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Racial Politics and The Elusive Quest
for Excellence and Equity in Education

by Pedro A. Noguera
Cambridge, Massachusetts

Pedro Noguera.
Pedro Noguera. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.

Pedro A. Noguera, Ph. D is a Professor in the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University.

The relationship between race and academic achievement is once again the focus of national attention. Periodically, this issue has become the subject of debate in the national news media, and on each occasion, various experts are called upon to put forward explanations of racial differences in academic performance; preferably one that can be summed up in two minutes or less. As the current debate over the relationship between race and student achievement has heated up, the performance of Black middle class students in particular has been the subject of intense scrutiny. Despite their relative privilege, middle class Black students typically lag behind White and Asian students of similar and even lower socio economic status (Jencks and Phillips 1998; Spencer 2000). Similar patterns can be seen among Black and Latino students who attend well financed, integrated schools in affluent communities (Jencks and Phillips 1998). For such students, arguments related to inequities in funding and access to educational opportunities which are relevant to poor students, do not seem pertinent. As such, the search for explanations to this apparent paradox has inspired renewed interest in the relationship between race and academic performance, but once again there is more confusion than clarity in public discussions of the issue.

The last controversy surrounding the racial achievement gap was triggered by the publication of The Bell Curve by Hernstein and Murray (1994). In this case the authors argued that genetic differences between Blacks and Whites accounted for unequal outcomes in academic performance, and much of the controversy related to their book centered on whether or not there was actual proof that African Americans were genetically inferior. ( 1 )

In the current period, cultural factors figure more prominently in the explanations that are proffered by experts and touted in the media. Scholars such as John Ogbu (1987) and more recently John McWhorter (2000) attribute the lower performance of Black students generally, and the middle class in particular, to an "oppositional culture"(Ogbu 1978), "anti-intellectualism", and "a culture of victimology" (McWhorter: 2-25). Despite the fact that such arguments tend to be based on generalized descriptions of "Black American culture", rather than intensive investigations into the experience of Black students in school settings, such theories have been widely embraced by scholars and educators. Like the genetic theories of intelligence that preceded them, cultural theories that attempt to explain the link between race and academic performance generally locate the cause of the problem within students (i.e. lack of motivation, devaluing academic pursuits, etc.) and in so doing, effectively absolve educational institutions of responsibility for finding solutions.

With the hope of shedding some light on the complexities surrounding the relationship between race and academic performance, this paper examines the factors that influence the development of educational policies and practices designed to ameliorate the achievement gap in relatively affluent school districts. To provide a context for understanding the issues surrounding efforts to promote educational equity, the paper begins by describing initiatives undertaken by schools in the recently established Minority Student Achievement Network (MSAN). The remainder of the paper draws on research collected from a four year study carried out at Berkeley High School (BHS) to illustrate how racial disparities in academic outcomes are influenced by the structure of opportunity within schools, and how efforts to address inequities often become politicized. The goal is to use the case of BHS to show how political factors complicate efforts to reduce racial disparities in student achievement, and to make it clear why political rather than educational strategies alone are needed to respond to the racial achievement gap.

The Minority Student Achievement Network

In February of 1999, the superintendents of fourteen urban and suburban school districts came together to form the Minority Student Achievement Network (MSAN 1999). This newly formed consortium was created for the purpose of providing the districts with strategic support in tackling a common problem: the racial gap in student achievement. Although racial disparities in student performance are recognized as a national phenomenon (Jencks and Phillps, 1998), the fourteen districts believed that they might be better positioned than most to eliminate or significantly reduce the gap, because of the favorable conditions present within each of the member districts. All fourteen districts in MSAN were located in affluent communities where per pupil expenditures generally exceeded the state average (MSAN 1999). Additionally, each of the districts has a record of high achievement among many of their White students as measured by performance on standardized tests and college enrollments (MSAN 1999). This record of success led many to believe that it should be possible to produce similar outcomes among students of color. Finally, all fourteen districts are in communities known for their liberal political values and their support for public education, and several of the districts are located in close proximity to major research universities. Since its inception, MSAN has hoped university-based researchers could be enlisted to support this effort. ( 2 )

