Deidre Green got off to a rough start with a bad case of infant jaundice that overwhelmed her mother. She went to live with her grandmother, who showered her with attention that likely changed the arc of her life.
“I suppose I got pretty spoiled,” the UW-Madison freshman says with a laugh. “My grandma played with me all the time — she did puzzles with me, read to me. She always told me I was smart, so when I got to school, that was what I expected. It was what she expected, too.”
For Green, a variety of serendipitous factors — her own talent and hard work, supportive mentors in and out of school, a core group of good friends and key opportunities — helped her excel in Madison public schools. An educational pioneer in her family, she intends to also do well in college and then go to law school.
”When you don’t have any real role models around you, you have to have a dream,” says Green, who is attending college on a full financial scholarship. “The entire idea of wanting to be something, working to make something of your life, needs to begin with you so you can avoid the distractions, but you need some help along the way, too.”
Green — born in a family with few financial resources and little experience with academic success — beat the odds stacked against her. But statistically, there aren’t as many students like Green in Wisconsin as there are in other states. Observers say it’s an economic crisis, as well as a moral one.
The Badger state’s achievement gap — the difference between how minority students perform in school compared to their white counterparts — is the highest in the country, outside of the District of Columbia, based on test scores from a highly regarded national assessment that’s done every couple of years.
Known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the test scores were announced last summer. At the time, stories in popular media as well as educational journals noted that the region where the achievement gap between American blacks and whites was greatest had largely shifted from the South to the Midwest. While Wisconsin ranks in the top third of states for white student performance, black achievement here is only slightly better than in Mississippi and substantially worse than in Texas and Florida.
The poor performance of Wisconsin, Michigan and Illinois, when it comes to educating African-American children, has not gone unnoticed in high places.
President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top, an ambitious new education program that will pump $4 billion into an effort to improve American schools, was announced in Madison last month. With the diverse and largely low-income students of Wright Middle School as his attentive audience, Obama said, “African-American and Latino students continue to lag behind their white classmates — an achievement gap that will ultimately cost us hundreds of billions of dollars because that’s our future work force.”
In the wake of Obama’s speech in Wisconsin, four bills were rapidly approved by the Wisconsin Legislature to address several issues state leaders said were key in helping reform education here, and would help the state get Race to the Top dollars. Gov. Jim Doyle also supports some additional, and more controversial, legislation he believes would help strengthen Wisconsin’s bid for the federal money. These proposals, which are facing some skepticism from both sides of the aisle, would give the state superintendent more control over struggling schools and school districts, and would hand over control of Milwaukee’s floundering school district to the mayor’s office in that city.
But, as state Superintendent Tony Evers points out, Wisconsin’s “absolutely unacceptable” achievement gap is not limited to Milwaukee.
Kenosha, Racine, Beloit and Madison also have significant achievement gaps, with black, low-income and Hispanic students performing well below their white counterparts. And when white students perform particularly well compared to other urban areas, as they do in Madison, it exacerbates the achievement gap’s point spread.
“It’s very frustrating, and complicated in a place like Madison,” says Kurt Kiefer, Madison Metropolitan School District’s director of information services. “We celebrate the high fliers, but clearly some of our other students are really struggling. Our superintendant, Dan Nerad, sometimes calls it a tale of two districts and it’s something we are working on.”
In mid-November the district hosted a celebration for Madison’s 57 National Merit semi-finalists, young academic stars whose high marks on the national PSAT place them among the most competitive of high school students anywhere.
“Based on the numbers of students taking the PSAT in Madison, there should have been about six students in the district who were National Merit semi-finalists. Instead, for the 10th year in a row, there were between 50 and 60,” says district spokesman Ken Syke.
These kinds of successes among the district’s best students, plus the achievements of college-bound students scoring well on such national assessment tests as the SAT and ACT, previously may have masked how many students were being left behind in Madison schools.
But the federally mandated testing requirements of No Child Left Behind, the sweeping educational reform centerpiece of the Bush years, forced states, districts and schools into a new accountability regarding academic performance among all students.
Evers acknowledges that while the reform measure has been unpopular with many educators, test results have been useful, and have put a spotlight on the effectiveness of Wisconsin schools in educating all their students, not just their high fliers.
“As much as we all complain about No Child Left Behind — too top down, too punitive, too underfunded and ultimately not that helpful in actually addressing the problems of struggling schools and students — it has definitely identified major gaps in achievement that once were masked or unknown,” he says.
Madison’s achievement gap — driven in large part by how well white students perform on the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Exam — is significant compared to other urban districts in the state with high minority populations. White students here perform significantly better on the annual tests than students in Milwaukee, Racine, Kenosha and Beloit and scores for Madison’s black students are somewhat better than in Milwaukee or Racine. But black students’ scores in Madison are lower than Kenosha’s and, among younger students, lower than Beloit’s, too.
