A copy of former U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige’s new book, The Black-White Achievement Gap, arrived in our offices this week. Co-authored with Elaine Witty, Ed.D., Paige’s book tackles what it calls “the greatest civil rights issue of our time.” Paige, of course, served under President George W. Bush, from 2001 to 2005, during which time the controversial No Child Left Behind Act was put into effect.
We hope to review the book at length later on, and perhaps snag an interview with Mr. Paige himself. But in the meantime, we thought this interview from the book’s PR materials would be a good way to give readers an overview of the book and the formidable issue that it’s taking on.
Your new book, The Black-White Achievement Gap, calls attention to a national crisis in our classrooms. Why do you view this problem, to quote your subtitle, as “the greatest civil rights issue of our time”?
Rod Paige: In today’s America, one would be hard pressed to identify a single area, in medicine, literature, music, the arts, business, or sports, in which African Americans have not ascended to the very top in their chosen fields. The swearing in of Barack Obama as the forty-fourth President of the United States of America is highly visible evidence that racism and discrimination no longer represent a ceiling to African American success. Educational underachievement is a much more powerful obstacle. There is a street saying that makes the point: Racism and discrimination can slow you down, but lack of education can knock you out. Enough said! To be sure, the black-white achievement gap is not the only obstacle standing in the way of racial equality and social justice. It is, however, the major barrier impeding progress for African Americans and primary civil rights issue of our time.
What exactly do you mean by “achievement gap”?
Paige: The achievement gap refers specifically to the difference between the performance of white students and black students on academic assessments such as SAT and ACT scores, and graduation rates. Admittedly, there is a need to improve academic performance of all American students. But African American students’ underperformance, on average, is so pronounced that special attention to this problem is warranted. On average, African American students in every grade score well below their white peers on just about every scholastic measure in use today. The brutal truth is there in black and white, so to speak. And the truth hurts.
Aside from the obvious economic disadvantages, what are ramifications of this gap for African Americans?
Paige: Of all the various negative consequences of the black-white achievement gap, the support it yields for supporters of the “blacks are less well endowed intellectually than whites” argument is by far the most offensive and destructive. The idea that blacks are intellectually inferior genetically is not confined to a few way-out psychologists, anthropological nerds, far-right academics, and white supremacists. Deep in the minds of many whites–and perhaps many blacks–resides a good deal of receptivity to this abhorrent notion.
Most Americans living today have scant, if any, memory of even the pre-1954 educational struggles of African Americans. For the most part, their point of view regarding the educational potential of African Americans is based on what they have personally seen or experienced. And what they have seen or experienced is that almost without exception, African Americans lag behind every other racial/ethnic group on every academic assessment imaginable.
The black-white achievement gap continues to reinforce the stereotype and stigma of racial inferiority. This burden weighs more heavily on today’s young African American students than all the yesteryears of slavery, creating a vicious circle. The expectation that the gap exists because of inferiority reinforces low expectation, which leads to low achievement, and expands the gap. Further, the negative ramifications of the gap constantly build as it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, extending its deleterious effects far into the future and eroding the educational potential of young African Americans of tomorrow.
How do you explain the existence of the black-white achievement gap?
Paige: Socioeconomic disparities, a sociopathological culture, and black identity are commonly cited by experts, and all these arguments have validity. But the whole issue boils down to whether or not one believes all children can learn. Based on years of personal witness to the work of committed teachers in “break the mold schools,” I believe the answer is absolutely yes, and this is why I am a firm and unabashed proponent of the educational deprivation theory.
The primary cause of the black-white achievement gap is that low-achieving students have been deprived of the educational essentials which support learning to high levels. I believe that all children can learn at high levels when they are taught at high levels. Being taught at high levels means educational support from factors outside of the school. It involves the support and commitment from the entire education triad–home, school, and community. Children on the negative side of the gap suffer from educational deprivation. The gap persists because it has been allowed to. It persists because it is a problem that nobody owns.
Why do you urge the African American leadership community, rather than educators, to take ownership of the achievement-gap problem?
Paige: Closing the achievement gap in a single school is one thing. But closing the achievement gap nationally is quite another. It simply cannot be done without the concerted, sustained effort of local, state, and national leadership working together toward common goals. Leaders must engage in a way that inspires communities to become involved in resolving the problem. Rather than continue the age-old controversy about the causes of the achievement gap, rather than continue to look outward and blame racism and discrimination, African American leaders must look inward and move forward.
My goal for The Black-White Achievement Gap is to compel African American leaders to work together, and with educators to create a high level of school quality across America, and with service-oriented and faith-based organizations, corporations, policy makers, and parents to implement gap-closing intervention strategies in the beyond-the school factors. Authentic leaders have been at the forefront of all the great social, economic, educational, legal, and political movements that have been responsible for African American progress to date. As they did in past generations, remarkable civil rights leaders will rise to the occasion when they identify primary barriers to achieving racial equality and social justice in this country.
Adapted from The Black-White Achievement Gap: Why Closing It Is the Greatest Civil Rights Issue of Our Time by Rod Paige and Elaine Witty (AMACOM Books).