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Study Finds Racial Education Gap Growing (Part 1 of 2)

  • R. L'heureux Lewis

    Image 1 of 2

    Photo: Jason Pear

    City University of New York Professor R. L'Heureux Lewis studies the education gap in America.

  • Image 2 of 2


    Students at Public School 145 in New York City are among the those shown to be behind the educational curve in a recent study from Indiana University's Center for Evaluation and Education Policy.

It’s been almost 10 years since lawmakers passed the federal No Child Left Behind Act, but experts say test results show the law has failed to close the education gap.

“A lot of the nation’s focus on public policy and education, at every single level really at the  school level to the federal government has really been about closing achievement gaps. And that’s certainly laudable, those gaps are way too big,” said Jonathan Plucker, director of Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy, or CEEP.

“It’s inexcusable in this country,” he says. “We don’t think that shrinking those minimum competency gaps is really going to change the country. It’s going to make some kids’ lives better, but it’s not going to radically transform everything that we do.”

“Currently, 50 percent of black boys who begin high school in the inner-city don’t finish with their classmates,” said Dr. R. L’Heureux Lewis, a professor at the City University of New York who studies education gaps.  “We know among Latino populations also that the completion rate is significantly lower.  It’s about 30 percent (who) drop out and it’s even higher drop out percentage for those who are immigrating to the United States.

The most recent study from CEEP  shows a seven percent gap in reading between minority and non-minority fourth graders.  The report indicates achievement gaps among even so-called “high ability” students from economic, racial and linguistic backgrounds in the U.S. are large and still growing.

“0.1% of black students in 1996 in grade four scored ‘advanced’ in mathematics,” Plucker says.  “It has increased 700 percent.  It’s now 0.8%.  That still basically rounds down to zero.  We have made so little progress.  Hispanic students, I think were 0.2% in 1996 and they’re a little bit higher.  They may be 1.1% or 1.2%.  I’m sorry, I just don’t see that as progress.”

Lewis says the achievement gap has been closing for more than 30 years, but currently there is a slower pace than in past years, because school systems have relied on the means of the past to try to get ahead, and he says that’s not working.

“Reality is that we have been closing the achievement gap, starting in the 70s, 80s and 90s, but we also have seen some slowing down,” he says. “We need to innovate.  There was a movement in the 1970s, which emphasized a lot of resources towards poor families and disadvantaged families that I think has to come back if we want to close the achievement gap. If all tides are to rise, we have to concentrate on those who are at the bottom of the barrel right now.”

Plucker estimates it could take as long as a century for the gaps to disappear. But he says two decades ago, having open conversations about bias in education was essentially unheard of – meaning even talking about the problems signals an improvement.

“We have huge poverty problems in this country, especially in our urban areas,” he says.  “What we found over the past decade, roughly, is that if you focus on really trying to help poor kids in not very good schools, they can achieve just like every other kid can. So sort of the social classes that you’re born into are not destiny.”

“We know our schools are segregated and that there’s unequal performance between students it is going to continue to be a significant issue,” Lewis says.  “[W.E.B.] Dubois in 1903 said the problem in the 20th Century is the problem of the color line, it’s the problem of the 21st Century we have to be able to sit down and look candidly at race and recognize that we are different , we come from different backgrounds, but there’s common ground to move forward and when people are ready to have candid and real conversations about race that involve accountability and agree to say I will change and I will push people to be better then we’ll see some serious movement. ”

In the second part of this story, there is a discussion of the correlation between urban schools and solutions for closing education gaps, as well as an introduction to an Indiana University alumnus and a program bearing his name that serves students as far away as New York City.

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