The point spread between the scores of Madison’s white and black sophomore students on the WKCE’s 2008 math test was a whopping 50 points: 80 percent of the white students taking the test scored in the advanced and proficient categories while just 30 percent of the black students scored in those categories. It’s a better performance than in Milwaukee, where just 19 percent of black students scored in the advanced and proficient categories, or Racine, where 23 percent did, but it lags behind Kenosha’s 38 percent. None of the scores are worth celebrating.
Adam Gamoran, director of the Wisconsin Education Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is a nationally known expert whose work has often explored issues related to the achievement gap. He says racism, overt or inadvertent, may make school feel like a hostile environment for black students, and that it needs to be recognized as a potential factor in the achievement gap.
“It would be naive to say it doesn’t exist, and that it’s not a problem for a certain number of students,” Gamoran says. He cites disproportionate disciplinary actions and high numbers of black students referred to special education, as indicators of potential unequal treatment by race.
Green, who attended Madison’s public schools, says when black students are treated unfairly it’s a powerful disincentive to become engaged, and that contributes to the achievement gap.
“There’s plenty of unequal treatment that happens at school,” says Green who, while in high school at La Follette, wrote a weekly, award-winning column about the achievement gap for the Simpson Street Free Press that helped her land a trip to the White House and a meeting with Laura Bush.
“From the earliest grades, I saw African-American males especially get sent out of the classroom for the very same thing that gets a white student a little slap on the wrist from some teachers,” she says. “It’s definitely a problem.”
It manifests itself in students who check out, she says. “It’s easy to live only in the present, think that you’ve got better things to do than worry about school. I mean, it’s awfully easy to decide there’s nothing more important than hanging out with your friends.”
But Green advocates a doctrine of personal responsibility. She encourages fellow minority students to focus on academic ambitions, starting with good attendance in class and following through with homework. She also counsels students to take challenging courses and find a strong peer group.
“The bottom line, though, is that no one’s going to get you where you’re going except you,” she says.
Madison School Board member Johnny Winston Jr., who also attended Madison schools, agrees that students have to want an education for themselves. But he says teachers can help “flip that switch” earlier.
In addition to turning on children to their own potential, Winston says it’s important to change any culture of racism that continues to exist.
“I’m sorry to say that I do get calls from parents who’ve had teachers ask them questions like, “What is your child?” First of all, the question is ridiculous and what does it mean? These parents tell me there are teachers out there who base their expectations in the classroom on race, not the individual child. That’s flat out wrong.”
Educators and politicians alike say low academic achievement has serious economic implications for everyone, especially in today’s competitive global economy.
“There was a time several decades ago when someone who didn’t do well in school and dropped out could still find a job that could support a family,” says Evers. “Even without an education, a good quality of life was possible. Those days are gone forever.”
A student who doesn’t graduate and who doesn’t have skills that lead to additional training or schooling has a wage-earning capability that’s about $1 million less over their lifetime, Evers adds. “Above and beyond the money, kids who don’t graduate often don’t vote and don’t engage in the lives of their communities. It’s a loss to them, and to the rest of us, too.”
Rep. Brett Davis, R-Oregon, the ranking Republican on the Wisconsin Assembly’s Education Committee, favors giving the state superintendent additional powers to help struggling schools and districts, and is willing to look at a whole host of measures to strengthen Milwaukee’s schools. “If Milwaukee has a strong economy, the rest of the state does well, too. I think it begins with a strong educational system. That affects communities all across the state.”
With school-age children of his own, Davis says he has a strong personal interest in education.
“We can’t have the bar set too low because this is a world where competition comes from all over the world. I’m really passionate about this because my kids — all our kids — are going to be competing with students in China and India,” says Davis.
Art Rainwater, former superintendent of the Madison school district, also sees the achievement gap as a moral issue.
“As an American I need to recognize that people who look, talk, think or live differently than I do are just as much part of this country as I am,” says Rainwater, who grew up in the segregated schools of Arkansas more than 50 years ago. “All children deserve an equal chance.”
Gamoran also argues that the achievement gap affects all Wisconsin residents, not just disadvantaged students and their families. “Even if you only consider the economics associated with high school graduation, there’s definitely a strong argument for helping students succeed. For example, one of the strongest predictors of someone becoming involved with the criminal justice system is a failure to graduate.”
Closing the achievement gap is enormously complicated for a variety of reasons, some related to poverty, some to history, some to racism, some to culture and social expectations.
