Book shares African-American, Hispanic students’ views on the achievement gap
Steve Garlington of the COD Regional Office of Education talks with area Black and Hispanic high school students during the first annual "Black and Tan Student Summit" focusing on college readiness, academic achievement and personal development in 2008.| Sun-Times Media File
Updated: September 3, 2012 6:14AM
WHEATON — Stephen Garlington sees it as a matter of cultural competence.
The educational consultant and social worker partnered recently with fellow scholar Lourdes Ferrer to take a fresh look at the chronic differences in academic performance between African-American and Hispanic students and their classroom contemporaries.
Dubbed the “academic achievement gap,” the phenomenon is targeted in a new book published by the DuPage County Regional Office of Education, that culminated five years of study in which the region’s unique socioeconomic environment repeatedly came to the fore.
“Students who come into DuPage County many times are in cultural shock,” Garlington said in an appearance before the County Board.
Measured through the standardized tests required under the provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act, the achievement levels are determined by scores on state assessments such as the Illinois Standard Achievement Test and the Prairie State Achievement Examination.
“The problem with that is, especially in 11th grade, with the PSAE, students have one more grade to complete, and then they get their diploma,” Garlington said in a phone interview. “If you’re not proficient in science and language and math, what kind of future do you have?”
Changing the game
As the county’s population grows increasingly diverse, education officials want to know more about why the two groups of learners are consistently outperformed. So they went straight to the source, hiring Garlington and Ferrer to ask black and Hispanic teens themselves.
“We asked them a basic question: ‘Why do Caucasian and Asian-American students do better than you?’” said regional Superintendent Darlene Ruscitti.
Among the recurring themes in the responses they heard, many African-American and Hispanic students reported negative attitudes about standardized tests, and said they place low value on high-quality education and — along with their parents, teachers and administrators — have low expectations for their academic achievement.
They also displayed a sense of being outsiders.
“According to these students, it is very difficult to excel in a school environment in which they do not feel included or welcomed,” the researchers wrote.
The authors devised 27 recommendations, including placement of greater value on education, beginning in kindergarten. They also advise educators to realize students from the two minorities sometimes have to “code switch,” or shift their style of speaking when they move from school to the cultural context of homes and neighborhoods. In addition, school teachers need to bear in mind that there may be racial and ethnic tensions at work in the classroom, cafeteria and hallways.
The report also calls for greater diversity among school faculty and staff.
“I think one of the biggest issues for schools to look at is inclusion,” Garlington said. “If you walk through school and you don’t see teachers and counselors and administrators who are of the same ethnicity ... it kind of rings hollow.”
In their words
The book doesn’t analyze data or examine testing instruments, which long have been criticized as unfair to minority students.
“This is 100 percent what the students believe is why they don’t achieve the same academic success as their peers,” Ferrer said. The two groups studied are distinct, the researchers emphasized. For both, however, attitudes and perceptions play key roles.
Neither group of respondents named racial discrimination as a primary barrier to their success. Instead, the authors found long-entrenched cultural elements are often at play.
“Things that were a higher priority, for the African-American kids, was that there seemed to be a disconnect between home and what they’re learning at school,” said Garlington, who is black.
Expectations in the two settings are notably different.
“I think it has to do with the primary form of socialization, which is the family,” he said. “Families need to recognize that, here in America especially, education is the key to a good future.”
It’s not always a message that resonates for teens. High-achieving African-American and Hispanic kids are often derided by their peers who aren’t performing at the same level and accuse them of “acting white” or “acting guero,” Garlington said.
“It’s almost like there’s a price to pay for academic rigor,” he said.
Old perspectives die hard, the consultants found. Ferrer was surprised at the satisfaction expressed by newly arrived Hispanic teens.
“Many of them just feel successful,” she said. “Being in America is a blessing, and learning English is a blessing. And then graduating from high school is a third blessing. Three blessings.”
Garlington also found many of the students aim lower than their peers do, once commencement has come and gone.
“When they cross the stage, everybody applauds,” he said.
In some cases the only members of the household who speak English fluently, Hispanic teens often shift a segment of their focus and energy from school to work, feeling obliged to help support their families, the authors said.
“When they work, many times it’s not to buy a new pair of sneakers,” Ferrer said. “It’s to pay the electric bill.”
Immigration issues can further hinder the will to excel, when students or their parents lack papers proving their legal status. Puerto Rican by birth, Ferrer said she and her three children didn’t have that challenge when they arrived on the U.S. mainland in 1990. Teens from Mexico and Central America have told her a much different story, relating how it has limited their capacity for hope.
“I heard not one or two or three, but hundreds of students telling of how they crossed the border,” she said. “Some of them were born here, but their parents are undocumented — so they live in the shadows.”
Compounding the struggle is that many Hispanic parents are unfamiliar with the American educational system.
“Not only that they don’t know, they don’t know how to know,” said Ferrer, noting that parental involvement is a feature of the American education system not found in most other countries.
Garlington said the past has a hand in the achievement gap for black students as well.
“We have to begin to understand that the school is not our enemy, that to become acculturated is not to become assimilated,” he said, adding that being smart and punctual and speaking standard English doesn’t translate to being white. “Standard English is what’s used, whether you like it or not. At times I think there’s such anger and resentment about past injustices ... that we aren’t able to move forward.”
Systemic change, the researchers say, is what will begin that forward momentum.
“The only way that we can get more minorities to achieve is to get them to change the way they think about themselves,” Ferrer said.
According to Garlington, that needs to start now.
“It’s a moral imperative at this point,” he said. “We need to do more than talk about it, it’s time to do something about it.”