Ted Davis is an Associate Professor of Political Science and International Relations at the University of Delaware. His research focuses on Politics and African-Americans in post-civil rights America, and the politics of racial and socioeconomic inequality. His most recent book is Black Politics Today: The Era of Socioeconomic Transition (Routledge 2012).
Finland is often ranked at the top or very near the top of developed countries with the best education system. The U.S. is generally ranked somewhere in the middle. Why is Finland so successful? Why has the US become mediocre? First, teachers in Finland are trusted to do “whatever it takes” to educate each child and their decision is not data-driven. For example, if one method of educating students doesn’t work, teachers are free to consult with their colleagues to try something else. The process of educating in Finland very decentralized giving teachers as professional more say in what needs to be taught and how to individual students. Second, the Finns have created an educational system that values and works with the diversity of its student body. Finland is fairly homogenous, however in the past decades, as the result of immigration, its student population is becoming increasingly ethnically diverse. But it is not only ethnic diversity, but socioeconomic diversity the Finnish educational system responds to their specific needs.[i]
Racial disparities in K-12 educational achievement in the U.S. continue to be of nationwide concern in light of the 60th anniversary of the Brown Decision and 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1965. The Obama administration introduced the “Race to the Top” plan in an attempt to return the U.S. educational system to the top. The plan stressed improvements in several areas including a “demonstrated and sustained education reform” that would raise student achievement and close the achievement gap. Delaware was one of the first states chosen to participate in the “Race to the Top” program. If Delaware is to become the Finland of the 50 states, it’s essential that the state addresses the educational achievement gap (the gap) and its dropout problem (especially among its black student population). For purposes of this essay, all references to the gap are in reference to the average difference between statewide aggregated percentages of black and white students meeting the math standards on current and former assessment instruments.
Why is it imperative to reduce the educational achievement gap between blacks and whites? It’s important because blacks make up approximately 22 percent of Delaware’s population and black students are roughly 31 percent of the public school student population. With a public school population this racially diverse, Delaware cannot afford to ignore racial disparities in educational achievement. Perhaps equally important is the impact of the educational achievement gap on the state’s future economic growth and development. There is a substantial body of evidence demonstrating that the cognitive skills of the state’s workforce are strongly related to future economic growth (i.e., the capacity of the economy to produce goods and services).[ii] In other words, the achievement/attainment gap is more than a public education issue, it has major consequences for the state’s economic development.
Persistence of the Gap
Black students lag “significantly” behind white students in their educational performance in Delaware (See Graph 1). The percentage of black and white students meeting Delaware’s math standards has improved meaningfully since 1998. The percentage of black students meeting the standard increased by 42.3 points during this fifteen year period, while the percentage of white students meeting the math standard increased by 41 points. This across the board increase is good news on one hand. On the other hand, between 1998 and 2013, the gap between black and white students declined by only 1.3 percent. From 1998 to 2004, the gap actually grew by as much as 9.5 percentage points.
Graph 2 examines changes in the percentage of students meeting the state’s math standards by race. The annual change in the percentage of black students meeting the math standards since 1998 was 2.94 compared to 2.82 percent for white students. The critical concern is that since 1998 the percentage of black students meeting Delaware’s math standards has increased significantly, but there has been no corresponding decline in the black/white achievement gap during this period., However, since 2005 the annual change in the percentage of students meeting the math standards has been significantly greater for black students (2.6 percentage points) than for white students (1.3 percent points). Although this is good news, at this pace it will take more than 20 years to close the educational achievement gap. Delaware can’t afford to wait that long in a changing global economy.
Racial differences in SES do not account for the Gap
In 2010, the achievement gap between low-income and non-low-income blacks was smaller (10.8 percent) than the gap between low-income and non-low-income whites (18.6 percent) as shown in Graph 3. What this suggests is that black student scores on the achievement tests did not differ as widely across socio-economic lines as that of the white students. Not a good sign, because the variation among white students across SES was much greater than it was for black students. In other words, the scores for black students are more tightly cluster around the mean score than was the case for white student scores. Thus, meaning that SES factors mattered more among white students than among black students. The data show the gap between non-low-income blacks and non-low-income whites (40.8 percent) was also twice as large as the gap between low-income blacks and low-income whites (22.2 percent). If these differences were strictly about class and not about race, we would expect to see the opposite effects. To further highlight this point, when we examined the gap between low-income whites and non-low-income blacks, the data showed a larger percentage of low-income whites (50.6 percent) meeting the standards than non-low-income blacks (36 percent)—a difference of 14.6%. What this suggests is that SES matters more in explaining the variation among white students than it does black students.