Despite the relative advantages of school districts in cities such as Berkeley, Cambridge, Chapel Hill, and Ann Harbor, past efforts to elevate the academic performance of minority students yielded little success. Moreover, in each of the districts, clear direction with respect to future steps that could be taken to raise student achievement was lacking. Lack of success could not merely be attributed to institutional indifference or a lack of effort. Each district had a long history of developing innovative programs and enacting a variety of measures to boost the academic performance of students of color (MSAN 1999). Moreover, at varying points in the recent past several of the districts had been led by an African American, and in all of the districts, people of color occupied significant leadership roles. However, good intentions and the presence of an ethnically diverse leadership has not been sufficient to keep any of the districts from becoming mired in bitter political disputes that have arisen as a result of their failure to significantly improve the performance of minority students.

Conflicts over what could broadly be termed "educational equity issues" have plagued the districts within MSAN. Most often, these conflicts take the form of hostility from impatient and frustrated minority parents directed at district administrators. However, affluent parents whose students are generally well served by the schools are not disinterested parties in these disputes. Occasionally, some of these parents also enter the fray when they believe their interests are endangered. Though by no means monolithic in their sentiments, this constituency has the ability to exert tremendous influence over district policies through its political and economic resources which can be deployed whenever it believes high academic standards are threatened. While it is unlikely that any interest group will ever directly oppose efforts to improve the academic performance of minority students, occasionally the interventions that are proposed require a reallocation of resources or the restructuring of educational programs. Such changes often encounter fierce opposition from the parents of high achieving students if or when they are interpreted as compromising the educational interests of their children. Examples of the kinds of measures that might evoke the ire of this constituency include efforts to eliminate or reduce tracking or to open up access to gifted and talented or advanced placement courses (Wells and Serna 1996).

Faced with frustrated minority parents who believe their children are not well served, and well organized affluent parents who are prepared to do whatever it takes to defend the educational interests of their children, the leaders of MSAN find themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place. They must find ways to respond to the pressing concerns raised by the parents of low achieving minority students, while at the same time scrupulously avoiding any measure that might provoke the wrath of parents of high achieving White students. The perception that the pursuit of academic excellence and the pursuit of educational equity are goals that are fundamentally at odds, and exist within a zero-sum scenario, is at the crux of many of the conflicts experienced by the districts in MSAN. The stakes are high in these conflicts because in most cases, they take on an unfortunate racial character, and if they escalate, the ensuing polarization can have an injurious effect on inter-group relations in the broader community and the job security of district administrators.

Hence, the districts that came together to create MSAN faced a common need. All were searching for educational strategies that would enable them to make measurable progress in the performance of their minority students but which would not arouse opposition from their affluent parents. Moreover, with the adoption of high stakes testing in several of the states where MSAN districts are located there was even greater need for such strategies. Many of these districts were faced with the prospect that high percentages of their minority students were at risk of failing state mandated assessments. The likelihood of such an outcome added to the urgency associated with the search for solutions to the racial gap in student achievement. ( 3 )

However, after nearly three years of meetings and conferences, it is becoming clear that a common experience with failure in past efforts to raise minority student achievement, and a common need to demonstrate genuine progress on the issue, may not be enough to serve as a useful basis for new direction and insight. Despite sharing research and information on their programmatic interventions among themselves, there is still no sign that the districts in MSAN have discovered ways to close the achievement gap or to reverse these disturbing academic trends. MSAN members continue to hold meetings several times a year at which information on best practices and research findings are shared, but the optimism that was present when the consortium was first established is gradually beginning to fade. Already, it is becoming increasingly clear that MSAN is largely a support group, and that the organization is not able to provide its members with clear answers or direction.

