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by Hugh B. Price
Table of Contents
In May 2007, the U.S. Department of Education and the Census Bureau issued a study indicating that minority students have surged to 42 percent of public school enrollment nationally (Dillon, 2007). That's up from 22 percent just three decades ago and is primarily attributable to robust growth in the Latino population. A pressing challenge for U.S. schools—and for the nation as a whole—arises from the fact that these students, along with low-income youngsters, consistently lag behind academically.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is often referred to as the "nation's report card." Although some scholars argue that NAEP has flaws (see, for example, Loveless, 2006), it remains the only gauge of K–12 student achievement across states. The subject-specific exams, which sample student achievement instead of testing every student, posit three levels of academic competence:
In actuality, NAEP has an unofficial fourth level of achievement: "Below Basic." As the figure on page 9 shows, a dismayingly high proportion of U.S. youngsters have languished at the "Below Basic" performance level for many years.
The imperative of boosting youngsters from Below Basic to Basic and beyond transcends race and ethnicity. Even though the ratios of low-achieving youngsters are most pronounced among black, Latino, and American Indian students, white students far outnumber those from other ethnic groups, and, according to NAEP, during the 1990s they constituted 37.6 percent of all youngsters scoring in the lowest quintile compared with 32.8 percent of black students and 29.6 percent of Latino students (Flanagan & Grissmer, 2002).
Not surprisingly, the sizeable skills gap reflected by NAEP creates a preparation gap for low achievers. By "preparation gap," I mean the difference between what youngsters know and are able to do and what they need to know and be able to do to succeed in school, function effectively in postsecondary education, land a job with good pay and benefits, and go on to enjoy a middle-class lifestyle. According to Charles Kolb (2006), CEO of the Committee for Economic Development, in the United States only 20 percent of black students and 16 percent of Latino students graduate from high school adequately prepared for college.
Percent Scoring Below Basic
4th grade reading
8th grade reading
4th grade math
8th grade math
Eligible for free/reduced-price lunch
Source: National Center for Education Statistics, "2007 NAEP Results: Results by Demographic Group," retrieved September 2007 from http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/
The picture becomes grimmer still when we consider that large numbers of black and Latino high school students do not graduate at all. According to "Diplomas Count" (2006), a special supplement issued by Education Week, just half of black students and roughly 55 percent of Latino students graduate from high school, contrasted with more than three-quarters of non-Hispanic white and Asian students. Some scholars, like Lawrence Mishel (2006) of the Economic Policy Institute, contend that dropout rates this high are exaggerated; his analysis concludes that 73 percent of black students graduate on time. But whether the dropout rate for black students is Mishel's 27 percent, twice that, or somewhere in between, what cannot be disputed is that the dropout crisis is concentrated ethnically, socioeconomically, and geographically—and it's getting worse.
According to Robert Balfanz and Nettie Legters (2006) of Johns Hopkins University, nearly half of the nation's Latino and black students attend high schools with high poverty rates and low graduation rates. Roughly 15 percent of U.S. high schools produce close to half of the nation's dropouts. Balfanz and Legters brand these 2,000 dysfunctional high schools "dropout factories" (p. 42). They report that many of the students who attend these so-called dropout factories enter high school poorly prepared for academic success and rarely (or barely) make it out of the 9th grade. Typically these students stop focusing in class, attend infrequently, fail too many courses to be promoted to the 10th grade, try again with no better results, and ultimately drop out. Twenty to 40 percent repeat the 9th grade, but only 10 to 15 percent of "repeaters" go on to graduate.
It's interesting that in a series of focus groups conducted in 2005 with dropouts in Philadelphia and Baltimore, few of these youngsters cited academic struggles as their primary reason for dropping out. They were far more likely to say they left school because they were unmotivated, were not challenged enough, or were overwhelmed by troubles outside school (Gewertz, 2006).
The phenomenon of student disengagement is less documented and publicized than the dropout crisis but no less ominous. I refer here to youngsters who lose interest in school and virtually give up trying to learn, achieve, and acquire essential skills, even though they technically remain enrolled. Standing on the precipice of dropping out, these students face lengthening odds that they'll ever graduate and go on to postsecondary education.
In the view of Eddy Bayardelle, president of the Merrill Lynch Foundation and a former teacher and principal in the New York City school system, schools are filled with children who have simply tuned out. He contends that school systems do not know what to do with these students, traditional schools do not reach them, and the kids themselves do not particularly care about remaining unreached. As he told me, they simply aren't "into" the education that's being offered.
