Experts to journalists: Go behind data to tell stories about black male achievement gap

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T. Shawn Taylor
November 22, 2010

Poverty, poorly funded schools and long-standing segregation and racial inequality are familiar themes for the dwindling number of education reporters covering the achievement gap between black and white male students.

A new study by the Council of the Great City Schools, an advocacy group for urban districts, reasserts these conditions in “A Call for Change: The Social and Educational Factors Contributing to the Outcomes of Black Males in Urban Schools,” a 108-page report issued in October.

Yet news coverage of this report was largely superficial and shed little, if any, light on critical structural issues behind the reality of racial disparities in education, says Stephen Menendian, an expert on race and ethnicity. One article, typical of much of the coverage, asserted that black male students trail whites “by alarming margins and for reasons that often are not well understood.” Several articles referred to the data as “jaw dropping,” repeating a phrase used by the council.

Changing such reactions requires that editors and reporters adopt a new approach that involves challenging the orthodoxy of mainstream politicians and educators, rethinking their own assumptions and using new critical tools to guide reporting.

“Putting data out there is not enough,” says Menendian, senior legal research associate at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University. “Informing the public of disparities does little to cause action.”

Chief among assumptions that cause so much education reporting to ignore or give short shrift to existence of structural racism, Menendian says, is the so-called “colorblind” frame, leading many reporters and readers to view evidence of racial disparities as a signal that people of color are to blame for the results.

“It’s the parents, for instance,” he says. “They blame the individuals as opposed to understanding the structural conditions that produced these outcomes. If you don’t supply an explanation, people will draw upon the cultural explanations that exist.”

For instance, Menendian sees old-fashioned segregation, not bad parenting, as the culprit for educational disparities experienced by black males, though at least one columnist begs to differ. Living in concentrated poverty shaves four points off IQ scores, he says. “That’s roughly the equivalent of a year of school. It’s not as simple as parents need to read more to the kids.”

Menendian contends that saying “that we need to have conversations about early childhood parenting practices, really those things miss the point. It’s really about segregation. African American students are highly segregated. This is not the experience of white and many Latino students.”

Menendian cites research showing that poor whites are more likely than poor blacks to live near better-off communities. “There is not one [U.S.] city where whites live in comparable ecological conditions as African Americans,” he says. “This is a profound experience.”

So how do journalists dig more deeply into that experience to expose underlying factors that sustain the achievement gap?

First, define and explore the impact of structural barriers to performance equity in urban educational systems. High concentrations of low-income students in a school or district, zero-tolerance disciplinary policies, poor teacher quality and inequitable funding are broad areas that demand attention, says Maya Wiley, founder and executive director of the Center for Social Inclusion in New York.

Teasing out details within these structural problems can lead to more compelling stories. Wiley notes that barriers related to teacher quality fall into two categories—creating a pool of qualified teachers to work in black communities and stemming teacher turnover by addressing burnout.

“A Call for Change” is a good place to start. The report is full of data citing poverty’s role in disparate math and reading scores and how factors such as unemployment, infant mortality, living arrangements, parents’ education, health insurance and pay disparities create seemingly insurmountable challenges faced by black boys in large cities.

Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, says he is generally pleased with media coverage of the report but faults the press for not examining the structural issues it raises. “The opportunity is there for people to go back to get a fuller appreciation of how the odds, across the board, are stacked against these kids,” he says.

Articles that suggested poverty was not a significant barrier for black males were far off the mark, Casserly says. “It clearly is a factor. Some stories suggested that somehow it was irrelevant, which is not what the report said.”

Much of the information in “A Call for Change” is not new, Casserly concedes. The study gives a nod to the Schott Foundation for Public Education, which has published several reports on black males over the past four years.

“The fact that this has fallen on deaf ears is not a good sign,” Casserly says. “We thought it was worth sounding the alarms one more time to say, ‘This has not gone away.’ ”

More resources for background and context on structural racism in education are here.

Next, put the barriers in context through in-depth reporting that explains how structural factors create challenging circumstances for black males in their communities, says Casserly, who urges reporters to re-examine the study for ideas.

For instance, further reporting of teacher quality issues may involve obtaining teacher turnover figures by school, if available, or surveying schools to track how many teaching positions had to be filled in a given school year and how easy or difficult that was. The findings could be compared to those in a district with higher student performance.

Districts with zero-tolerance disciplinary policies, which research shows lead to higher suspension rates for black males across economic backgrounds, offer rich opportunities for in-depth reporting. A study released in September by the Southern Poverty Law Center found that nearly one-third or more of black males in urban middle schools are suspended in some large districts in a given year, nearly three times the rate for white males.

“Discipline is a huge problem for students of color because they are pushed out of school as a result of harsh disciplinary treatment, often for very small issues,” Wiley says. “We’ve had stories of kids who were black who were pushed out of school for chewing gum.”

Finally, emphasize success stories or lessons learned that show how educators, district leaders and communities address and overcome these structural factors.

Find examples of schools and districts that have made significant headway in raising scores and graduation rates for black male students while lowering dropout rates.

Wiley cites an experiment with economic integration in Wake County, N.C., that improved black male performance. In 2000, the district began to limit the poverty rate at each school to no more than 40 percent—based on numbers of students requiring free or reduced-price lunch—by busing suburban kids to city schools. Black males performed better, and white students’ achievement did not suffer, she says.

However, busing was recently discontinued because parents of white students wanted more control over where their children went to school, Wiley says. They objected to students being bused as long as an hour from home, she adds.

Still, the policy showed what can happen when concentrated poverty is eliminated from schools. “Structure matters,” Wiley says.

“A Call for Change” cites several success stories that offer lessons for closing racial performance gaps, notably black males’ improved test scores and declining dropout rates in New Jersey after school funding was raised to a level on par with the wealthiest districts.

“Who seems to be making a dent in these set of issues?” Casserly asks. “What are they doing that other people are not doing? Why is there progress in some places and not in others? We’re trying to galvanize more effective strategies, but time will tell.”



My View on Achievement Gaps

personally, i am tiring of seeing such reports since these results are, depressingly, not new. nor is the superficial coverage of these results. what is new, in my view, is a subtle shift from "blame the parents" to an increasing overemphasis on better teachers and charters as cure-alls for what ails education. i don't believe in conspiracy theories, but the "it's all about the teacher" advocates and charter proponents seem to be drinking from the right-wing pitcher of kool-aid, although perhaps unknowingly, and thus feeding a view about improving education that ignores poverty, unequal funding, lack of health care and other social ills that affect kids' learning. we all need to take a cue from diane ravitch, who used to belong to the accountability crowd and now has unmasked them as a destructive cabal that, if left unchecked, will destroy public education and any chance of making it equal for everyone.

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