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

-- Part 2 --
The Role and Significance of Race in the Achievement Gap

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 Role and Significance of Race in the Achievement Gap

My pessimistic prognosis on the efforts of MSAN are rooted in my experience with the Berkeley public schools where for years I have worked with others to find ways to raise minority student achievement. In the beginning, I could not understand why schools that possess a track record of success in educating affluent White students are largely unable to produce similar success with students of color from low or middle class backgrounds. However, after years of experience and research in the Berkeley public schools I have come to the conclusion that the explanation is complicated because it cannot simply be answered within the context of educational practice. Certainly part of the answer lies in the difficulty educators experience in responding to the different needs of poor and affluent students; educational strategies that work for some students simply are not effective for others. ( 6 ) However, a closer examination of the issues reveals that much more is involved.

The complexity surrounding the relationship between race and achievement is particularly evident when we consider what appears to be a paradox in the performance of two broad categories of students: recent immigrants and middle class Black and Latino students. Several studies reveal that immigrant students of color, many of whom are from low income families, are often academically successful (Ogbu 1988; Stepick, et al. 1991; Suarez-Orozco 2000). ( 7 ) In contrast, many middle class Black and Latino students tend to be less successful even though their families are relatively privileged (Jencks and Phillips 1998; Ferguson 2000). While several factors directly and indirectly influence these patterns, it is my contention that both phenomena are largely related to the ways in which identities related to race and gender are constructed in school settings, and to perceptions and expectations that develop among adults and students in response to these perceived identities.

For many years, a number of researchers have recognized the significance of the link between identity and academic performance. The subjective positioning of students has been found to have bearing on motivation and persistence (Newman 1992), relationships with peer groups and teachers (Stienberg 1996; Phelan et al 1998), and overall self-esteem (Williams 1996). Yet, despite the substantial body of research in this area, there is far less agreement among scholars about the how the development of racial identities among adolescents influences the stance and orientation that is adopted in relation to schooling. Despite overwhelming evidence of a strong correlation between race and academic performance, there is considerable confusion about the process through which students come to perceive a linkage between their racial identities and their academic ability, and how these in turn shape their aspirations and behaviors toward education. ( 8 )

Scholars such as John Ogbu (1987) and Signithia Fordham (1996) have suggested that Black students from all socio-economic backgrounds, develop “oppositional identities” which lead them to view schooling as a form of forced assimilation. Positioned in this way they argue that Black students and other “non-voluntary minorities” (e.g. Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, Native Americans) come to equate academic success with "acting white". For these researchers, such perceptions lead to the adoption of self-defeating behaviors that inhibit possibilities for academic success. The few who manage to achieve academically pay a heavy price for success. According to these researchers, Black students who perform at high levels are compelled to adopt a “raceless” persona so as to avoid the stigma associated with membership within their racial groups (Fordham 1988).

In contrast, Ogbu and others (Gibson 1988; Suarez-Orozsco 2001; Matutu-Biachi 1986) have argued that immigrant students of color are largely immune to the insidious association between race and achievement that traps students from domestic minority backgrounds. So called “voluntary minorities”, whether they be Mexican, Asian, African or West Indian, are more likely to perceive schooling as a pathway to social mobility, and for that reason they are also more likely to adopt behaviors which increase the likelihood of academic success. Moreover, having been raised in societies where people of their race or ethnic group are in the majority, they have not been subjected to socialization processes that lead them to see themselves as members of subordinate or inferior groups. Less constrained by the history of racial oppression in the United States, these students are more likely to accommodate the dominant culture and conform to the prescriptions that are integral to the social experience in schooling (Spring 1988). Even if they avoid complete assimilation they are more likely to adopt behaviors that contribute to school success.(Ogbu 1987; Gibson 1988)

When viewed in combination with Claude Steele’s work (1997) on the effects of racial stereotypes on academic performance, a compelling explanation for the identity-achievement paradox begins to emerge. Through his research on student attitudes toward testing, Steele has shown that students are highly susceptible to prevailing stereotypes related to intellectual ability. According to Steele, when “stereotypes threats” are operative, they lower the confidence of vulnerable students and negatively effect their performance on standardized tests. According to Steele, "Ironically, their susceptibility to this threat derives not from internal doubts about their ability but from their identification with the domain and the resulting concern they have about being stereotyped in it (1997:614). For Steele, the debilitating effects of stereotypes can extend beyond particular episodes of testing, and can have an effect on overall academic performance. In his other work, Steele suggests that schools and universities can adopt strategies to reduce the stigma experienced by women and racial minorities and thereby mitigate against the effects of stereotype threats (1992: 75).

If we attempt to combine Ogbu’s arguments to those of Steele, one could extrapolate that recent immigrant students are less likely to be susceptible to the threat associated with negative racial stereotypes because their “newness” to the American social landscape protects them. Having not been socialized to see themselves as inferior, immigrant students are less likely to "resist" aspects of schooling that require conformity and assimilation to values and norms that domestic minorities regard as white and middle class. In contrast, middle class Black and Latino students are more likely to identify with the styles and behaviors of lower class members of their racial/ethnic group (Portilla 1999). Rather than risk being ostracized for differentiating themselves from their peers, these students may adopt attitudes and behaviors that undermine their possibilities for achieving academic success.

My own research on this topic suggests that racial identity development process is not nearly so dichotomous (Noguera 2001); a range of possibilities for expressing one's identity exist. Racelessness or "acting white" is just one possibility. There are also many examples of Black and Latino students who manage to do well in school while retaining a sense of pride in their racial and cultural identity. Additionally, there are many who achieve by adopting multiple persona's: they adopt the cultural norms that are valued in school settings while embracing the speech, style of dress and larger identity construct associated with their racial group outside of school.