Achievement deficits shadow young people after high school. In Washington, D.C., for instance, a study commissioned by city and school officials reports that only nine percent of 9th graders in the public schools will complete college within five years of graduating from high school (Haynes, 1996). The report further asserts that 9 out of 10 freshmen in D.C. public schools could expect to be confined to low-paying jobs because they will never begin college or will fail to complete it.
As Tamar Lewin (2006) reports in the New York Times on a study by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, "The United States, long the world leader in higher education, has fallen behind other nations in its college enrollment and completion rates" (p. A23). Although the United States still ranks first in the proportion of 35- to 64-year-olds with college degrees, it has fallen to seventh place among developed nations in the proportion of 25- to 34-year-olds with college degrees (Lewin, 2006). According to one study, the share of the U.S. workforce with high school and college degrees may even decline slightly over the next 15 years, as highly educated baby boomers retire and are replaced by young Latino and black workers—who, if current patterns persist, are far less likely to earn high school and college degrees.
The bottom line is that low matriculation and graduation rates, fueled significantly by K–12 achievement and preparation gaps, threaten U.S. productivity and competitiveness. And because workers with fewer years of education earn so much less, living standards in the United States could plunge unless something is done to close these achievement gaps, especially among black, Latino, and low-income youngsters (Symonds, 2005).
No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the federal law enacted in 2001, mandated new testing, accountability, and transparency measures for U.S. public schools. This audacious legislation also decreed that by the end of the 2006 school year every core-subject classroom will be led by a "highly qualified teacher" and, furthermore, that by 2014 all students will be proficient in reading and mathematics. The first target has already been missed by a wide margin. Meeting the latter target is highly doubtful.
In addition to NCLB, a potpourri of other, mostly unsynchronized federal, state, and local initiatives has focused in recent years on a litany of school reforms: imposing tougher high school graduation standards, establishing high-stakes tests as prerequisites for advancing from grade to grade, ending social promotion, revising state school aid formulas, downsizing schools and reducing class sizes, creating career academies and other schools-within-schools, reforming curricula, expanding quality preschool programs, launching charter schools and other variations of autonomous schools, upgrading the caliber of teachers, and asserting mayoral control over school systems. What have these attempts at reform wrought when it comes to school effectiveness and student achievement?
On the upside, the campaign to improve public education has continued when it might easily have petered out. That persistence is a testament both to the resolve of successive waves of dedicated educators and determined reformers and to the collective realization among policymakers and employers that the stakes for our society and economy are too high to retreat short of significant progress. No Child Left Behind has provoked closer media scrutiny of school performance and has heightened parental awareness of how their children are faring. The law also sheds useful light on how well individual schools are serving various categories of students, especially chronic underachievers, and in this way, it has unquestionably ratcheted up the pressure on public schools to perform.
The verdict on education reform's effect on student performance is murkier, however. Although some public school systems are beginning to register credible and encouraging academic gains, these gains fall short of a grade of "satisfactory progress." As Lynn Olson (2006) writes in Education Week:
It would be hard to ignore the fact that progress has not come nearly far or fast enough. That's particularly true in reading, where average scores nationally have barely budged since 1992. It's also true that, despite the solid gains of poor, African-American, and Hispanic students during this period, the achievement gaps between those students and their more affluent and white peers remain disturbingly deep—at least 20 points in both grades and subjects (reading and math), or the equivalent of two grade levels or more. … After widening a bit during the mid-1990s, those gaps have begun to close again. But in many cases, the gaps now mirror what they were in the early '90s, and progress in closing them has been less dramatic since 2003. (pp. 9–10)
Current school reform measures will likely continue to support incremental progress, with only modest annual improvements. The reason for this is that the pressure to achieve is trained on teachers and on children, many of whom are already achievement inclined. It isn't clear that higher standards and accountability pressure are having a positive influence on the bulk of struggling students who continue to perform poorly in school year after year.
It's time to realize that when it comes to educating youngsters who struggle in school, educators cannot succeed on their own. In order to accelerate the pace of improvement in large populations of youngsters who chronically perform below par, we must augment the accountability and reform initiatives currently focused on school systems and schools with initiatives aimed at stoking a heightened desire for achievement on the part of these children, their families, and community groups. In short, what's missing from the school reform playbook is an emphasis on motivation: sustained and effective encouragement for these underachievers to succeed. And conspicuously missing from teams of reformers that must figure out how to do this is the community—the proverbial village, in its myriad organizational forms.
