AtlanticDivide: On the Achievement Gap

This is a new AtlanticRock series where two friends (one an African in America and the other an African-American) discuss current issues from their respective point of views. what’s this?

Ondeck: Educational Achievement Gap

Achievement Gap

The Root Cause of America’s Ethnic Education Gap
::Gerald A. Montgomery

It should surprise no one the “laborer-making machine” (the LMM) of American society, which includes the public education system, continues to do its job effectively. If this were not the case our schools would either have a “pass-fail” grading system or, because of very high standards, a “D” grade average would produce a student acamedically fit for any state university; making grades A through C marks for the more elite student. Otherwise, what is “D” a passing grade for, if not for college? Passing to what?

Identifying a singular root cause, as root causes go, to explain the education gap between whites and so-called minorities, felt a near impossible task. I didn’t want to do this discussion a disservice by being too general (as in my opening remarks) or ambiguous. I also wanted to avoid making the mistake of pointing to symptoms not specific to any ethnic group, like child hunger, which has to do with the individual (i.e. malnutrition effects all ethnicities). So I needed to shift my thinking from a single root cause (because I do not believe it is singular) towards the primary commonality among black students making up the greatest percentage of low academic achievement.

The common denominator is a disconnect between “success via academics” and “blackness”; that is to say, the missing tangent between academics and the American Dream for so-called people of color. (By contrast the connection between success via athletics and black people is unmistakable.) Every ghetto youth assumes successful white men graduated from somebody’s university. But chances are they may also know blacks with “a few college credits” or an Associate’s degree from the neighborhood community college who works retail. Learning early on that success via academics, regardless how well you prepare, still requires opportunity; opportunity traditionally denied to the American African.

(Coincidentally, there is a historical precedence for black college graduates going into teaching or religious ministry because corporations would only hire them as janitors or clerks. Leaving the next generation disenchanted towards college. Not that today’s youth are necessarily aware of this fact, but this practice has managed to somehow indirectly affect the current condition of his or her family. It certainly helps shed light on the fact there are very few to no college graduates in his ancestry.)

The source of this disconnect is systemic white supremacy (i.e. the LMM); the images of those in power, of beauty, of fidelity, of those in authority, racial disparities in the judicial system and inferior reflections of blackness in media (e.g. impoverished Africa or the Hollywood “gangsta”). Its mission: create hopelessness! I have stated in the past that I believe the “social human being” is made up of four basic elements; Ancestry (Earth), Nutrition (Water), Esteem (Fire) and Education (Air/Wind). The LMM targets these four elements. If a child has little to no family structure, poor nutrition, and suffers from low self-esteem the education he or she is exposed to may as well be science-fiction – written in Latin.

The “connection” (which is essentially indirect mentorship) doesn’t necessarily have to be through individuals within the student’s family. However it must be someone he or she is associated with for it to be real to him or her. And this is why I believe the most common symptom for all youth in academic turmoil is the absence of a social organization, like a church, which fosters routine interaction with well-to-do people who look like they do. To be exposed to role models who look like they do inspires hope.

It’s the student, stupid

Admittedly, we didn’t have any achievement gap in Koindu, Sierra Leone, where I went to school. Because the only other race we had at both my primary and secondary schools was couple of Lebanese siblings. As in any place of learning, there were “good” students and “bad” students. Good students stayed up late flanked around a candle light studying for the upcoming exams. Bad students went to movies and dancehalls on the night before exams; or were too tired from collecting firewood to sell so they could have something to eat the next day.

I believe the same can be said of American students. As in Koindu, here too there are “bad” students and “good” students. Good students study until they get it, they seek help when they need it, and their parent give them all the support they need to succeed. Bad students put everything ahead of school, don’t pay enough attention to know when they need help; back at home they have no time or space to entertain A.B. or 1.2.3. School is uncool, and they are too cool to be bothered.

More than anything, in my opinion this distinction is the underlining reason behind the achievement gap. Unfortunately this is manifesting itself along racial lines.

