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Race Based Achievement Gaps:
What Can Parents Do for Their Minority Children?

by Gladys S. Blount
El Paso, Texas

Conditions Sustaining Race Based Achievement Gaps

Achievement gaps based on student race do not have to exist. If there were authentic accountability to instruction coupled with sincerely encouraging classroom climates, then this condition would be eliminated from the public education setting. A student’s skin tone does not determine level of intellectual ability nor should it be used to limit academic skill acquisition. The learning problems experienced with race exist because there is a purposeful disconnection between original instructional program designs and what is being actually provided to students of color across most subject areas (Noguera & Akom 2000). In other words minority students are not being provided the same access and opportunity to instruction as their non-minority peers (Lee, 2004, Weissglass, 2001, & Wenglinsky 2004).

It is common knowledge that public education was originally established intentionally excluding students of color (Watkins, 2001). It took additional legislation, at the federal level, to force the inclusion of African American students in the public education forum. Unfortunately, public education systems tend to reconstruct the social inequalities that are entrenched in our mainstream culture (Noguera & Akom, 2000). According to a variety of statistical resources, non-minorities currently occupy at least 85% of teaching and administration positions in the public school structure (Cross, 2003; Kowalski, 1999; & National Center for Educational Statistics, 2004). Although race of those providing education to students of color should not drive access and opportunity, it is important to note the proportional representation of group servicing students of color.

It appears that since materials, instruction and technology in the public education forum are regulated by this dominant group, resources are often intentionally withheld from students of color. Because the conditions are so well disguised, it is difficult for parents to discern when a learning problem is the result of a disparaging classroom environment for their minority children. Once parents start confronting obstructive practices of public education, racial disparities will be minimized or eliminated for students of color. Parents as advocates insisting upon accountability can influence outcomes for minority students (National Education Association, 2006).

Why Should Parents Verify Educational Access and Opportunity?

What if a physician prescribed a specific medication be to a given to a patient for a certain amount of time; however, the patient was given a reduced dosage on an inconsistent basis. What if the physician asked how the patient was doing, and he or she was told that the treatment is being given, but the patient is not improving or the condition is deteriorating. What if the patient was blamed for getting worse? What if the caregiver continued to assert that the treatment was being provided exactly as prescribed by the physician? What if the provider was not qualified to deliver that treatment? What if the physician did not have the appropriate specialization to even prescribe the treatment? Who would tolerate this treatment of any patient?

Well, let’s apply this scenario to what happens in schools with achievement gaps based on student race and ethnicity. What if your state education agency indicated that your child should receive reading 90 minutes per day, but your child was only being taught reading for 30 minutes per day or per week? Wouldn’t that impact how well your child would learn to read when compared to students who were receiving the correct amount of instructional time? What if your child did not receive all of the materials for the program while being taught the reduced amount of teaching time for each subject? Wouldn’t that have an even bigger impact on how much your child would know at the end of a school year? What if the person teaching your child was not qualified to teach or even teach the subject area? Is that your child’s fault? Is that your fault? Do you control the conditions of teacher licensure, teaching time and full access to materials? How do you as a parent ensure quality, accountability and access for your child?

This document is designed to inform parents of actions they can take to begin the advocacy for their children of color, and confront a system that may not operate in the best interest for their child. Parents as monitors of educational programs result in improvements for all students to include students of diverse ethnic backgrounds. The following items are starting points to help parents know where to begin, and these points are captured in the form of a checklist at the end of this overview:

  • Know and receive information on established state guidelines
  • Authenticate teacher qualifications and diversity
  • Validate use of effective teaching methods
  • Verify student access to materials and resources
  • Monitor to ensure your child makes progress and growth
  • Protect & support your child from discrimination in education
  • Request the school implement action plans to address your concerns

Narrowing racial achievement gaps by verifying educator qualifications, access to materials and opportunity to progress in encouraging climates are important actions that parents can take to confront any systemic attempts to intentionally withhold or reduce key elements of your child’s educational program (Allen, 2008).

Parent Advocacy Point 1: Know Established State Guidelines

Should you trust school agencies to monitor credentials of those assigned to teach your child? Should you take the word of the institution, or should you require authentication that your child receives these basic requirements? How do you know that your child is receiving access to all instructional program components that will ensure academic success in school? Most state educational programs usually specify the following requirements for public schools:

  • Standards that are to be taught for each grade and subject
  • Amount of time the subject should be taught each day
  • Guided practice (modeled by the teacher)
  • Re-teaching if the student does not understand
  • Extra practice to ensure student learn the concepts
  • Technology support to include websites
  • Enrichment activities to help with application of skills (not only for gifted students)

How do you ensure that the people teaching your child and leading your school are qualified for these positions? How do you prevent these people from transferring racial inequities that are institutionalized in our society to your child’s educational progress and success? First request your school provide you a summary of state standards for instruction. Most districts provide parents a summary of student courses and student requirements. Instead of the typical information, you want to view additional information about teaching responsibilities in a written format. Finally, insist that these documents explain official guidelines or policies for the provision of instruction as well as credentials for educators at your child’s school.

