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Close Achievement Gap by Discussing Race, Expert Says

An expert says the achievement gap can be closed with effective teacher training.

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In a country where white students vastly outperform black and Hispanic students on national standardized tests, one education innovator says the performance gap can be eliminated on a school-by-school basis by having honest discussions with teachers about race.

"We like to create proxies for conversations around race," says Glenn Singleton, president and CEO of Pacific Educational Group, a consulting firm based in San Francisco that's dedicated to addressing racial education disparities. "We talk about poverty, not recognizing that poor white kids outperform poor black and brown kids."

Singleton argues that many teachers don't know how to relate to students who are of a different race. "Along with conversations about English-language acquisition [for Hispanics] and poverty's impact on students' readiness to learn, we have to have a continuous conversation about race until the gap no longer shows in the data."

Two studies by the National Center for Education Statistics have outlined the achievement gap. White eighth graders scored an average of 26 points higher on the National Assessment of Educational Progress reading test than black eighth graders, and an average of 31 points higher on a the NAEP math test, according to an NCES report released in July 2009. White eighth graders scored an average of 26 points higher than Hispanic students on the NAEP math test and 24 points better on the NAEP reading test, according to a report released last month.

[Learn more about the performance gap between white and Hispanic students.]

Singleton says teachers who are trained to relate to their students see the performance gap narrow in their classrooms. "Individual teachers who are attuned to racial issues and develop a capacity to see systemic racism see racial achievement gaps disappear," he says. "I think there are educators in the U.S. that have the will to create a racially equitable education."

Singleton's for-profit firm offers a series of training programs and seminars that schools and districts can buy to help teachers become comfortable with discussing racial issues with their students. By understanding differences between races and cultures, teachers can more effectively relate to their students, Singleton says.

The problem, he adds, is scaling his program up to the state level. It's difficult to train the number of teachers necessary to make a sizable difference on statewide testing data. In districts his company has worked with, such as Eden Prairie Schools district in Minnesota, community reaction isn't always positive, despite the fact that test scores generally increase for all students, not just minorities.

[Read about scores on the NAEP history test.]

"When districts become successful in eliminating this gap [in test scores], there's been a tremendous backlash from the community," he says. "Sometimes, parents in white families will say that they feel their kids aren't getting everything that they deserve."

The percentage of black students at Eden Prairie High School who passed a Minnesota state math exam increased from 3 percent in 2008 to 26 percent in 2011. The percentage of Hispanic students who passed the exam increased from 22 percent to 42 percent over the same period. White students still outperformed black and Hispanic students—71 percent of white students passed the exam in 2011, but the gap is narrowing.

The country still has a long way to go before it's ready to eliminate the achievement gap, Singleton says. The least experienced teachers are often left teaching the least privileged students, with the worst teaching materials. It's an issue, he says, that is largely ignored in America today.

"We need to make sure that there is continuous attention to the fact that this is still a racially polarized society," he says. "Unless you believe that there are inherent differences or inequalities between whites and people of color, then we have to look at what we're doing wrong that created this gap."

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