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Systems, biases and the Black-white achievement gap

A Black teacher works with students of many races in a Montessori classroom filled with natural light, bright colors and hands-on activities.
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VPM News Focal Point
Learning environments, economic factors and societal support systems influence educational outcomes

Those with lived experience, and experts, share how American systems of education, economic factors and more often contribute to the Black-white achievement gap. 


ANGIE MILES: LaShawn Payton is an educator.

LaSHAWN PAYTON: And what does this vowel say? Its name. That's right.

ANGIE MILES: Who remembers what it was like to be a student.

LaSHAWN PAYTON: I did not like it. The teachers were not really kind, they were not really nice. And the learning to me was just so rigid. And so, it was just, it didn't welcome me into the work. It was boring to me. "Sit at the table, do what I say move when I tell you to move." I felt like you know, almost like it was prison.

ANGIE MILES: She says she cried at the start of first grade and got sent to a coat closet. Payton is now head of the Montessori school she founded in Northern Virginia. Here, she strives to make instruction responsive to the students' interests and needs. She says her own start in school was the opposite of that. As an adult, she's had to shrug off the weight of others' low expectations. Based in part she says on her ethnic sounding name.

LaSHAWN PAYTON: Seeing my name on the resume, it probably got skipped to the bottom. Plenty of times, I got overlooked in positions where I was overqualified for a position where they gave it to somebody else. So, many times just through my name, I've been overlooked. Or people just judge me based upon my name.

ANGIE MILES: And she says that name bias began when she sat in classrooms taught by white teachers. Corey Harris and Cedric Jennings are educators, both teaching at the college level and both Ph.D. candidates. Harris recalls being the lone Black child in his suburban classroom when his teacher, without assessing him, planned to label him in need of remedial help.

COREY HARRIS: That was very upsetting to my mother, because at that point, I could already read and write. I ended up helping, you know, to read to the class, ended up reading to the class, which was, yeah, it really showed me a lot about at an early age about the implicit biases within teachers.

ANGIE MILES: Harris was later identified as gifted, but has misgivings still about bias against Black, brown and low-income students within a system that he says is not designed to help them achieve.

COREY HARRIS: The effect of the history in this country where Black people have been racialized and we have been continually shown or depicted, I should say, as those who are behind or in need of some sort of help. You know, and even when that's the case, it's often assumed that the reason we're behind is because of some innate quality.

ANGIE MILES: Jennings, whose early life is chronicled in a Pulitzer Prize-winning book, says the burden of low expectations came when he left his impoverished Washington D.C. High School and arrived at his Ivy League college.

CEDRIC JENNINGS: Being part of an underrepresented population, not only are you trying to do the best job you can do academically, but going into settings and rooms where you know, and can feel your white peers question your worthiness of even being able to come in and sit at the table, that's challenging. Whether or not you want to ask a question because you don't want to be seen as stupid or dumb.

ANGIE MILES: University of Virginia Professor Tonya Moon has spent decades studying the Black-white achievement gap. She says it makes a great deal of difference, not only what expectations and support students experience, but also what their economic lives are like before they ever reach the schoolhouse doors.

TONYA MOON: Oftentimes, what we see is kids who come from enriched environments, quality health care and nutrition, rich family learning experiences, those kids oftentimes come to school either as an early reader or already as a reader. Kids who don't have access to those things oftentimes don't come to school as an early reader or a reader. And so, at the outset, kids start behind and that that mostly is not a Black-white issue. It's really an income issue.

ANGIE MILES: So, if the Black-white achievement gap is not primarily because of race, then why does it appear that way? Possibly because of the disproportionate number of Black students who live in poverty. In America, more than 12% of children are living below the poverty line. What that really means is about 7% of white children and nearly 18% of Black children live in poverty. And for children of Hispanic descent, the number is even higher. Black and brown children are about three times more likely to be poor than white children. A recent study by Harvard researchers found that traumatic events connected with poverty can adversely impact the brain development of children. And according to the study's authors, the differences are not genetic but are race related to the extent that systemic racism might be subjecting some to more poverty than others experience.