Rainwater talks frequently about how gaps in language, knowledge and experiences begin for many children long before they walk through the doors of elementary school. He cites research showing that many children from impoverished homes might begin school with a working vocabulary of 400 words compared with 2,000 or more for children raised in middle class or professional homes. And then there’s the quality of interaction with adults and caregivers, which can encourage or discourage children’s willingness to explore, express an opinion or observe.
There are plenty of 5-year-olds entering school who are already behind their classmates, Rainwater says, and they are beginning their academic career at a distinct disadvantage. If Obama is calling his educational reform measures Race to the Top, these small competitors will have to do some very fast footwork, along with their teachers and their families, just to catch up with their better-prepared classmates.
Evers, Rainwater and others who are looking for solutions to the achievement gap cite research-based evidence that identifies early childhood education (age 4 through kindergarten), small class sizes, aligned curriculum across a district, extended school days and summer school as having a positive impact on student scores and performance, especially for children who come from a background of deep disadvantage.
“It’s a problem when we keep looking for one magic bullet to solve the achievement gap,” Rainwater says. “It’s a complex problem, and it’s going to require complex solutions, some of them beyond the scope of school. But we can’t say, for example, that if a child doesn’t have parental support that releases us of our responsibility to him or her.”
The Madison school district is hoping to implement a 4K program in the next two years, but a looming budget gap for 2010/11 may jeopardize those plans.
Gamoran, a sociologist, says the achievement gap has its roots in history: in slavery, Jim Crow segregation laws and the “separate but equal” schools that existed before the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education ruling. In sum, “two hundred years of oppression has a very real impact on the way people may feel about their access to opportunity or success.”
But why the gap persists, and why it appears to be growing in the Midwest but improving in southern states with a longer history of overt racism, is also complex, he says.
Gamoran says as southern blacks were drawn to resettle in the great manufacturing centers of the Midwest — the Detroits, the Clevelands, the Milwaukees — they found solid jobs, but were often herded into ghettos and substandard housing, barred from white housing, schools and neighborhoods.
When, starting in the 1960s, manufacturers began moving out of the cities in search of a suburban or nonunion work force, many of the Midwest’s unskilled workers found themselves on unemployment lines. Meanwhile, the civil rights era opened up housing outside of the ghetto to middle-class blacks, which continued to hollow out the ghettos of the industrial inner cities. With job losses and chronic unemployment, family life broke down and poverty took hold. The legacy of these changes continues to plague cities like Milwaukee, educators and social historians say.
Minneapolis, in contrast, was able to reinvent itself with a new economy based on technology and information, notes Evers; perhaps not unrelated, Minnesota has a smaller achievement gap than Wisconsin, with higher scores for black and white students.
“When manufacturing disappeared from Milwaukee 30 years ago, jobs based on nothing more than a high school education left, too. They’ve never come back, and largely they have not been replaced,” he says. “When you look at the two largest cities in each state, Milwaukee simply doesn’t have the same robust economy that Minneapolis has.”
But there’s more to the achievement gap than just economics and history, or child poverty and Rust Belt decay. Even black students from families with plenty of resources often don’t do as well in school as their white counterparts.
Experts who have been studying this aspect of the achievement gap believe many students who are skeptical about school would benefit from strong relationships with adults in the schools — teachers, coaches and administrators who believe in them, and honestly want them to succeed. Then school becomes an encouraging place for students, not a place of indifference or hostility.
Green benefited, first and foremost, from having a grandmother who was intensely involved in her success and development from the time she was little. She also prospered, she says, because she and her close friends were fortunate to find teachers who became mentors and champions. She singles out her former 6th grade homeroom teacher, Jim Pliner, now the associate principal at Sennett Middle School. Pliner recognized Green’s strong academic talents, and helped direct her toward the Simpson Street Free Press, where she became a star.
“Helping kids find an opportunity to shine, whether it’s academically or creatively or dribbling a basketball, is one of the most rewarding things in the world.” says Pliner. “There’s an amazing amount of untapped potential out there, and they need adults who can help them find tangible opportunities to develop.”
Green says it’s crucial not to let anyone else, whether it’s other students or teachers, de-rail your dreams. “You learn quickly who doesn’t expect much of you and who genuinely wants you to succeed. And they are there for you, especially if you’re willing to go to class, do your homework, avoid temptations and stay focused.”
Green’s efforts sometimes got her labeled “white girl.” It wasn’t a compliment.
“But I’m not a confrontational person, and I just kind of thought to myself, ‘Okay, when you’re working at McDonald’s or whatever, have fun,’ ” she explains. And, she adds, she was also fortunate to have some great role models in older African-American girls at the Simpson Street Free Press who were going on to college.
“I hoped that could be me, too. And even if my family couldn’t afford to send me to school I thought maybe I could figure something out,” she says. “And, I have.”