District leaders highlight racial gaps - not just in test scores but also in opportunities.
by Dale Mezzacappa
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.
“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.