By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 31, 2000; Page C01
Two years ago, Angela Hansen sat in the office of her son's
elementary school, biting her tongue and fighting back the urge to be
rude. The principal had just told her that African American students'
reading scores were low at the Silver Spring school because
nationally, "African American children don't do well on
Hansen, a lawyer who had always scored well, had a strong reaction:
bad answer! She thought, "I'm as black as I want to be,
and I test as well as most white folks!" Something was wrong, she
decided, and she had to do something about it.
About that time, 20 miles away at South Lakes High School in
Fairfax County, Georgetown University economist Richard America and
University of Maryland anthropologist Tony Whitehead were chatting
with other parents about whether black children were being challenged
in the same way as white children. Why not get African American
parents together to talk about it?
Like middle-class African Americans all over the country, Hansen,
America and Whitehead had become increasingly troubled by the
black-white achievement gap. The statistical fact that white students,
on average, test better than black students has become, along with
high-stakes testing, the most discussed and analyzed issue in American
education, experts say.
Many middle-class African American parents around the country,
particularly in the Washington area, are no longer just talking about
it. They have organized groups of like-minded parents to examine what
is going on in their often well-regarded suburban schools and to
decide what can be done to make sure minority children are not
shortchanged in subtle ways.
At Glenallan Elementary School in Silver Spring, Hansen soon
learned that the principal, Ronnie Fields, had not meant to dismiss
the need to close the gap. With the school's strong encouragement,
Hansen helped organize Glenallan African American Parents (GAAP). They
promoted enrichment activities, briefed parents on test-taking
approaches and helped boost the percentage of black third-graders
scoring satisfactory on the Maryland School Performance Assessment
Program test from 13.6 percent in 1996 to 42.9 percent last year,
At South Lakes High, parents organized the African American Student
Achievement Committee. It has been meeting regularly for more than a
year to find ways to stimulate minority achievement through online
communication among families and more school appreciation of the power
of high expectations for minority students.
Confronting Biases Whitehead said he wanted to help low-income
students learn to succeed at a demanding school such as South Lakes
High and to help teachers confront their harmful biases.
"As an educator myself, I had to face the fact that I had
certain preferences for certain kinds of students that might have led
to differential treatment," he said.
On a national level, groups such as the Black Alliance for
Educational Options have been formed by middle-class parents and
educators eager to close the gap for all students. They have
encouraged a flood of research efforts, such as a consortium of
affluent school districts, including Arlington County, that are
studying the gap; the "Closing the Gap" report of the
Washington-based Council for Basic Education and the Racine,
Wis.-based Johnson Foundation; and the New York-based College Board's
National Task Force on Minority High Achievement.
The idea, particularly among parents, is not to wait for social
scientists and policymakers to decide what the problem is but to get
inside their schools so that teachers, students and other parents are
aware that there is a problem and are more likely to solve it.
This new activity stems from data that have stunned educators and
parents. Social scientists have theorized for many decades that
minority scores on standardized tests were lower than white scores
because minority parents on the average had less money and less
education than white parents. Since those parents could not afford
private schools or homes in neighborhoods with good public schools,
and because they were not equipped to guide and inspire their children
as well as college-educated parents, their children were at a
Experts were reassured to see the test-score differences narrowing
as each generation of black parents became more affluent and better
educated than the last.
But data showed that the children of middle-class black parents
still scored below the children of middle-class white parents. The
1994 National Assessment of Educational Progress 12th-grade reading
score, for instance, showed the black-white gap larger for students
with a parent with a college degree than it was for students whose
parents had no high school diploma.
When the controversial book "The Bell Curve: Intelligence and
Class Structure in American Life" suggested in 1994 that this was
partly the result of blacks having less innate intellectual ability
than whites, interest in the gap erupted into a series of studies,
conferences and books that have raised the discussion to a level never
Further research has discredited the theory of innate intellectual
differences, but social scientists have continued to look for other
causes. African American parents and educators also have continued to
demand more action to explain and close the gap.
"My judgment is that the issue of equity is the most pressing
issue in American education today," said Roger Wilkins, history
professor at George Mason University and a newly appointed member of
the D.C. Board of Education who will take office this week. "To
the extent that it focuses people's attention on the need to focus on
issues of equity, the emphasis on the gap is important."
Explanations for the gap are numerous and complex, as attempts to
determine cause and effect in the behavior of millions of people
always are. The most complete and readable collection of research on
the matter, the 1998 Washington-based Brookings Institution report
"The Black-White Test Score Gap," offers an assortment of
Comparing middle-class black and white families just by income
levels, for instance, might disguise the fact that the black family,
newly arrived in suburbia, might be more burdened with debt and less
likely to have affluent and educated family members, such as
grandparents, who might influence the children's academic achievement.