As a teaching artist for the past 7 years, I know firsthand the difference between good and bad students. As soon as the bell rings, good students are at their seats, ready and patiently waiting for the teacher to speak; when the teacher speaks they take notes, or listen diligently. Bad students are in the hallways, in the classroom visiting with their friends, or have their heads on the desk sleeping. The teacher spends half of his/her time and energy just to get bad students to stop talking long enough to listen to the lesson. Good students do their homework and return to class ready. Bad students forget they were given homework to begin with. In fact they “forget” everything in their locker and come to class empty handed.

But the gap between good students and bad students goes beyond the classroom. When good students go home, their parents and guardians manage their days to include mind stimulating activities. Because face it, most kids think studying is fun like getting their teeth pulled– if they are not encouraged to the point of being forced, they will not take a book over teevee; give them a computer, they quickly click to Youtube and Facebook. Imagine therefore what happens when there are no parents at home, or one that does not care or know the answer to 18 divided by 4. That kid has to be a genius to be an average student.

How does race play into this? I hate to say it, but unfortunately many of the “bad” students I have encountered in classrooms are Black kids, mostly African-American students. For some reason, our students haven’t quite realized the point, let alone the value of education. I don’t think half of them even know the reason they go to school; to them school is just some holding place (like daycare) while their parents go to work. For the few misguided ones that think ahead far enough to suspect college may not be in their future, they use this as yet another excuse to not pay high school any mind. Just as well. College has been overly emphasized at the expense of education. We need to get our kids to understand you don’t go to school to go to college. Many of our greater minds didn’t go to college. Frederick Douglas didn’t go to college. What they had was a thirst for knowledge. Many kids today don’t have a thirst for anything worth thirsting for.

Back in Koindu, we didn’t have college in mind; all we wanted was be able to write and read letters for our parents, help count the little money they got from selling knickknacks under the African sun. Many of our high school students today don’t know the first thing about writing a half decent letter; cannot tell you 50% profit on a $5 merchandise. Not because this lesson is absent from the school curriculum, rather because they don’t care to remember. The euphemism of “in one ear and out the other” is unfortunately a vivid reality in classrooms all over this country, especially in school located in urban areas mostly inhabited by Blacks and other minorities.

What we also had at our schools was respect for our teachers. This didn’t have to be earned; it was given. Beyond that we also feared our teachers, because our teachers walked around with canes and whip they were not afraid to use. When they did they didn’t fear backlash from parents. I’m not advocating abusive behaviors from teachers against students, but something has to be done to instill respect in the minds of students toward their teachers. And if fear is what it takes, so be it. Teachers need authority in their classroom if they are going to stand a chance of imparting something to their pupils. Or maybe this is just the way I was taught. It was not easy, but I think it worked. And that’s all we need right now, something that works. Because the current system is broken and badly in need of repair.


  • Ibé,

    Your argument certainly explains the achievement gap between “like” students (or exact apples for exact apples), as in “all else being equal…”. Comparing two poor black boys from the same family size and make up, your argument explains the difference in academic performance to a “T”. The same for two well-to0do black girls or two rich white boys; when matched up as close as possible.
    However, it doesn’t account for the disparities in the numbers among the different economic classes or ethnic groups. So, when you compare multiple rich white students from very small families to as many dirt poor white students from large families, the achieve gap wouldn’t be caused by something as simple as individual application.
    When you compare white students of all economic classes and living conditions to the full array of black students, and still see the same gap when you begin to match the white students to the black students more closely (i.e. well-to-do white to well-to-do black, poor to poor, etc) then you have to go beyond individual student effort. True, parent involvement also makes an impact, but at the end of the day we could consider their involvement an aspect of individual application.
    I will admit that even though the statistics are drawn across “racial” lines, this issue isn’t about the color of one’s skin. But then again, being black in American isn’t as much a description of one’s skin tone as it is a political classification of one’s degree of citizenship. In other words, because blacks are targeted as the permanent working class, and because conditions exist (admittedly put in motion a dozen generations ago) to facilitate this process, the achievement gap, after all the individual reasons have been added up and accounted for, manifests in favor of the white student.

