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Roots of gap based in race, class, culture differences
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Teacher Nancy Hellander's class at Edison High, a public school in northeast Minneapolis. Today her students are discussing the racial achievement gap. (Brandt Williams)
Minnesota's racial achievement gap is widest between white and black students. African American test scores in reading and math also consistently lag behind members of other racial and ethnic groups. This achievement gap is particularly frustrating for black parents and students. But low performance by African American students is not new. There have always been educational barriers for African Americans. You need only look back at generations of school segregation and racial discrimination. But others say some of the barriers are often imposed by the students themselves.

St. Paul, Minn. — Scholars differ in their explanation of the cause and remedies for the racial achievement gap, but they don't disagree on this point: black kids are not genetically inferior students.

The degree to which the gap is caused by barriers from without or within black students is up for debate.

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Image Bill Cosby

"What the hell good is Brown vs. the Board of Education if nobody wants it?" asked comedian Bill Cosby.

In May, he addressed an NAACP-sponsored gathering to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision that desegregated American schools. He declared that it was time for African Americans to stop blaming others for their academic underachievement.

Like an angry grandfather, Cosby scolded black youth and their parents. He said civil rights marchers were hit in the face with rocks as they demonstrated for the right to an education. To Cosby, today's saggy pants-wearing, rap music-listening, ebonics-speaking kids are squandering the gains of the civil rights movement.

"Everybody knows it's important to speak English, except these knuckleheads," said Cosby. "You can't land a plane with 'why you ain't', 'where you is.' You can't be a doctor with that crap coming out of your mouth."

"I think it was a public service for him to bring the issue up," says Ronald Ferguson, a lecturer in public policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.

Ferguson says Cosby's public scolding is a good chance to discuss race and education. But the problem is much more complex than the comedian's assessment. He says test scores showed the racial achievement gap was narrowing between 1970 and 1990. Since then, the gap has been stagnant. Ferguson says the achievement gap can be partially blamed on a disparity in skills between black and white children. Black students who come from impoverished homes often start school with fewer literacy skills than their white counterparts.

And there are behaviors and other cultural factors that can be responsible for low achievement.

"The year that we peaked in test scores, particularly reading test scores for black kids was the commercial take off year for hip hop," he says.

Ferguson says the link isn't rock solid. But he says test scores in reading from 1990 to 1994 showed no improvement for black teenage students. It could be that rap presented a sizable distraction from schoolwork. There's another important factor. According to Ferguson, before 1990 schools emphasized more vigorous course work and attention to academic, rather than vocational training.

Ferguson also says black kids often face peer pressure, that can deter them from getting good grades. Sometimes black students who do well in school are accused of 'acting white.' He says it's not so much that African Americans are equating intelligence with whiteness. Black students are telling their high achieving peers not to act like they're better than everyone else.

"The African culture we bring into the classroom really makes a difference. One of the things we present to them is that historically we had many people -- Martin Luther King graduated from high school at 15 years old and started college. He wasn't acting white, he was acting responsibly."
- Eric Mahmoud

"Acting white is the way it's articulated because it feels to the people who are making the accusation - the feeling they get, or the vibe, so to speak from the people they accuse is similar to the vibe they get from white folks who sometimes behave in superior ways and are condescending," he says.

Ferguson also acknowledges that black students can feel alienated by school curriculums that focus on subjects they don't connect with. He doesn't like using the term 'institutional racism' to describe coursework that focuses on the accomplishments of European men. But he does agree that curriculums that include more black cultural content can help engage black students.

In the Twin Cities, the charter school system has allowed for the creation of several culturally-specific programs

Seed Academy/Harvest Preparatory charter school in north Minneapolis was created by African Americans for African American students. The school is open to kids of all races, but nearly all the 370 students are black. They are in kindergarten through sixth grade. Students consistently test above their counterparts in public schools. In 2003, 87 percent of Harvest Prep students tested at or above grade level in math. In reading, 96 percent tested above grade level.

Eric Mahmoud is the school's co-founder. He and his wife Ella started the school 12 years ago. The Mahmouds believe that, for the most part, black students learn better under more regimented conditions and high expectations. Students wear uniforms. They also have longer school days -- two hours longer --- than their friends in public schools. In addition to reading and math lessons, students get a healthy dose of culture.

"The African culture we bring into the classroom really makes a difference," says Mahmoud. "One of the things we present to them is that historically we had many people -- Martin Luther King graduated from high school at 15 years old and started college. He wasn't acting white, he was acting responsibly."

Teachers at Seed Academy/Harvest Prep begin class two weeks before the first day of school. Today they are going over how to conduct vocabulary drills.

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Image Harvest Preparatory teachers

One of those teachers is Susan Providence. Like most of the teachers at Harvest Prep, she's African American.

Two years ago, her third grade class test scores on the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment ranked fifth in the state. She understands that the problems many of her black students face at home can make it hard for them to concentrate on their schoolwork. Providence says she prefers to focus on each child's strengths and not be overly critical of their weaknesses. No matter the child's problems, she expects them to learn.

"I'm from the West Indies," she says. "Life in the West Indies is really hard. Children have to pay for books. So as a classroom teacher here, it's not to say it's not hard, but I do feel like you don't have an excuse."

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Image Susan Providence

Harvest Prep co-founder Eric Mahmoud says all of his teachers, regardless of their race, follow this same philosophy of no excuses. Mahmoud believes that the race of the teacher matters a lot less to black students than the teacher's skill and dedication to teaching.

On a recent day at Nancy Hellander's class at Edison High, a public school in northeast Minneapolis, students discussed the racial achievement gap.

Dericka McCaleb, an African American and a senior who wants to be a teacher, downplayed the role of race in the educational achievement gap.

"A lot of African American kids do not graduate," said Hellander.

"It's not just African American kids or kids of color, it's all kids," interjected McCaleb. "And if you don't want to be here I don't think it has anything to do with the teacher or the subjects you're learning in school. If you as a person just feel this is a waste of your time and don't want to be here, then why are you here?"

The class is multiracial, but predominantly white. Most of the students who spoke up said the problem is there's too much attention paid to race. A white classmate, senior Renee Busch offered that maybe the achievement gap is exacerbated by all the negative attention given to black students.

"I mean, I can't speak for you guys, but if someone was telling me that my race and I was doing worse, I would feel worse about what I'm doing... I would feel like I couldn't do any better," said Busch.

These students say the best way to close the gap between black and white students is to make schools better for all students with more funding for books, smaller class sizes and better teachers.

Harvard lecturer Ronald Ferguson agrees that schools play a big part. He advocates rigorous academic standards for all students. But race cannot be ignored.

"There are differences in life experience, both in school and out of school that we need to attend to that are correlated with race," he says. "And we can't do it if we're totally race-blind. We won't achieve racial parity with academic outcomes if we don't pay attention to specifically racial patterns in academic performance."

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