November was a troubling month for those fighting to improve urban education as a number of national and local reports examining the achievement gap between Black and White students were released. Though some reports were hopeful, painting a picture of a narrowing achievement gap, others looked deeper at the achievement of African-Americans to reveal disheartening results.
In particular, a report by the Council of the Great City Schools revealed that on a national level the achievement gap between Black students and other students has become even wider. According to the report African-American male students are less proficient as compared to their White counterparts than before.
However, locally, a report produces by A+ Schools on Nov. 15 showed gains were being made and predicted an elimination of the gap in 40 years.
“I think the report itself is fair and balanced. I think it for the first time made an honest effort to project the years until closure, but I would like to suggest caution in that assumption because it’s based on all things being equal,” said Jerome Taylor, an associate professor of Africana studies at the University of Pittsburgh. “What could happen of course is you have new leadership changes taking place. You have new policy changes federally about to take place. Anyone of those factors could play a significant role in either delaying or accelerating the closing of the gap.”
While many are still examining the reports, others are continuing the century long fight to reduce the gap. Across the country, schools are emerging that have succeeded and reducing the gap and many believe these schools should be modeled in Pittsburgh.
“My major concern is that not all the ingredients are on the table that might produce an excellent recipe for creating justice for African-American students in the district,” Taylor said. “Unless you can create a system that prevents the wounds, that heals the wounds, that acknowledges and works with schools that have actually closed racial achievement gaps and that can guarantee the justice once you get it, this will never work.”
Through his works as the director of the Center for Family Excellence and convener of the Educational Justice Project, Taylor is a strong proponent of Dame-Dame schools. These schools have closed or reversed racial achievement gaps in the least expected places—predominately Black low-income settings.
“Why aren’t we gazing deeply into the policy and practices of these schools who have been there and done that. The first step is looking at those models that have actually brought justice to African-American students,” Taylor said. “You’ve got to not only have a model for achieving justice, but you’ve got to have a model for keeping it once you get it.”
Taylor said in order to reverse the gap, schools must address the cultural factors that prohibit students from reaching their full potential.
“Our systems don’t embrace the cultural wounds of our children and they’re not inclined to do much to help,” Taylor said. “Teachers come with wounds too. We have a lot of teachers who come carrying the wound that African-Americans are mentally deficient and physically gifted.”
Like Taylor and many education activists in the city, former school board representative Randall Taylor zeroed in on improving teacher quality as a concrete method for closing the achievement gap.
“When I ran I wanted to see why education wasn’t working for a specific segment of students and I think I found that out,” Taylor said. “You have to have principals and teachers that want to be in those buildings and want to see those students achieve.”
As a proponent of charter schools, which were identified by A+ as schools with the highest performing Black students, Taylor agreed that effective models should be replicated. He also referenced failed attempts made at the district’s accelerated academies to attract high quality teachers to schools in the worst neighborhoods.
“I think you see with what we did with the accelerated academies even when you pay teachers $10,000 more you can’t attract them to these places. Sometimes when they’re from the community they want to be there,” Taylor said. “I think the other thing is to grow teachers, look at those students who are high achievers and groom them to become teachers and come back to work in their community.”
On Dec. 2, William Strickland, president and CEO of Manchester Bidwell Corp. will host a discussion on education reform following a screening of “Waiting for Superman,” a documentary examining America’s failing school systems. The event will be held in the South Side Works Cinema at 6 p.m.