    Even in your opening statement: “Good students stayed up late flanked around a candle light studying for the upcoming exams. Bad students went to movies and dancehalls on the night before exams; or were too tired from collecting firewood to sell so they could have something to eat the next day.” There is a distinction between a children from families who are, if not well off, better off (i.e. about the focus on their studies) and children from less fortunate families (i.e. too tired from working for money with which to buy food).

    “For some reason, our students haven’t quite realized the point, let alone the value of education.”
    Agreed! This is what I mean by the disconnect between “success via academics” and “blackness”; that is to say, the missing tangent between academics and the American Dream for so-called people of color. Your “for some reason” is what I took a step further, explaining where I believe the disconnect comes from; which I say is ultimately the “Laborer-Making Machine” (a nuance of white supremacy).

    I certainly agree with your point about the moral decay and lost respect for teachers/elders as a contributing factor across the board, but more some for our black children who receive no second -chance sympathy from the system, an d pay the biggest and more permanent strikes against their young public records for their folly.

    I certainly agree with your point about the moral decay and lost respect for teachers/elders as a contributing factor across the board. But more so for [our] black children; who, for their folly, receive no second-chance sympathy from the system, and tend to accrue the more severe and permanent strikes against their [young] public records.

    Comment | 12/01/2010
  • America was and still is to a certain extend, racist. You have to be deaf blind and dumb to deny this. But what this also is, is not new. People of color have long been fighting in this country. Today is not much different. I don’t discount this. But to jug it all to this fact is (if I must say so) lazy. The fact is some students, in the same situation as the lowest achieving student in his/her class, still manage to excel. Some students, in the same situation as the highest achieving student in his/her class, still fail and fail miserably. Why is that? I don’t think it has much to do with race. There is no physics stopping Black kids from achieving. Not these days. Every school, no matter how bad, has books, some computers, few good teachers, and when it comes to time, at least the time spent at school if used correctly is all any student truly needs to learn all they need to learn. There are no racist bat brandishing white men at the door to schools, no barking dogs, no cops in hood, no fire hoses, no forcing all the black kids in the same poor excuse for a school. Not anymore. I believe this is all any student really need to achieve. The rest is good, nice icing on the cake, they make it easy; but the above are the only requirements.

    So how come our kids are not excelling, in fact failing miserably? Because they have given up. Plain and simple. And we are not doing them any favors by spending our energy on historical reasons for their lack of motivation.

    I’m not going to seat here and blame it all on the individual student. Of course, we as a society are partly to blame. I think the current educational funding structure need revision. To make schools so dependent on the affluence of the district perpetrates the same circle. Having two parents, educated parents, make it easier for a student to succeed. Great teachers make a difference, uncles make a difference, aunties too, cousins and older siblings make a difference. But ultimately the student’s got to be willing to bleed through the struggle. That’s how we got here. It’s the same spirit we need to keep forging ahead. I certainly hope our kids get the wake up call, and get it soon. The world is moving too fast, and they are snailing far behind.

    PS: Gerald, I knew you were going to jump on my comment about the kids that had to fend for the next day and therefore too tired to study. It happens. It’s hard, but even some of them still come out on top. If two kids from that same situation, one comes out on top and the other comes out at the bottom, is their situation to blame still? Perhaps, but I think there is more to say about the individual student.

    Comment | 12/01/2010
  • Not to appear to go off subject (and i promise this will be my last rebuttal) but I’d like to clarify and defend my position on racism in American. I will do so by pasting an excerpt from chapter entitled “the Schism: Defined” for a project I’m working on.

    What I have come to learn the African loathes most about the African-American is that in spite all the strides (integration, Civil and Voting Rights Act, Affirmative Action, and the election of a black U.S. President) the African-American still exists in an oppressive state; generally speaking. Sloth is not only one of seven deadly sins it’s a source of resentment. From the African’s perspective, he too has suffered; was colonized, violated, and experienced civil war (which the African-American has not endured), yet works to better himself in America; generally speaking.