Parent Advocacy Point 2: Authentication of Teacher Qualifications & Diversity

Extensive research data exist documenting that students of color are often placed with unqualified or poor performing teachers (e.g. Lee, 2004). Other researchers note that many times qualified minority teachers remain in the applicant pool while poor performing teachers remain in schools with high populations of minority students (West, 2008). As a parent, you can require schools to produce documentation to verify the credentials of the person teaching your child. Since there appears a mindset about assigning quality educators to students of color, it is recommended that you ask the following teacher qualification questions:

  • Ask if your child’s teacher is certified to work in the state
  • Ask if the teacher is certified to teach the subject or grade
  • Ask the percentage of students this teacher fails each year
  • Ask the percentage of students of color this teacher fails each year
  • Find out how many minority teachers were interviewed for positions at the school
  • Find out how many minority teachers were hired based on these interviews

If your school is not able to provide answers along with written documents for these questions, then elevate your concern to the next level above the school. The above mentioned data is public information and your school or district should be maintaining this data as a part of stakeholder communication. You should be able to verify that the people making decisions about your child should be competent. Transparency translates into accountability.

Parent Advocacy Point 3: Monitor Teaching Methods

There is a significant amount of research which documents how a student’s race and ethnicity drive the type of teaching provided to students (Allen, 2008; Bodovski & Farkas, 2009; Downey & Pribesh, 2004; Lee, 2004; Noguera & Akom 2000 & Talbert & Ennis 1990). Your child should be receiving teaching services ranging from basic skills to more thought-provoking and engaging tasks (Beecher & Sweeny, 2008). Challenging and high interest instruction is not reserved only for selected gifted students. Parents should verify the following functions to validate instructional access for their children:

  • Guided practice items
  • Independent practice
  • Re-teaching document
  • Extra practice pages
  • Use of technology to include supporting website
  • Study guides & correctly completed examples (models)
  • Online Textbook codes (in case your child forgets a book at school)
  • Enrichment activities (these are for all students; not just the gifted students)
  • How much time daily is to be provided to a particular subject (example 90 minutes daily for reading)
  • How often are lesson plans written (should be weekly or bi-weekly)
  • Copy of the daily schedule (to verify consistency of instruction)
  • How often your child is taken out of the classroom during school (missing instruction)

You can request that original documents or program materials be presented for your review so that you can authenticate what your child is being taught as compared to the guidelines for the subject or grade. If the classroom teacher does not provide documentation of these methods, then elevate your concern to the next level either within or above the school. When schools adhere to effective teaching practices; this can make a significant difference in your child’s educational growth and progress (Wenglinsky, 2004).

Parent Advocacy Point 4: Verify Access to Student Materials and Resources

Another area in which students of color are short changed in the educational system is in the issuance of materials, textbooks and other resources to support learning. As a stakeholder in your child’s education, you want to ensure that learning materials are not being withheld from your child. Parents are advised to validate that children have been issued program materials. A suggested starting point regarding student materials and resources parents should verify are as follows:

  • Textbooks for each subject area
  • Workbooks for each subject
  • Technology components by subject (e.g. CD ROM for each student to use)
  • Visual models and charts from the program
  • Auditory materials from the program
  • Study guides and supplemental materials

It is important for parents to note that racial mindsets do not disappear within the educational setting. Schools have historically been a battle ground for access and opportunity (Watkins, 2001). Just because students are able to enter the building does not mean that they are being provided access to materials and technology that their non-minority counterpart received during the learning process even within the same classroom. If you notice that your child has not been issued instructional materials, act immediately to remove this barrier to learning. This is important since education systems continue to operate with results that negatively impact students of color.

Parent Advocacy Point 5: Monitor Your Child’s Progress

The next component for parents to monitor, relates to making decisions for your child to ensure academic progress. Parents need to aware of how racial discrimination impacts their child’s growth and development. Decisions for minority students tend to lean toward punitive rather than supportive when academic problems occur. Some red flags for parents to note when interfacing with climates filled with race based disparities in educational achievement and access issues are as follows:

  • Punishment of your child for not understanding new concepts
  • Requirements to receive extra help only after class or outside of the school day
  • Attempts to retain your child in a grade without any documentation or plan
  • Attempts to administer an intelligence test
  • Homework that requires extensive parent support or teaching
  • No lesson plans or advance planning is being done by the teacher
  • You child does not have textbook for each subject area
  • No technology is being used to support your child’s learning at school
  • Your child has a low grade, but there are no graded papers to support the low grade
  • Your knowledge of your child’s skills is higher than what the teacher indicates
  • Your child has weeks were no grades are recorded for progress, but your child has been attending school on a regular basis
  • Removal of your child from class for ‘special help’, but your child is not progressing even with this ‘extra help’.