Much has been written about the vitally important role of parents and caring adults in encouraging their children to achieve. I've contributed to the literature on this topic with my 2002 book,
Achievement Matters: Getting Your Child the Best Education Possible. Anyone who has raised a child knows firsthand what a difference he or she can make in motivating a youngster. Inspiring examples abound of parents stepping up their efforts on this front. For example, the Washington Post carried a front-page story on a determined effort by 15 black families in Loudoun County, Virginia, to keep their teenaged sons academically engaged (Chandler, 2007). The boys belong to Club 2012, so named because the objective is to make certain they graduate from high school on schedule in 2012. The group holds monthly meetings, conducts homework sessions twice a week, and engages fathers and sons in ongoing conversation.
My family lives in an economically and ethnically diverse community in Westchester County, New York, where active (bordering on overbearing) parent involvement in the schools is the norm. This involvement clearly shows in the way children achieve and in how attentive the schools are to the needs of youngsters whose parents are actively engaged. The combination of students who want to achieve and parents who are intent on them achieving is potent, and it produces results.
As beneficial as parent involvement in school can be, the reality is that many parents do not become involved, and those who might be inclined to get involved may not know how to do so. Minority and low-income parents are often less involved in their children's education than families who are better off economically (Hill et al., 2004). While touring the United States in support of my book Achievement Matters, I spoke with many who were unsure why they needed to be involved anyway. "Why can't I just trust the teachers?" they asked me. To my mind, this question is a proxy for other, unexpressed sentiments. Some of these parents may not have the time, interest, or energy to get involved, and it's unclear whether they will be an insistent and consistent force in encouraging their children to achieve. Or, perhaps, having themselves had a negative experience in school, they lack the requisite confidence, knowledge, or skills to make their children's experience positive. As Yale University's James P. Comer (2004) observes,
Many of today's students at greatest risk for underachievement or school failure are growing up in families that did not experience three generations of acculturation and upward mobility. … Most often both parents, or the single parent, are in the workforce with low-paying jobs. The parents want their children to be successful in school and in life, but they themselves have not had the experience they need to help their children do so. (p. 89)
Moreover, parental involvement in school often declines during adolescence (Hill et al., 2004), the point at which older children are becoming more assertive and seeking greater autonomy from their families. As parental influence recedes, these youngsters turn to their peers and larger social structures around them. This is all the more reason why communities must get involved in promoting achievement.
Research and common sense substantiate the importance of active community involvement in children's education. (That's certainly consistent with my own experience, first as a pupil eons ago and subsequently as a parent.) Communities should motivate youngsters to take school seriously and strive to achieve, and should celebrate them when they do. This culture of achievement augments the efforts of engaged parents and helps fill the void created by parents who are not involved.
Let me explain more fully what I mean by that all-too-familiar term community. To me, and for the purposes of this book, community runs the gamut of volunteer civic and social groups; sororities and fraternities; block clubs; parent–teacher groups; churches and faith-based organizations; settlement houses; community centers; and youth-serving agencies like Boys and Girls Clubs, the YMCA, and the YWCA. It also encompasses civic-oriented groups like the Kiwanis and Lions, Head Start centers, advocacy groups, social service agencies, and other community-based organizations (CBOs) like the local Urban League. A common denominator in my definition of community organizations is that these are not government entities, even though some of them may receive public funding. Civic-minded entrepreneurs and business groups fit the bill as well. Some nonprofit groups that help make up the community are professionally staffed and provide services week in and week out. Others are essentially volunteer organizations whose members meet weekly or monthly.
Research tells us that expectations, mores, values, and norms set by communities can affect student motivation. As James Coleman (1988) of the University of Chicago writes, "When a norm exists and is effective, it constitutes a powerful, though sometimes fragile, form of social capital. … Norms in a community that support and provide effective rewards for high achievement in school greatly facilitate the school's task" (p. S104). Norms aren't the sole province of parents, Coleman argues. Based on his research, he concludes,
The social capital that has value for a young person's development does not reside solely within the family. It can be found outside as well in the community consisting of the social relationships that exist among parents, in the closure exhibited by this structure of relations, and in the parents' relations with the institutions of the community. (p. S113)
Coleman explains that in an examination of parochial schools, he found that community norms played a discernible role in the way students behaved in school: "The low dropout rates of the Catholic schools, the low dropout rates in the other private schools, and the independent effect of frequency of religious attendance all provide evidence of the importance of social capital outside the school, in the adult community surrounding it, for this outcome of education" (p. S115).
Children do indeed pay attention to values and norms transmitted by others. Researchers generally agree that children develop a self-concept primarily through their interpretations of the reflected appraisals of others (Aronson, 2002). Because young children aren't yet adept at self-appraisal, they tend to rely on others' opinions to create their own judgments of confidence and self-worth. And because youngsters validate their identity through the evaluations of significant others, family members, teachers, and even trusted members of the community influence the development of a positive self-image. Absent these social structures, children seek validation elsewhere, too often with disastrous results. I am reminded of this statement from a Chicago gang leader, quoted by Kunjufu (1988): "We will always have the youth, because we make them feel important" (p. 86).