    Some [Africans] will even tell you that, by extension, they have also suffered the mid-Atlantic Slave Trade because when “we” first got on those ships, we did so as Africans, not as Negroes. Which means, at that time, “they” were “us”. They became Negroes to sever the connection to the continent (and by extension something much more important); a connection we are, to this day, trying to rebuild. That the lost of strong men weakened their villages. (This reminds of a joke a Liberian told me. He said the reason he still has an accent, and we don’t, is because the plane he came over on was much quicker than the slave boats; losing our accent on the way.)

    Today the African, he would argue, has responded appropriately to the opportunities afforded him in America; despite the history of suffering and current condition of his homeland. Thus, the African asks himself, and us, why hasn’t the African-American done so? Why does an African-American cite slavery as the root cause of his “individual” dilemma, while other African-Americans appear to thrive in spite of it? Why does he just sit around habitually moaning about “the white man” not allowing him to do this or that?

    You might argue America’s stint of slavery was the more heinous in human history and I would not only agree, but inform you that I’ve come up with a hypothesis why this is so (a rhapsody entitled Cities in the Clouds in my book, MEMS, Rips of Rhapsody). But no African-American the African speaks to today was a slave, so why still bring up slavery? And he is correct; there are no freed-slaves alive today [in 2010]. However, he’s convinced continental Africans have also suffered greatly, then and now (which they have and do), yet are able to capitalize on the opportunities in this country. So why not the African-American as a group?

    Here’s primarily why. The African, while suffering colonialism, did so as a man; as a human being. The African, while having his bloodshed by his own brother, shed blood as a human being. Therefore when giving the opportunity a man, a human being, can, with the proper guidance, lift himself up out of despair and return to the ranks of other civilized men. Because he has never believed himself to be anything less than a man, than a human being, he cannot fathom why any oppressed man, after being liberated from his master, is unable to begin mastering his own destiny.

    Here in lies the flaw of his reasoning. The African-American suffered slavery not as a man, but as a beast; a sub-human thing. So when you remove the source of oppression and lay at his feet the tools of success he is still a beast of burden; broken and without humanity. The oppressor may have stopped doing oppressive things to him but he has not restored to him that which has been taken away; his humanity. American society is guilty of using its disciplines of science and medicine to transform the African slave into the American Negro; a creature without language, land, or legend.

    If a woman with no physical scares or blemishes believes that her lips, her nose, her skin tone, and body type made her the most disgusting creature alive, the praises and compliments of 100 men could not convince her otherwise. Such is the dilemma of the African-American. Before he can be expected to realize his potential he must first be led out of the darkness of ignorance into the light of truth then allowed time to acclimate. This is what the continental African in America needs to understand. Not how badly we suffered, but that we were not permitted to suffer as men! That we are still broken!

    Comment | 12/01/2010
  • Gerald, I think we are getting off design here. But I guess that’s alright; this is our first.
    With that said, I really like the point you make. (And you make it so eloquently!) But it’s hard for me to accept it. No matter how you break a man, you can’t reduce him to a beast. If that was the case, slaves would never thirst for freedom. The fact that they did, and died in its pursuit is evidence of their humanity.

    Comment | 12/01/2010
  • My dear friend,

    “Individuals” thirsted for freedom to the point of risking life and limb to achieve it, NOT the “group”; not the whole. If so, American Slavery would have been short and very bloody (revolt).

    At the individual level there will ALWAYS be exceptions. (One would make a general arument and it would be immediately dismissed due to a single individual for which conditions of the arguement does not apply.) At the individual level we can only talk about death; because death is the only thing we all absolutely must do. (There was a time when I would have said death, gender, and skin tone where all absolutes, but modern science have shortened this list.)

    If we argued only on behalf of the individual, most arguments wouldn’t hold water, because it only takes one individual to discount the argument. But if we are speaking about the group, the majority, the greater of the whole, then we must look at the group. There were no fences or cages, yet the larger percentage of slaves did not try to escape; because they were slaves in their minds and in their souls; completely broken. Similar to the “power” a pimp has over a prostitute.