Understanding the process through which racial identities are constructed in school is essential if we are to devise strategies that can transform the ways in which race and achievement become linked. In the following section, I will draw on data from four years of research at Berkeley High School to demonstrate how the link between racial identity and student performance becomes operative. However, in departure from both Ogbu and Steele, I will also show how the structure and culture of this school, and I will argue others like it, contributes to the creation of this linkage. That is, rather than treating racial identities as fixed categories, I maintain that oppositional identities and an anti-academic orientation (e.g. an unwillingness to enroll in challenging courses), are social products that are directly related to the school experience of many Black and Latino students. Further, I will show that political factors related to the protection of privilege serve to maintain and reinforce structural and cultural barriers that obstruct efforts to improve minority student achievement. Without a strategy for confronting these barriers, lasting gains in student achievement at BHS or the schools in MSAN, cannot be made.

Good Intentions Are Not Enough: The Failure of Integration at Berkeley High School

To the unknowledgeable outsider, Berkeley would seem to be one of the most likely places to find excellent schools available for all children. Home to a world-class public university, the people of Berkeley tend to be highly educated and socially progressive. In fact, the liberalism and idealism of the citizenry has consistently placed the city at the forefront of various social movements and at the vanguard of innovation in American politics. From the movement against the Vietnam War to the movement to promote recycling of household goods, Berkeley has been at the forefront of progressive change in the United States. Not surprisingly, the liberal political inclinations of the community have historically also had a profound influence on the character of the public schools.

In 1968 Berkeley was one of the first cities in the nation to voluntarily desegregate its public schools (Kirp 1982). This it accomplished through a novel system of shared bussing which called for minority students from the flatlands to be bused to predominantly White schools in the hills in the early grades, and for older children from the hills to be bussed to flatland schools in the later grades. Berkeley's progressive stance toward education did not stop there. Even as the rest of California embraced a revolt against property taxes in the 1970s and 1980s, Berkeley voters demonstrated a willingness to adopt a variety of local tax measures to provide additional funding to public education (Noguera 1995).

Yet, despite this impressive track record of public support, Berkeley schools are characterized by extreme disparities in academic outcomes among students from different racial/ethnic backgrounds. At every school in the District, patterns of student achievement on most standardized tests adhere to a bi-modal distribution of scores. (see chart #1) The majority of White and Asian students score at or above the 80th percentile on most norm referenced tests, while the scores of Black and Latino students are generally closer to the 30th percentile (Noguera 1995; Berkeley Alliance 1999). Similar patterns emerge when the composition of special and compensatory education programs are compared to the composition of gifted and talented and advanced placement courses: Black and Latino students overwhelmingly comprise enrollment in the former, while affluent White students populate the latter. Similarly, wide disparities are evident in the grades assigned to students, in attrition rates, and suspension and expulsion rates at all schools in the District (Diversity Project Report June 2000).

Given its long history of liberalism and its reputation for embracing progressive causes, one might expect that Berkeley citizens would have eventually become outraged at the persistence of such glaring disparities. Yet, a careful analysis of the political dynamics that have been shaped policy in Berkeley's schools, reveals that the community has been willing to tolerate a degree of racial inequality in student academic outcomes that any objective analysis would indicate is quite extreme. The most obvious example of this tolerance can be seen at Berkeley's continuation school that was recently re-named Berkeley Alternative High School. Serving approximately 160 students, most of whom have been sent there because of poor grades, poor attendance or poor behavior, the school is almost entirely comprised of African American students, with a smattering of Latinos, and even smaller number of Whites and Asians. Though the school was recently moved to a new facility, in almost every sense imaginable, this racially segregated school has been marginal to the District. In fact, the academic performance of students at the school has received so little attention that basic information such as graduation, drop out and college attendance rates, are not even maintained. ( 9 )

Yet, my own experience as a former school board member, parent and researcher in the Berkeley schools leads me to reject the idea that there is a conspiracy to deny Black and Latino student educational opportunities. To understand how these disparities are rationalized and thereby come to be tolerated and maintained it is necessary to understand how efforts to do something about them tend to become politicized. In the following section I will examine two elements of the structure and culture of the school: the practices used to assign and sort students into courses; and the informal practices that shape voluntary association in clubs and other extra- curricular activities. It is my contention that research on the organization of academic opportunity in schools can serve as a means to reveal the practices through which racial inequality is produced and maintained. Critical discussion of these practices must be the first step in the process of closing the achievement gap, for without such careful scrutiny, issues related to race and student achievement become obfuscated. As I will show, lack of clarity about the nature of the problem limits the possibility that action can be taken to improve academic outcomes for failing students.

Chart #1

1999 Report on Student Performance on Stanford 9

Black Asian Hispanic White
60th-90th NPR 18 47.7 24.9 81.2
1st-30th NPR 63.1 37.9 61.4 8.6
NPR - National percentile Ranking

Grade Point Averages for BUSD 8th Grade Stduents

Black Asian Hispanic White
ML King 2.14 3.34 2.64 3.42
Willard 1.74 3.03 2.33 2.98
Longfellow 1.46 2.26 1.64 2.44

  • Part 3: Making Steps Toward Educational Equity
  • Part 1: Introduction / The Minority Student Achievement Network

Published in In Motion Magazine September 28, 2001
Article # ER010930002

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