Community norms have traditionally played a particularly central role in the lives of black Americans. Comer (2004) observes that
The church and community-based culture of African-Americans, while still marginal to the mainstream, served important protective and promotive functions. It provided many with a sense of adequacy and belonging. … The church- and community-based culture provided belief and behavior systems that made desirable social and family functioning and achievement possible. (p. 87)
Comer (2004) focuses on the ways this scenario has played out in black history, noting that in the 1960s, before many families were prepared to benefit from new opportunities, high mobility and mass communication began to cause a breakdown in community and family life across the racial, ethnic, and income spectra. Prior to the weakening of protective and promotive cultural structures among blacks, many families used these structures to create beliefs and values, and to gain direction in their own lives. Comer argues that the once-powerful positive effects of well-functioning and church-based cultures have been diminished by the breakdown in community and the powerful effects of mainstream media entertainment that glorifies often harmful habits and styles that are distinctly not mainstream. Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Children's Zone, puts it bluntly: "The real values that have been the bedrock of the African-American community get drowned out by a variety of forces" (Poindexter, 2001, p. 6). Canada goes on to say that educators, parents, and community activists "need to set up a counter-culture that pushes the values we are about—hard work, academic achievement, sobriety, honesty" (p. 6).
It's up to the community to set these values and to do so in ways that are synchronized with and supportive of what is happening in the classroom. In his research, Ogbu (1992) affirms the constructive role of community in encouraging achievement among academically successful minority groups. "The community," he observes, ". . . appears to use both tangible and symbolic means to encourage school striving" (p. 11). He also notes that
The meaning and value students associate with school learning and achievement play a very significant role in determining their efforts toward learning and performance. Furthermore, the meaning and value that students from different cultural groups associate with the process of formal education vary and are socially transmitted by their ethnic communities. (p. 7)
Ogbu recommends several ways that minority communities can encourage academic striving and success among their children, including providing youngsters with "concrete evidence that its members appreciate and value academic success as much as they appreciate and value achievements in sports, athletics and entertainment" (1992, p. 12). In this way, communities can reassert the vitally important normative and proselytizing role that Comer argues they once played in steering young people along the path of education toward the American mainstream.
If communities are aggressively mobilized and their energies are productively focused, they can transmit pro-achievement values to counteract student negativity toward and disengagement with school.
From my daughter's and my own experiences as volunteer mentors, I can attest that something as simple as community mentoring can turn underachievers on to school. That's why after-school programs—whether run by schools, churches, or community-based organizations—are vitally important. However, the sheer scale of the underachievement phenomenon far exceeds the scope and capacity of these mentoring programs. There isn't remotely enough money in the public or philanthropic sectors to set up one-on-one mentoring for all the children who need it. And so there is a pressing need for large-scale strategies to transform the attitudes and aspirations of these youngsters toward school and to spur families and CBOs to spread the gospel of achievement—a message that's far too important to be vulnerable to the vicissitudes of external funding.
For all their potential as valuable players in the school reform arena, communities remain a largely underappreciated and untapped resource. Perhaps this is because mobilizing them isn't a sure or easy thing. The question that school superintendents and other educators would profit from addressing—and answering—is how best to galvanize and deploy volunteer energy in ways that are constructive and productive. When community groups want to pitch in, what strategies will best capitalize on their assets so that their involvement produces better outcomes for schoolchildren as opposed to busy-work, distractions, and tension for school personnel? What can educators do to first galvanize and then direct community energy in ways that complement what is going on in the classroom?
I realize that some educators are wary when it comes to reaching out to noneducators, much less collaborating with them. Even administrators and teachers who are willing to take this step may not know how to enlist the help of community groups and sustain harmonious partnerships. However, the sheer stubbornness and pervasiveness of the underachievement phenomenon dictate that educators and community groups venture beyond their respective comfort zones and forge new collaborations based on their shared stake in boosting student achievement.
Educators can learn from the ways that the National Urban League and its affiliates went about mobilizing their communities to help students succeed. Educators can apply some of the tactics that the Urban League used to reach out to other community organizations and craft plans to boost student motivation, celebrate student achievement, and promote academic success. These examples may also inspire educators to come up with other mobilization ideas that are even better suited to the unique circumstances of their communities.
My main message is this: While our Achievement Campaign didn't always meet my stratospheric expectations, it never backfired on us. Done hastily and clumsily, community mobilization can sputter and disappoint. Done well, the potential benefits for children and their schools are considerable.
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