Remember, your goal is to ensure that your child has access to an excellent educational experience and qualified teachers. Also your goal as a parent is to ensure that when your child needs help, the assistance is authentic and it results in improved performance. Do not permit verbal discussions about what is being done for your child at school. In other words, require that work samples, documents, lesson plans and teacher’s guides be shown to you during a conference along with any verbal discussions.

Parent Advocacy Point 6: Protecting and Supporting Your Child

This information is being provided to increase parent awareness and involvement in a system that continues create and sustain circumstances which have long term negative implications for children of color (Allen 2005). If your child is having trouble in school or if your child attends a school with data that indicates the existence of differences in achievement based on race, here are some things you should not do:

  • Do not blame nor punish your child for this circumstance (Do not make any decisions until you have authenticated instruction and access is being provided consistently to your child)
  • Do not permit any type of intelligence testing to be administered to your child
  • Be wary of teacher recommendations that are not data based (she/he is immature, but no maturity scale or rating was completed for your child).
  • Decline any attempts to retain your child at any grade level. (Do not make any decisions about this until you have verified the credentials of all professionals making this proposal)
  • Require documentation of sanctions for educators who contribute to racial disparities in the educational setting (those creating hostile learning climates for students of color)
  • Require documentation from the school of action plans which protect your child from discrimination while seeking a public education

A child’s skin color should not result in a systemic undermining, neglect and a disregard for their educational needs. All students should be able to access learning in climates designed to encourage and support their potential. Proceed with caution when you make decisions for your child who may be receiving an education in an environment with race based inequities.

Parent Advocacy Point 7: Request Action Plans for Your Concerns

If you note discrepancies with teacher qualifications, program, materials or times of your child’s educational experience has been altered or non-existent, take immediate action. Even the National Education Association (NEA, 2006) acknowledges the impact of parent advocacy as a key influence with regards to improving educational accountability focused on reducing racial disparities for students of color in education. These actions are suggested starting points for parents who wish to address identified deficits in their child’s educational program

  • Write a formal letter of concern to the school administration
  • Elevate the complaint above the school level (school boards)
  • Contact your local or national advocacy groups
  • Express your concern in public forums
  • Join your schools Parent Teacher Association or Organization
  • Contact your local elected official and/or as public representatives
  • Require schools to post explanations and respond to your observations and documentations of problem areas
  • Require your school to provide a public timeline to address documented disparities and discrepancies

You should request a meeting with the school principal if you notice that there are no current gifted education programs or challenging instructional provisions. Also request a meeting with administration or higher level leadership if you notice advanced or gifted of programs are discontinued at your child’s school.

Moving Forward: Parents as Advocates for Change

Minority parent involvement and verification of those who teach and how they teach is critical to confront and eliminate race based discrimination in educational settings. According to reputable research reports (Lee, 2004 & NAACP, 2009), almost 80% of teachers assigned to educate African American children are not qualified in the subject area they teach. This intentional configuration appears to confirm the existence of a mindset which relegates students of color to a lower value. Subsequently, this manifests as discrimination in the receipt of lower quality education services. This appears to be an omnipresent systemic technique applied across learning climates, programs specifically targeting minority students in the school setting (Lugg & Shoho, 2006). The precision and pervasiveness of inappropriate practices orchestrated in educational settings must be exposed so that they can be removed from educational forum. The only way to defend helpless children against this purposeful systemic design is for parents to conduct their own confirmation procedures.

Parents of minority children should view their interactions with any educational system as a type of evidentiary process. The burden of proof should be on the school (institution) to authenticate the provision of services and materials to your child. This is the only way to insulate children of color from any attempts to infuse societal raced based inequalities into the school setting. By insisting on accountability with regards to qualifications, program standards, instruction and documentation of your child’s progress, you become the authenticator of what happens when you are able not be with your child at school. It is imperative that parents become involved in confronting systems which limit or deny their children’s success based on skin color. Current environments which are obstructing development and skill acquisition of students of color must change immediately. The attached checklist is a starting point for parents to gather information about a school’s leadership, educators and the mindset of those teaching students of color. Ultimately the end result for parents to function as advocates ensuring their child’s has access to quality programs.

ladys S. Blount is an Assistant Principal for Department of Defense Schools. She has been an educator since 1985. She is currently working in Okinawa, Japan for Department of Defense Schools. She can be contacted at

Published in In Motion Magazine January 27, 2010.

Also see:

  • Check list 1 (print out) -- Teacher Qualification Questions
    The principal or district should have this information on file
  • Check list 2 (print out) -- Teaching Method Questions
    Ask to see these items (Do not accept verbal responses)
  • Check list 3 (print out) -- Student Materials & Resources
    (Ask to see these items & request they be issued to your child )
  • Check list 4 (print out) -- Red Flags for Minority Parents
  • References
  • Education Rights index of articles

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