Students of Color and the Achievement Gap
Eliminating the achievement gap for students of color has been a priority at both the federal and state levels. Issues of cultural relevance, rigor, and belonging are just a few that educators must consider when creating and implementing lessons. On this page you will find an ever-growing archive of articles, tools, and resources focused on effectively teaching these students.
As a former high school math teacher I remember all too well the week following the last day of school. I always returned to the building to gather some of my things, and I could recall the voices of rowdy teenage girls and boys, the clutter left by scattered homework assignments that had not been retained in the proper file folders or personal backpacks, and the student work artifacts that were still posted on walls and tabletops around my room that I would collect in my keepsake file box. I was looking forward to having the summer all to myself to spend time at the beach, enjoy family and friends, play with my dog, or just do nothing! However, the thoughts of such joys were clouded by my continued concern for students who had barely passed my algebra or geometry classes or miserably failed one of them. I wondered what would happen to these students next year and if they would be engaged in any activities over the summer that would help them strengthen their mathematics skills. I also wondered what I could have done differently, if anything, to help them have a more positive experience in my classroom.
We are in a critical time in education, perhaps now more than ever before, as we reflect on the 60th anniversary of the Brown decision and the 50th anniversary of the passing of the Civil Rights Act. In many areas of our educational system, inequities have widened and not narrowed. As we think about opportunities for children to learn in school, we have to consider the structural barriers that prevent students from maximizing their learning potential in schools. The problem of inequitable access to quality learning opportunities is compounded by many factors in high-needs schools and communities, yet we find similar structural barriers in well-resourced communities as they play out for varying demographics of students (e.g., race/ethnicity, social class, religion, etc.). It is important for educational leaders from the school board to the community to consider how they can most effectively advocate for and implement policies and procedures that support equal access to opportunities for learning for all children.
What does it mean to be culturally competent? What does culturally responsive teaching look like? And most importantly, how can teachers and administrators determine when it's being done right? On May 8, I attended a talk titled Hip-Hop/Hip-Hope, in which Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings, an international speaker around the topics of diversity, cultural competency, and critical race theory, and former president of the American Education Research Association, addressed these questions.
"Culturally relevant teachers see their connection to the community as integral to their identity." (Hyland, 2005; Ladson-Billings, 1994)
Cultural relevance considers a student's culture as integral to learning. Educators serve students best when they can see the world through their students' eyes or worldview (Hardy, 2005). How can you teach students unless you know them? Another component of cultural relevancy centers on the need for teachers to recognize and acknowledge their own culture in regards to how they perceive students different from themselves. Cultural relevancy extends beyond skin color. For example, when White female teachers ignore racial identity—even though they may not realize it--they represent and express a hidden racial position in the eyes of their Black students (Mazzei, 2008). Cultural relevance takes student and teacher identity into consideration.
If you ask any parent if they want their child to get a good education, they will undoubtedly say 'yes.' If you ask that same parent if they believe education is important to fulfilling one's life dreams, in almost all cases the answer will still be 'yes.' Yet when I ask educators what factors contribute to the achievement gap, a common response is the lack of parent involvement in their child's schooling. In my career as a K-12 educator, teacher educator, and researcher I have often been in conversations where the topic of parental involvement is being discussed. I cringe each time I hear these remarks: "they just don't value education," "they don't care about education" or "we just can't get them to come to school." These comments are about parents. My recent experiences working to close achievement gaps with educators in one rural school district with a high percentage of working class and low-income Latino families and in an urban school district with a high percentage of working class and low-income African American families underscores the normative nature of such sentiments. Far too often these comments reflect individuals' coded racialized and classed perceptions of parents of non-white and high-poverty children. A study of high school teachers' beliefs about the reasons for low achievement in Black male high school students reported that 45 of 50 teachers and counselors surveyed cited home factors as the primary factor explaining these students' lack of success. While we know that parental involvement in the educational process enhances students' academic performance, a variety of barriers related to culture, social class, and language diversity all contribute to lower levels of engagement by many parents, particularly non-white parents and lower-income parents. Thus, it is too simplistic to reduce the lack of parental involvement to an issue of family values.