The Black-White Achievement Gap: Why Closing It Is the Greatest Civil Rights Issue of Our Time

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Chosen by The American School Board magazine as one of 2010's Top Education Reads.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

[Starred review] “Paige and Witty do offer real and practical solutions on every level from individual to organizational in a call to arms to address the issue at the last frontier in the civil-rights struggle. This is a passionate, well-researched look at a troubling—but solvable—social problem.” --Booklist

"Practical and productive solutions are discussed in an intelligent, clearly stated, easy to read style....It is refreshing to find an intelligent assessment and acceptance of responsibility by presenting an in-depth study of one’s cultural base, leading to an understanding of the elements that feed the problem." --Bismarck Tribune

"Renowned former U.S. Secretary of Education Paige and Elaine Witty provide a wake-up call to black leaders and communities, urging the kind of action that is essential if the blight on African-American achievement is to be defeated." --Spartanburg Herald Journal

Publishers Weekly
In this clarion call, Paige, a former secretary of education (2001–2005) and his sister, a noted educator, pursue two threads of thought: the quest for authentic African-American leadership and the black-white achievement gap. Their argument: “while racism and discrimination are still barriers to African American progress, they are no longer the primary barriers”; and the “black-white achievement gap is the primary civil rights issue of our time.” The main obstacle to closing that gap is black leadership culture, which they “criticize... for its role in the existence, magnitude, and intractability of the black-white achievement gap.” Authenticity is defined as “activity by individuals or groups, regardless of ethnicity, which, with moral purpose, [that] affects the attitude and behavior of African Americans, through identifying and confronting major barriers to African American achievement.” In making their argument, the authors report quantities of confirming data; assess various explanations for the gap; review the place of education in the black experience; find the NAACP, Congressional Black Caucus, and Urban League to have “overlooked” the issue; and predictably argue for the success of No Child Left Behind, the voucher system, and charter schools. Their last chapter, “The Way Forward: A Call to Service,” concludes with a useful, thought-provoking list of suggestions. (Jan.)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780814415191
  • Publisher: AMACOM Books
  • Publication date: 2/1/2010
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 210
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Rod Paige, PED (Houston, TX) was the U.S. Secretary of Education from 2001-2005. He served as the Superintendent of Houston Schools for 8 years and was Dean of the College of Education at Texas Southern for 10 years. He is currently the Chairman of the Chartwell Education Group, an international consultant firm.

Elaine Witty, Ed.D. (Columbia, SC) served 18 years as Dean of Education at Norfolk StateUniversity and is a noted educator.

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Read an Excerpt

C H A P T E R 1

The Greatest Civil Rights Challenge of Our Time

If racial equality is America’s goal, reducing the black-white test score gap would

probably do more to promote this goal than any other strategy that commands

broad political support. Reducing the test score gap is probably both necessary

and sufficient for substantially reducing racial inequality in educational attainment

and earnings. Changes in education and earnings would in turn help reduce

racial differences in crime, health, and family structure, although we do not know

how large these effects would be.

—Christopher Jencks and Meredith Phillips,

The Black-White Test Score Gap

THE AFRICAN AMERICAN unfinished journey from chattel slavery to

racial equality and social justice in America has been, and continues to be,

a long and arduous struggle. Although many dangerous and deadly barriers

have imperiled this journey, none has been able to stand up to the power

and determination of authentic African American leadership. No barrier—

whether embedded in law, rooted in social or economic custom, or enforced

by racial terror—has been able to hold firm against the powerful and unwavering

commitment to advancement of a determined, authentic African

American leadership. One by one, each primary barrier standing in the

way of African American advancement has been confronted and defeated

by a resolute African American leadership culture. That is, until now.

Now, the African American journey to racial equality and social justice

is jeopardized by a different kind of barrier. Perhaps because this is a different

kind of barrier, it’s virtually overlooked by contemporary African

American leadership culture and has yet to be identified as a major civil

rights problem. Now, the primary barrier impeding progress toward our

twin goals of racial equality and social justice isn’t the clearly visible

objects of oppression of yesteryear. Today’s primary barrier appears much

more innocuous and much more subtle. In a way, it’s almost invisible to

society at large, and unlike segregation, slavery, and discrimination,

which were imposed intentionally by a racist society, no one is forcing

this barrier to exist—yet it’s there. Today’s primary barrier is the black–

white achievement gap.