TONYA MOON: And until we can figure out how to, you know, eliminate the inequities that we see in our society, we will always deal with the inequities that we see in achievement in schools. Oftentimes kids who don't have access to higher levels of income also go to educational systems in areas that are economically deprived.

ANGIE MILES: That was the case for Jennings, who graduated from a high school in an impoverished urban community, while dealing with hard days at home. Jennings describes his single mother as a supermom, a federal employee with a strong work ethic and abundant Christian convictions, who was always looking for enrichment opportunities for him, expecting him to learn and excel but finances were a major challenge.

ANGIE MILES: Could you describe what life was like at school and what life was like at home, and some of the more traumatic things that you experienced during your youth?

CEDRIC JENNINGS: When I left for school, I knew that I had to eat, and I was on free and reduced lunch. So, I made a point to eat breakfast and I made a point to eat lunch because and on some days, I knew that if I didn't eat, I wouldn't get a meal at home because there was no food at home. You know, you learn to appreciate the heat, when you're at school in the wintertime, knowing that there were periods where we didn't have heat. You had to boil the water to even take a bath, a hot bath.

ANGIE MILES: Jennings says that enduring multiple evictions, learning to go without taught him to go within to focus intently on getting an education as the surest path to a better future. He says that teaching incoming students at Northern Virginia Community College opened his eyes to how poverty does not discriminate, and its negative effects.

CEDRIC JENNINGS: It is a high proportion of people of color who experienced the sting of poverty. But there's some white folk who's experienced that too, and they end up in my classes as well. So, it's just an interesting dynamic, engaging those students and helping them to really navigate the environment. I deal from compassion. I deal out of the experience of what I would have wanted people to say to me when I first got to that environment.

ANGIE MILES: Compassion is what Payton says is key. And as the girl who was sent to cry in a closet at the beginning of her school career, who became an adolescent to cut school, made trouble, got expelled, she says it's the compassion, cultural understanding and access to resources that will help close the achievement gap and improve outcomes for all children. There is research to support her viewpoint. One University of Virginia study finds that the Montessori approach which Payton offers at her school, appears to shrink the gap as these learners continue with their education.

LaSHAWN PAYTON: When it comes to Montessori, they don't need to ask for pencils, paper, crayons, everything is right there. They don't need to ask the teacher for snacks. It's right there in the environment. If I'm hungry, I can go get a snack. And then I can go back and focus on my work. If we just follow the lead of the child, Montessori gives them that freedom of choice. And that's one of the benefits that I see in the Montessori environment. My son, he chooses to read. I don't tell him he has to read he chooses to do it. If we put the funding into early childhood education and we make sure that those programs are at quality level when they leave early childhood education they know their alphabet. They know their sounds. They can read. They can understand simple sentences. They can understand the concept of numbers. If we put the resources in the foundation, the achievement gap will be nonexistent.

ANGIE MILES: The need for better economic health for all American children and families, the need for high expectations that are free from implicit biases and supported by a responsive and well-funded early childhood education. These are some of the suggestions, based on research and based on the experiences of these high achievers. And the research suggests the achievement gap is not the result of a genetic or innate flaw in the students, but more about the environment that shapes them before they arrive at the school doors. And after.

COREY HARRIS: It's assumed that there's nothing wrong with the system. And it's only the children need to get in line. But actually, I submit that there's really something wrong with the system. If you look at the history and history of education in America, it's not working for everybody. And going forward we need to interrogate what's wrong with the system and how the system can meet people where they are instead of having people meet the system where it is.

LaSHAWN PAYTON: We can talk about statistics. We can talk about all the research. We can talk about all these things. We talked about it for many years. It's still in existence. It’s still happening. When we think about the achievement gap, let's put the same resources that we put in wealthier communities into these lower income communities. The fact is, is we need people who are willing to put down the pens and pencils and get out here and do the work. We can bridge that gap.

Learn More: Part 1 of our Achievement Gap series - Does achievement have a color?


Angie Miles, Host/Producer, anchors and hosts VPM News Focal Point and special broadcasts.
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