Dropout as a risk factor in the achievement gap
Dropping out of school also occurs differentially for black and white students in Delaware. In 2011-12, roughly 5.2 percent of the black (and Hispanic) students dropped out of high school compared to 2.9 percent of white students. According to Graph 4, there was no difference in the percentage of dropouts who were black (44 percent) or white students (43 percent). The urgency of the problem can be best understood best by noting that black students were 31 percent of the public school population, yet they were 43 percent of dropout population.
In Delaware, when 9th graders were asked if they “believed that doing well in school is important to my future,” 86.4 percent of the African-Americans compared to 90.6 percent of their white classmates agreed. Despite this strong sense of understanding of the importance of school among blacks, a proportionally higher percent drop out of school. Osborne offer a possible explanation when the found the correlation between self-esteem and grade point average quite similar across races and sexes in the 8th grade, but by the 10th grade the similarities had disappeared for black males and dropped significantly for black females. Osborne attributed the cause to dis-identification with school, that is schooling does not provide the same pathway to self-worth for blacks that it does for whites. [iii]
Where Do We Go From Here
We begin by acknowledging that Delaware is not the exception in the U.S. when it comes to racial disparities in education. However, for Delaware to become the Finland of public education in America, depends on its ability to 1) think and operate outside the box in addressing racial disparities in educational achievement, 2) the Delaware community (especially the black community) must adopt a “whatever it takes” attitude about making the educational process work for everyone, and 3) it begins with Delaware truly valuing the racial and socio-economic diversity by realizing the one size fits all education doesn’t work for everybody.
Operating outside the box requires commitment, accountability, and taking responsibility for closing the gap. Consequently, the Governor must declare the achievement gap to be a public crisis and its resolution a top State priority. The Department of Education, superintendents and principals must be held publicly accountable and responsible for ensuring that academic support and infrastructures are in place to enhance academic performance in their respective environments. Like in Finland, teachers must be empowered to teach what needs to be taught to ensure academic success for “all” students and not just what is needed to pass standardized tests. Finally, the educational system must be sensitive to the cultural and social differences in learning styles and to realign its educational policies and programs as required.
Delaware as a community must truly value and appreciate diversity and to turn it into an asset and not a liability. Closing the achievement gap will require a holistic approach that addresses the social and economic issues related to academic success. A “whatever it takes” attitude begins with an education system that understands that the one size fits all curriculum approach will not close the achievement gap. Similarly, racial education disparities in education will not come with an educational policy that lacks cultural and racial sensitivity to the needs and life experiences of its diverse student population. Success will only come with policy approaches that acknowledge that the achievement gap is a continuing manifestation of inequalities among diverse populations in income, health care, housing, wealth, employment opportunities, etc. Although the achievement gap is not just a Delaware problem, Delaware is in a position to be a true laboratory of democracy. With its status as the first “Race To The Top” awardee, the state must be willing to seek progressive solutions that are inclusive of diverse decision-makers.
Delaware’s black community also has some responsibility for resolving the achievement gap, after all it is our village’s children whose academic performance is lagging. What are some of the actions the black community can take? It could increase the number of culturally and racially dedicated support services within the community that produce positive outcomes for academically our underperforming black students. The black community could be more active in helping schools to strengthen and expand existing programs that effectively address diversity/cross-cultural understanding inside the educational system and in the broader community. The black community institutions and organizations could utilize a variety of public awareness and communications techniques to encourage black parents to become active participants in their children’s education. The black community institutions and organizations (especially religious institutions) must devote some of their resources to organizing high quality out of school programs that extend learning time and opportunities for black students (especially those in urban low income communities).
In closing, the Delaware community can no longer afford to wait to take action to address to deal with the racial disparities in education nor can it operate under the premise that the achievement gap only affects certain students. That is not just a crisis in inner city communities or from low income black families. The data clearly indicates that the crisis in the academic performance of black students cuts across all demographic, geographic, and socioeconomic groups. Quite simply, as the state of Delaware “Race to Deliver,” the Delaware community must endorse a “whatever it takes” attitude to conquer its number one problem: educational disparities in public education.
I invite you to participate in a study about perceptions of why some students do better in school than others. Participating in the study will afford you the opportunity to reflect on your own views about the factors influencing the educational success of African-American students. To participate, please click on the link before and complete the survey. It should take no more than 20 minutes to complete (click on the web address below or copy and paste to the address bar on your browser).
[i] LynNell Hancock, Why are Finland’s Schools Successful?: The country’s achievements in education have other nations, especially the United States, doing their homework.” Smithsonian Magazine, September 2011
[ii] Eric Hanushek and Ludger Woessmann. 2012. “Do better schools lead to more growth? Cognitive skills, economic outcomes, and causation.” Journal of Economic Growth, volume 17, pages 267-321
[iii] Jason W. Osborne. 1995. “Academics, self-esteem and race: A look at the underlying assumptions of dissident faction hypothesis.” Personality and Social Psychology, volume 21, number 5 (May) pages 449-455.