On almost every measure of academic performance, be it the SAT, ACT,

or state-mandated examinations, African American student performance

trails, by large margins, that of their white peers. The average African

American public school twelfth grader’s performance on academic measures

approximates that of the average white eighth grader. Not only do

African American students trail their white peers on academic tests, they

also experience much higher college dropout rates and a tendency to shy

away from majoring in the hard sciences and mathematics.

To overcome today’s primary barrier, a new kind of thinking, a new

kind of strategy, and a new kind of leadership will be required. To overcome

the barriers of yesteryear, we had to confront and overcome clearly

identifiable oppressive laws, tyrannical customs, and racially repressive

practices. Today’s primary barrier may, in a sense, be more difficult to confront

than previous barriers, because defeating it will require African

Americans to face up to and overcome an apparent unwillingness to look

inward for solutions to problems. Contemporary African American leadership

culture attributes almost 100 percent of African American disadvantage

to outward causes. Effectively confronting today’s primary barrier

may be more difficult precisely because it will require African Americans

to accept ownership of the achievement gap as a civil rights problem. It

will require an understanding that the problem cannot be solved without

authentic African American leadership.

There are many reasons why African American leadership must consider

the academic achievement gap to be a serious civil rights issue. But

of all the compelling reasons, two stand out. First, the black–white

achievement gap provides major support to the theory of inferiority, i.e.,

the gap exists because black students are inherently academically inferior

to white students. Second, it is a primary impediment to the development

of African American wealth.

We chose to begin this chapter with a quote from Christopher Jencks

and Meredith Phillips’ powerful volume The Black-White Test Score Gap

because it so succinctly conveys our central premise: closing the black–

white achievement gap would do more to advance African Americans

toward our long-sought-after goals of racial equality and social justice in

America than any civil rights strategy available to us today. In part that is

because of the hard and good work that has already been done. We have

accomplished much. But there is more to do.

The achievement gap is not a new challenge. Almost a century has

passed since the problem was first identified and quantified by the United

States Army when it began to use large-scale mental testing to assess

recruits. The results showed that white recruits outscored their black

peers by substantial margins.

In the years since, countless studies and surveys have reinforced and

expanded on these early findings. We know now, for example, that differences

in language and math skills appear by the time that children

enter kindergarten, and those differences persist into adulthood. And as

we will see later, we know more and more each year about the gap’s

underlying factors and causes of these differences.

Despite our growing knowledge base about the gap in the academic

community, little of this new knowledge has made its way into the general

public, and consequently, the sense of public awareness of the gap’s

magnitude and consequences has created little sense of public alarm. This

lack of intense public concern is, in our view, a major reason why on a

national basis, we have made relatively little progress in closing the

achievement gap. Results from the National Assessment of Educational

Progress (NAEP) and other studies show that while the black–white

achievement gap has narrowed in some subject areas since 1970, the average

African American student still scores below 75 percent of white students

on most standardized tests.1 And while individual schools sprinkled

across the nation have succeeded in eliminating the gap—proving that it

can, in fact, be done—no large district or state has yet done so.

To remind ourselves of how a national thrust of education would help

close the achievement gap, let us revisit the 1970s and 1980s, when on a

national basis the gap began to close (unfortunately, the narrowing of the

gap stopped in the early 1990s). The 1970s and 1980s stand out in

American history as an important period in the nation’s trek toward racial

harmony. It was a period when many major national efforts to reduce

poverty, equalize opportunity, and achieve social justice, which had

begun just prior to this period, began to bear fruit:

 School desegregation driven by the 1954 Brown v. Board of


 The 1964 Civil Rights Act

 The 1965 Voting Rights Act

 The 1965 federally funded Head Start program

 The 1965 enactment of the Elementary and Secondary Education

Act (the eighth reauthorization, in January 2002, is referred to as

the No Child Left Behind Act)

 State and federally funded compensatory programs for elementary

school with high enrollments of low-income children

 Affirmative action policies for admission to colleges, universities,

and professional schools

The 1970s, 1980s, and the years leading up to them were rife with legislation

and activity designed to equalize opportunity for all Americans,

but arguably they benefited African Americans most. Consistent with the

view that environmental factors are foremost in influencing academic performance,

many scholars and researchers believe those changes in the

economic and social environment of African Americans narrowed the gap

during this period.