One study in the Brookings report said "our results imply that it
takes at least two generations for changes in parental socioeconomic
status to exert their full effect on parenting practices" that
affect school achievement.
Harvard University researcher Ronald F. Ferguson says that black
students appear to care more about teachers' opinions than white
students, and teacher expectations for black children are on the
average lower than for white students.
Threat Identified Stanford researchers Claude M. Steele and Joshua
Aronson describe in the Brookings report their work on
"stereotype threat," a tendency on the part of
high-performing black college students to do worse on a test when
distracted by worries that the results might be used to draw
conclusions about their ethnicity.
"When the stereotype in question demeans something as
important to one as intellectual ability is to good students, it can
impair performance," the researchers conclude.
And there is much in the Brookings report about the theory that
bright black students reject schoolwork to avoid being chided by
friends for "acting white." A recent book by University of
California at Berkeley linguist John H. McWhorter has taken this
notion much further, saying that African Americans of all ages are
burdened by a widespread anti-intellectualism.
The Brookings report comes to no firm conclusion about what is
going on. However, the editors of the report, Christopher Jencks of
Harvard University and Meredith Phillips of the University of
California at Los Angeles, point to the kind of research they think
would be most useful. They said family income and educational
background are likely to prove less important than "the way
family members and friends interact with one another and with the
Differences in resources between predominantly black and
predominantly white schools are also likely to be less crucial than
"the way black and white children respond to the same classroom
experiences, such as having a teacher of a different race or having a
teacher with low expectations for students who read below grade
level," they said.
Parents on Alert Those are precisely the issues that many black
parents are looking at in their schools. Alma Gill, whose son attends
school in Howard County, said she is bothered by teachers who complain
that he asks too many questions in class. He is a bright, curious
learner, she said, who she thinks would have been designated as gifted
and been better nurtured by teachers had he been white.
"But that's all right," she said. "We're doing it at
home and encouraging him to always try his best."
Virginia Walden, a D.C. parent who actively promotes charter
schools, said, "My personal feeling is that expectations from
society, including our educational community, are not as great for
middle-class black kids."
Denise Nichols, a Maryland resident whose three sons attended the
D.C. private school Sidwell Friends, said she has watched carefully to
see whether they were treated differently from white students but is
convinced that the school has been as welcoming and as challenging for
them as for other students.
Other African Americans, she said, have occasionally asked whether
she is worried about "how they are going to grow up to be strong
black men" if they are educated in a predominantly white,
upper-middle class school. She said that's no problem, because they
have a strong role model in their father, Fannie Mae executive Alvin
At South Lakes High one recent Monday night, more than 20 parents
and faculty members gathered in one of the school's small, colorfully
decorated cafeterias to discuss expectations for their children. Some
complimented Principal Realista Rodriquez on her efforts to draw more
students into the school's new International Baccalaureate program.
But most of the parents said they had encountered educators who did
not realize the power of ill-considered judgments.
Leila Head, for instance, recalled a teacher who told students
"it was okay to get C's" and seemed reluctant to call on
black students in class.
America urged members to be "constructive and creative"
and pushed for solutions that would exploit the community's growing
use of e-mail and other computer services. The middle-class parents
were concerned about students who drop out, particularly those among
the school's 300 African American students who are not doing well.
"I don't want to sound elitist, but we want to find a
respectful way of reaching out to encourage people who don't seem to
be quite navigating the system," America said later.
At Glenallan Elementary, Hansen and other black parents pushed for
several changes and were pleased that the co-presidents of the PTA
enthusiastically welcomed them to the executive board. Principal
Fields focused on hiring talented faculty, increasing teacher training
and raising expectations for all children. Preparation for state tests
became more intense. GAAP, the black parents group, met with district
testing experts and distributed sample tests and test preparation
books to other parents.
The Glenallan Elementary parents also organized some of their own
after-school activities, including preparation sessions for the state
MSPAP test conducted by two fathers, Hansen said.
The apparent result, the threefold increase in the percentage of
black third-graders scoring satisfactory in reading, convinced Hansen
and many other parents that their work had paid off.
"The parents had a huge impact," Fields said.
Said Hansen, "In all but one category, the African Americans
in third- and fifth-grades MSPAP scores reflected a narrowing of the
There were benefits, Hansen said, in just having children know
"that we were having meetings and making plans so they would do
better in school. . . . We have to be willing to insist that the
system that is designed to teach all children does, in fact, teach all