The Children Left Behind: Addressing the Racial Achievement Gap in Education
By Mavra Choudhry
No child left behind. Not many take time to understand this phrase, brought to life by the Bush administration in 2001 and now ubiquitous to the point of cliché. Every day, educators promise us that every student will have an equal chance to succeed in their classrooms—a promise far too idealistic to be grounded in reality. It’s little wonder, then, that the pithy statement seems to apply only to white children. The world of education is far more limited for the kids that have been overlooked, the kids that have slipped through the cracks: the children of colour, the ones left behind.
There exists a gap in educational achievement between racial majority and racial minority students due in part to negative psychological experiences in the classroom. Rather than continuing with over-standardized educational practices that have proven to be ineffective, educators should overtly engage in psychological intervention strategies to mitigate this achievement gap, thereby giving all students an equal opportunity to succeed. To illustrate this gap, according to the USA’s 2013 National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP), scores for both math and reading were significantly lower among African-American students compared to white students; in math, 81% of white Grade 12 students scored higher than the average black Grade 12 student (Hanushek 2016). This represents only a minor increase since 1964—over fifty years later. While the fight for equality and civil rights has made great strides, the achievement gap in schools remains stubbornly persistent.
Unfortunately, progress in society cannot assuage the psychological threat that racial minority students face in the classroom. According to psychology research, stereotype threat is defined as a state of psychological discomfort experienced by members of a negatively stereotyped group. This threat inhibits minority students from performing to their full ability on tests; it also prevents them from being able to even build the skills and abilities necessary to succeed in learning (Appel & Kronberger 2012). The threat of confirming the socially perpetuated idea that they are not as intelligent as their white counterparts creates enough stress to debilitate performance in a test setting (Cohen, Garcia, Apfel & Master, 2006). While this is damaging enough, another factor adds an additional weight to the burdens of minority students: standardized testing. The same research shows that when African-American students believed that a test was being used to evaluate their academic abilities, they performed significantly worse compared to those who thought it was a non-evaluative exercise. In the same study, there was no such observed difference in white students (Steele & Aronson, 1995). This clearly demonstrates that stereotype threat significantly hinders racial minority students in standardized examinations.
And yet, the use of standardized testing in North American schools as an indicator of academic performance continues in ubiquity, from the SATs to the GREs and beyond. This continues despite the evidence that they do not place all test-takers on a level playing field. As the achievement gap persists in our schools, so too do our schools insist upon the very educational and evaluative practices that will maintain and even widen that breach, instead of working to bridge it before it becomes an irreparable chasm. More troublingly, standardized evaluations of this ilk act as gateways to many post-secondary and professional level educational paths: so what begins as an achievement gap in schools can easily tailspin into perpetuating the social and economic inequality that has plagued people of colour for decades.
Unfortunately, our educational system can only teach based on the limits of its own resources. As one example, a report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives revealed just last year that provincial funding for British Columbia schools has declined steadily since 2001 (Sherlock 2016); and this is indicative of a larger trend across the country and continent. Any attempts at improving education in North America have been stagnated by such bureaucratic policies. In this way, educators are forced to continue using over-standardized practices and evaluations that easily let children slip through the gaping cracks of a broken system.
Of course, it is precisely because of these problems in public education that many refuse to acknowledge the evidence of the race-based achievement gap. Overhauling an unequal system is no easy task, and to some, it isn’t worth undertaking the effort. Thus, an easy rebuttal to the proposition of using educational strategies that specifically target the racial achievement gap is simply that it is impossible to eliminate the gap within the framework of the classroom as we know it. Additionally, across the continent, many refuse to even entertain the notion that racial inequality still persists in a 21st-century society, let alone undertake measures to alleviate it. With demagogues like Donald Trump dominating today’s media narrative on race relations in North America, it is far too easy to believe that racial minorities are in fact over-advantaged. With the already limited resources that public education has, the arguments for standardization over specific interventions seem both compelling and absolute. This is in addition to the knee-jerk defensiveness against specifically targeting minority students for improvement, which seemingly disadvantages majority students. However, research has made it clear that these measures are necessary to create a level playing field and to actually stay true to the mandate of leaving no child behind.
To that end, many studies in educational psychology suggest simple and viable solutions to the stereotype threat problem faced by students of colour in the classroom. A study by Cohen et al. (2009) used an intervention using a series of short assignments that helped focus students on self-affirmation and personal adequacy. This helped reduce the racial achievement gap in students over the course of two years. Not only did this strategy improve GPAs, but it cut short a “recursive cycle”—generally, low achievement early on results in poor performance that persists in the long-term; the fear of conforming to negative stereotypes causes an early vulnerability to failure. By breaking this vicious cycle, this study’s intervention exercise mitigated this magnification of initial performance gaps. Other similar research indicates that interventions that improved African-American students’ sense of social belonging through self-affirmation were also effective in bridging the achievement gap (Walton & Cohen, 2011). These studies demonstrate that the use of simple educational strategies to combat stereotype threat is able to have a significant impact on students’ psychological well-being and therefore their long-term educational achievement.
Thus, it becomes clear that the arguments supporting standardization over tailoring curricula to achieve equity in the classroom are wholly based in flawed arguments and false notions. Rather than having to overhaul public education policies as a whole, small but significant changes can go a long way without putting excess strain on an already splintering system. Thanks to the ongoing research in educational psychology, there are clear and effective methods to mitigate the damaging psychological stress that minority students face. Simply put, psychological intervention doesn’t magically make children of colour smarter: it permits them to overcome the burdens of pre-packaged disparity by giving them access to their full potential.
In short, inequality doesn’t magically spring into existence some time in adulthood, when certain families are given lakeside mansions and others are relegated to modern ghettos. There is a clear basis in childhood and education. By intervening in the achievement gap through educational practices, we can open doors for children early on in life, and thereby prevent many more from being slammed shut in the future. It’s important to remember that racial inequality is certainly not a relic of the 1960s; our society is not post-racism, as current political events across the Western world can attest to, but it is not past salvation, either. Therefore, what can be done to promote equality in the classroom must be done: after decades of battling for progress, we cannot allow the world to leave yet another generation of children behind.
Cohen, G. L., Garcia, J., Purdie-Vaughns, V., Apfel, N., & Brzustoski, P. (2009). Recursive processes in self-affirmation: Intervening to close the minority achievement gap. Science, 324(5925), 400–403.