I am one of several university-based researchers who was asked to serve on an advisory board of MSAN. Since the consortium was first created, I have attended their meetings, and on occasion I have been asked to deliver presentations on research that I have done that relates to the MSAN effort. Having been a researcher and parent of four children who were enrolled in the Berkeley public schools, and having served as an elected member of the school board in Berkeley, I am intimately familiar with the problems and issues confronting these kinds of schools and communities. From the beginning, I was intrigued by the ideas that had influenced the establishment of MSAN, and I believed, or at least hoped, that the theory of change guiding its work had merit and could lead to improvements in patterns of academic achievement. My hope was that if we could show that change was possible, the efforts of MSAN would have national ramifications for the education of students of color, and for me, such a prospect was very compelling.

However, even as I hoped for the best, my past experience in the Berkeley public schools, left me with nagging doubts and skepticism. Having worked over several years on an intensive effort to raise minority student achievement at Berkeley High School, I was left with the realization that even when an objective analysis of conditions suggested that change should be possible, well thought out plans could easily be thwarted by obstacles that have more to do with politics, and relatively little to do with educational practice. I felt strongly that unless members of MSAN were prepared to confront the political challenges that arise from zero-sum thinking on issues related to educational equity and excellence, their good intentions would fail to produce the results that were hoped for. In the absence of a strategic vision that could provide guidance on how to attain this balance, I was sure that MSAN would eventually be dismissed as yet another good idea that had not lived up to expectations.

In October 2000, I was invited to speak on a panel to address the subject of the achievement gap before an audience comprised of program officers from major foundations. Also on the panel was Ron Ferguson, an economist at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, and like myself, a research consultant to MSAN. Accompanying us on the panel were two superintendents from districts within MSAN. Because the creation of MSAN had generated national media attention ( 4 ) , the audience was packed and those present eagerly awaited information that might be shared from our work.

Instead of revealing findings, much of the panel discussion focused on the goals of MSAN and the initiatives that had been undertaken by the consortium to date. Ron Ferguson started out discussing his research, much of which had been carried out in Shaker Heights, Ohio. His work, which was based on surveys with students, showed significant differences in study habits and attitudes toward school between African American and White students. Though it produced few recommendations for action, his research did shed further light on some of the factors influencing the lower academic performance of minority students (Ferguson, 2000). The two superintendents described past efforts that had been undertaken in their districts to raise minority student achievement, and they explained why they invested a great deal of hope in MSAN.

I started my presentation by suggesting that the lack of progress in minority student achievement in MSAN districts was a paradox in need of an explanation that went beyond a focus on the attitudes and study habits of minority students. Using language that made both superintendents visibly uncomfortable, I argued that the lack of progress on student achievement in MSAN could be attributed largely to the difficulty inherent in serving the educational needs of two different constituencies: affluent Whites and low income African Americans and Latinos. I pointed out that middle class Black and Latino students were more likely to identify with lower class members of their racial group, and that based on my experience in Berkeley, it would be difficult to raise their academic achievement unless it was possible to move beyond the zero-sum terms which framed how this issue was perceived. Particularly if the districts intended to initiate major changes in educational programs, fierce opposition was likely and should be expected.

Given that affluent White parents were typically more powerful and politically influential, I posited that it would be nearly impossible to bring about significant change in student outcomes unless the educational leaders in MSAN found a way to address the concerns they were bound to raise. Specifically, I suggested that MSAN had to find a way to deal with the perception that advances in educational equity would necessarily come at the expense of the educational interests of affluent White students. To the discomfort of the superintendents that were present, I also pointed out that in some communities, superintendents had been fired and school board members re-called when the pursuit of educational equity ignited the wrath of powerful and privileged parents. ( 5 ) I concluded by arguing that the solution to the achievement gap in MSAN districts would be based on political more so than educational strategies, and that unless the political solution could be found, there would be no progress.

  • Part 2: The Role and Significance of Race in the Achievement Gap
  • Part 3: Making Steps Toward Educational Equity

Published in In Motion Magazine September 30, 2001
Article # ER010930002

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