State combats education gap

As school systems across the country struggle to close the gap between minorities and whites in education, North Carolina wages its own battle at home, where statistics indicate significant disparities in achievement among students at the pre-college level.

Eighty-two percent of white students statewide scored at or above their grade level, compared to only 52 percent of black students on the 2000-2001 end-of-year tests for grades three through eight. In Wake County, said Superintendent Bill McNeil, that meant that white students scored in the 93rd or 94th percentile and black students ranged from the 70th to 76th percentiles.

White students also significantly outscored both Latino and Native-American students, although by a slightly smaller margin.

To combat these trends, the State Board of Education relies on the North Carolina Commission on Raising Achievement and Closing Gaps, chaired by Robert Bridges, president and CEO of Education Initiatives, Inc.

"We seek to raise achievement outcomes for all, while more fully maximizing the untapped academic potential of African-American, Native-American and Hispanic or Latino students in our schools," Bridges wrote in a recent report. "We can no longer afford the discomfort often associated with recognizing that ethnic culture... is somehow attributed to this failure."

The commission has proposed a series of resolutions, including minimizing minority placement in special education programs and encouraging capable minorities to pursue advanced material. Additional proposals focus on training teachers to be prepared for growing diversity in the classroom, increasing parental support, creating statewide educational standards and examining the origins of the gap.

"The commission finds that the state has struggled with its responsibility to educate all of its citizens from the beginning," Bridges said.

McNeil also attributed the gap to historical inequality in North Carolina education. "Once upon a time, it was unlawful for African Americans to be taught to read and write," he said. "Historically, we've short-changed some of our children."

Economics factor into the gap's roots as well. James Johnson, Kenan professor of management at the Kenan-Flagler School of Business at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said both unequal allocation of resources to public schools and a growing proportion of impoverished minority households have contributed to the problem.

"These kids grow up in socially isolated, economically marginalized environments. Any kid is confronting challenges not only in school, but also in the home and neighborhood context," he said.

Johnson and McNeil both advocated more open and accepting approaches to educating minorities.

Johnson said the attitude toward minorities in the past has been one of "Everything is wrong with you and I'm going to fix it.... What you do is build upon the assets they have," he said.

McNeil urged Wake County educators to update their expectations to allow for different learning styles among students. "Some students may take longer. That's okay. We have no problem with college students who take five or six years to graduate, but we have the idea high school has to be only four years," he said.

Wake County Schools are working to provide extra help for students before and after school and are also encouraging parental involvement in the school system. Even so, narrowing the gap is a complicated process.

"The first step is a realization that there is a gap," McNeil said. "The second is a recognition that these are complicated, deep-rooted issues. We have to change our expectations and realize that all students can handle the subject matter."


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