studying the difficulties of black students in middle-class Shaker Heights, Ohio, in 1997, John Ogbu, an anthropologist at the University of California, Berkeley, posited that academic achievement for those black students was hindered by cultural attitudesmost notably the fear of being labeled as "acting white" if they performed well or studied too much in school. His theories have helped inspire barbed public comments from such prominent African Americans as Bill Cosby, who bemoans negligent parenting, and Barack Obama, Illinois' new U.S. Senator-elect, who cites the "acting white" mind-set. But so far, few of those theories or laments have come with a matching solution.

Enter Ronald Ferguson, a Harvard Kennedy School of Government professor who canvassed junior high and high schoolers from Ann Arbor and 14 other integrated, middle- and upper-middle-class communities four years ago and developed a more nuanced explanation for the middle-class gap, as well as some specific prescriptions for bridging it. Looking at the affluent districts, Ferguson found that blacks and whites there weren't as homogeneous as they appeared at first glance. For starters, blacks were less affluent. Only 21% of blacks were upper middle class or higher, whereas 73% of whites were. Academically, there were few differences between the races in terms of time kids spent on homework, their desire to do well, their interest in their studies or their perceptions of how their peers valued achievement. Yet black students completed less of their assignments than did their white classmates.

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