    Those [individuals] whose minds were not enslaved were the few to make attempts at freedom, at any cost. And they were typically from the next generation; the children of the broken who were not “conditioned” yet. This point is important to my initial argument (thus detouring to it is necessary) because without this point blacks students will be seen as a group of “individuals”, each contributing to their own demise individually; which means there would be no need for society to feel obligated to fix the problem. The problem in this case, then, would be the individual and not the system. I argue that the current system facilitates the disparities in the achievement gap; a fixable problem. I believe the achievement gap to be a systemic problem, and you cannot (or at least should not) blame the individual individually for a systemic problem.

    Comment | 12/02/2010
  • Ibé,

    Awesome first go around, for such an emotional-charged topic! This will be a classic! You must preserve this! After a few more key topics have been debated as thoroughly as this, we need to serious talk about getting them published collectively! (Hope I’d not dreaming too big here, but I see “the Negro Problem: a New Generation” in the making!) This goes without saying but I acknowledge the validity of your argument and see the benefits of applying it in my parenting.

    Comment | 12/02/2010
  • ben je

    How come only the two of you are having a go. LOL. Anyway i am tempted to side with Gerald more. One day i was watching a programme on MTV via cable TV and was shocked to hear an African American boy saying he dropped out of school to be free. I asked myself, what is bonding about going to school. Funny enough, i hated school when i was growing up but i knew deep down in my heart it was the only way to a better life. There must be something systematically wrong if a group of people keep producing poor students. The fact that the educational system cannot make special provisions for them to come up is failure in itself. I am not talking about affirmative action which i believe encourages that system, but a system which will allow more resources be spent in improving the quality of education for black people. That’s what any rational society will do, pay more attention to those who are being left behind.

    Secondly you cannot separate the other socio-economic and political factors from education. If black people are the poorest in America, then obviously they would produce the poorest students on the average.

    An ibe even in Africa, there are some tribes that are known for producing educated citizens than others. In Ghana for instance, the Ewe tribe is known for ‘loving’ education than other tribes like the Asantes, who traditionally tend to venture into trade and business. If you trace some of the histories involved, they go back to colonialism where systems where put in place to promote some tribes over others, i can give you countless examples.

    Comment | 01/10/2011
  • Greats remarks, Ben Je! And I’m not just saying that because your position is in line with mine :) . You have produced very credible examples/observations for why we see this is as a systemic matter. I especially liked…

    “Secondly you cannot separate the other socio-economic and political factors from education. If black people are the poorest in America, then obviously they would produce the poorest students on the average.”

    This remarks sums it up and a nutshell! Thanks again for commenting.

    Comment | 03/30/2011
  • If the plot to “mis-educate” African-Americans no longer stem from political motives here is an account it clearly did at one time:

    **Some time ago when Congressman Oscar De Priest was distributing by thousands copies of the Constitution of the United States certain wiseacres were disposed to make fun of it. What purpose would such an act serve? These critics, however, probably did not know that thousands and thousands of Negro children in this country are not permitted to use school books in which are printed the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution of the United States. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison are mentioned in their history as figures in politics rather than as expounders of liberty and freedom. These youths are not permitted to learn that Jefferson believed that government should derive its power from the consent of the governed.

    Not long ago a measure was introduced in a certain State Legislature to have the Constitution of the United States thus printed in school histories, but when the bill was about to pass it was killed by someone who made the point that it would never do to have Negroes study the Constitution of the United States. If the Negroes were granted the opportunity to peruse this document, they might learn to contend for the rights therein guaranteed; and no Negro teacher who gives attention to such matters of the government is tolerated in those backward districts. The teaching of government or the lack of such instruction, then, must be made to conform to the policy of “keeping the Negro in his place.”
    — Carter Goodwin Woodson, Mis-Education of the Negro**

    My contention is, just as it took a century after the Declaration of Independence for the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to abolish slavery, we haven’t had a full century to work the effects of the above policy “out of our system.”

    Comment | 08/24/2011

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