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Winter 2008 Vol. 16. No. 2 Focus on Changing the Odds

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Talking equality

District leaders highlight racial gaps - not just in test scores but also in opportunities.

By by Dale Mezzacappa
Photo: Harvey Finkle

Third graders (from left) Jessica Schaffer, Christopher Prince, and Vanessa Njoo react to their teacher at Fell Elementary School in South Philadelphia, a school where achievement gaps are minimal among students of different ethnicities (click here for charts). Superintendent Ackerman promises to tackle systemic inequities that cause lagging performance among Black and Latino students at many schools in the District.

In her first months as Philadelphia school superintendent, Arlene Ackerman has consistently emphasized how Black and Latino students, particularly males, continue to be at a severe disadvantage despite citywide student achievement gains over the past few years.

“All is not well with all of our children,” she told a gathering of principals and other administrators in August, in her introduction to many of them. “The future for far too many of our poor students of color who attend our public schools is up for grabs. For some, it is teetering precariously.”

“Unless those of us entrusted with their educational well-being take unprecedented actions on their behalf, they will not get a second chance,” she told the assembled leaders.

During the fall, she and her team have been planning what those “unprecedented actions” might be. In broad terms, she says she wants to more equitably allocate resources and hold adults more accountable. Neither of these politically charged promises has yet been fleshed out.

Ackerman is not the first Philadelphia school leader to focus on the so-called “achievement gap,” a national phenomenon in which the academic performance of Black and Latino students lags behind that of Whites and Asians. But she has made it the “context for urgency” and the rationale for leading the District in “a new direction.”

In one of her first School Reform Commission meetings her team made a blunt and sweeping statistical presentation that included, among other data:

  • Black and Latino students lag about 24 points behind Whites in proficiency rates for both reading and math on the PSSA and are even further behind Asians. The gap with Whites has narrowed only slightly since 2002.

  • Fifty-nine percent of the students in emotional support classes are African American boys, nearly double their rate in the general population. At 11 percent, Latino boys are also placed at a higher rate than their overall numbers.

  • White students make up just 12 percent of the high school students but 28 percent of those in magnet schools. African Americans, conversely, are overrepresented in discipline and alternative schools.

  • Just 11 percent of Black students and 10 percent of Latinos in high schools are in Advanced Placement classes, compared to 32 percent of Asians and 24 percent of Whites.

Photo: Harvey Finkle
School funding levels should be more closely aligned to actual student needs, Ackerman says.


“What I’ve seen here are problems that are consistent in large school systems,” said Ackerman, who has led the San Francisco and Washington, DC districts and was a high official in Seattle. “[There’s a] lack of focus, a lack of coherent strategies that are integrated to better support students, teachers, and schools. And I see apathy in the larger community and a lack of integration of services from the city.”

The District has embarked on a short but extensive strategic planning process in which three of nine work teams will focus specifically on closing these gaps. The work groups, charged with probing “root causes,” will include parents, students, and community members as well as District insiders. The groups begin meeting in early December and will make final reports and recommendations by February.

In addition to the achievement gap, working groups will focus on college readiness, dropout prevention and recovery, recruiting and retaining topflight teachers and administrators, and interventions for failing schools and rewards for successful ones.

They will face familiar problems that have long defied solution: uneven distribution of experienced teachers, high dropout rates, continued climate problems especially in the big neighborhood high schools, and, as one student reminded the SRC on Nov. 19, the lack of textbooks to take home.

Black and Latino students are also disciplined at far higher rates than Whites and Asians. In 2007-08, the rate of suspensions per 100 students was 34 for African Americans, 25 for Latinos, 14 for Whites and 5 for Asians.

Student disengagement is rampant: in a recent survey of high school students, 40 percent of the more than 12,000 students who responded said they don’t have even one class in which the topics they are studying interest them.

At the other end of the learning continuum, programs for the youngest children – which can address causes of learning gaps before they have a chance to open up – are lagging behind demand. Despite a huge expansion of Head Start, that and other preschool programs are serving only a fraction of the eligible three- and four-year-olds in the city.

Ackerman said that she wants better coordination with city services, and thinks that the municipal budget crisis may actually provide the impetus for reducing duplication. “I see it as an opportunity,” she said.

About the Author

Contact Notebook contributing editor Dale Mezzacappa.

Comments (1)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 15, 2010 10:52 am

What are the ethnic communities and their activist groups doing within the adult social culture to change the "root cause" backgrounds that foster underperforming kids that are thrown into a school system to try to allign non-normative social behavior into workable standardized education processes?

It is like building an automobile on an assembly line, which is efficient in building well made autos for a reasonable cost...yet finding out that the suppliers of parts and metal are sending faulty parts and materials to the assembly line...and the auto coming out the end is overall failing inspections for quality.

You go to the suppliers (the Parents) and tell them to fix their parts (their kids) or get out of the business of making parts (kids)...or to put their kids in private schools....I believe the schools WANT to succeed, but the parents are not doing their jobs.

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