However, while having lived through this period as young African

American adults who were deeply involved in the education of African

Americans, we would like to offer a different point of view. We contend

that, while African American students did in fact benefit from improvements

in their economic environment during this period, the prevailing

attitude about education in the African American community was the

main driver of educational improvements. The attitude about education

in the African American community at that time was much like that of the

freed slaves just after the Thirteenth Amendment outlawed slavery in

1865. Recall that the freed slave’s thirst for education was intense during

this period. Freed slaves rushed into any educational institution they

could find. Many, even most, of the historically black colleges and universities

trace their origins back to that period when education was

viewed as the key to freedom in the black community.

Although the period of the 1970s and 1980s was much shorter and the

quest for education in the African American community was perhaps less

intense, it was strong nonetheless. The African American community was

still glowing from the high hopes emanating from the Brown v. Board of

Education decision. Expectations were high for African American

advancement. Freedom’s bells were ringing. With the possibility for

advancement in the air, more opportunities to vote, better funding for

schools, and more African Americans running for elected offices, schools

were beginning to address the “all deliberate speed” mandate, and school

desegregation was picking up speed. It was a period of hope; and education,

as Malcolm X stated, was viewed as the passport to freedom. The

power of education rang from the pulpits of the black churches; it was

discussed in black social settings and work sites. We offer no empirical

evidence; this was just how we experienced that period. If you need more

evidence, just ask other African Americans who lived through this period.

We should not be at all surprised, therefore, at the educational

progress African American students made. During this period, African

Americans’ interest in education was heightened. It was a solution to

oppression. So why did the air go out of the balloon during the early

1990s and how do we recapture it for contemporary students so that we

can continue to narrow the gap? That is the challenge we face today.

Closing the black–white achievement gap is an urgent task. In Chapter 3

we provide extended justification for our belief that eliminating it would

promote racial equality, sharply increase black college graduation rates,

reduce racial disparities in men’s earnings, probably eliminate racial disparities

in women’s earnings, and allow selective colleges and employers

to phase out racial preferences.

Every one of these goals is critically important. If you are not so sure

eliminating racial preferences is a good idea, recall that in its landmark

ruling on affirmative action at the University of Michigan Law School in

2003, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor stated that

within the next twenty-five years there would be no more need for affirmative

action.2 Since many major colleges and universities use affirmative

policies to assist minority enrollment, losing these policies would reduce

minority enrollment in these schools. This reduction in African American

enrollment can only be offset by preparing African American students to

compete and win admission to these prestigious institutions on the same

bases as other students.

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Table of Contents


Foreword by Kevin P. Chavous



CHAPTER 1: The Greatest Civil Rights Challenge of Our Time

CHAPTER 2: The Facts of the Matter

CHAPTER 3: “Okay, We Have a Black–White

Achievement Gap. So What?”

CHAPTER 4: In Search of Explanations

CHAPTER 5: The Origins of the Problem

CHAPTER 6: Yes, We Can Close the Achievement Gap!

CHAPTER 7: What’s Leadership Got to Do with It?

CHAPTER 8: Today’s Shortage of Authentic

African American Leaders

CHAPTER 9: Eliminating the Achievement Gap: What Authentic

African American Leaders Must Do

CHAPTER 10: The Way Forward: A Call to Service


APPENDIX A: Sources for Quality Information on the Black–White Achievement Gap

APPENDIX B: Suggested Reading List on African American Leadership



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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 5, 2010

    Great resource

    Secretary Paige and Dr. Witty provided a timely and relevant analysis of the achievement gap. This book is laid out in such an easily understood manner. Great book for educators, scholars, and students.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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