MTA and NAACP local leaders begin tackling achievement gap issues

Patricia Yancey, NAACP chapter, Worcester, Hao Loi, MTA and Massachusetts Community College Council member, and Paul Odongo, Southbridge teacher Patricia Yancey, NAACP chapter, Worcester, Hao Loi, MTA and Massachusetts Community College Council member, and Paul Odongo, Southbridge teacher.

Local leaders from the MTA and NAACP New England Area Conference were joined by community organizers in a first-of-its-kind meeting on June 8 to discuss how to address achievement gaps among students. “We are charting new territory here in this relationship between the MTA and the New England Area Conference of the NAACP,” said Juan Cofield, president of NAACP NEAC.

MTA President Paul Toner and Cofield convened the meeting after talking with retired educator John Reed, who is active in both the MTA and NAACP and who felt that more could be accomplished if both groups worked together.

About 75 people attended the event, including several educators and activists from other New England states. A follow-up meeting is being planned for the fall.

The lack of ethnic-minority teachers was one of the issues raised, “When I look out at the MTA membership I see that 93 percent of teachers are Caucasian and 7 percent are ethnic minorities, while the population of Massachusetts is 70 percent Caucasian and 30 percent ethnic minority,” said Toner. “By having more ethnic-minority role models working in our urban schools, we’re going to have a more positive impact on students’ lives.”

Keynote speaker Dr. Ivory Toldson, an associate professor at Howard University, sought to change emphasis away from the term “achievement gap” because that term focuses on what students are failing to do. He said the more relevant terms are “expectation gap,” “opportunity gap” and “aspiration gap.”

Toldson noted that when low-income black students do well in school despite having huge obstacles to overcome, that needs to be acknowledged. “When we don’t acknowledge their strength, we do them a huge disservice,” he said.

Toldson also said that the ways in which many urban youth cope requires a great deal of intelligence that isn’t measured on standardized tests – tests that he described as “the root of all evil.” In poor neighborhoods, he said, having strong verbal skills is essential for survival and is more highly valued than writing skills. Likewise, Toldson said, the ability to “code switch” by expressing oneself one way in the neighborhood and another way in school or at work is a necessary skill for those who have to navigate very different worlds.

Toldson also described some of the “myths” that persist and tend to disparage African-Americans. Among these, he said, is the claim that black students who do well in school are looked down on for “acting white” – a piece of conventional wisdom that Toldson believes is inaccurate. He has published research indicating that a higher percentage of black males describe students who do well in school as “cool” than do white students, male or female.

Another “myth,” he said, is that there are more black males in jail than in college. Toldson has published data showing there are 1.4 million black men in two- and four-year colleges and about 840,000 black men in prison.

MTA researcher Beverly Miyares presented data from Northeastern University Professor Andrew Sum demonstrating how few students in Massachusetts cities are achieving what he describes as the “American Dream” of graduating from high school and then obtaining a four-year college degree within four years. In selected affluent, mainly white communities, 90 percent of the students reached that goal. In the 10 large urban districts Sum analyzed, that figure dropped to 22 percent.

Several meeting participants challenged the usefulness of Sum’s figures, saying few low-income students can afford to complete a bachelor’s degree in four years. Despite that critique, both organizations have made improving the educational outcomes for low-income students – including many ethnic-minority students – a priority. Participants noted that, even if college costs prevent many students from getting four-year degrees, it’s “on us” – K-12 educators – to improve high school graduation rates.

After the presentations, participants gathered in groups by region to have preliminary discussions about how they might be able to work together at the local level to address the problem. Among the issues discussed were challenges that the MTA and NAACP have both identified in the past, including:

  • Increasing the number of educators of color.
  • Improving the quality and affordability of early childhood education.
  • Encouraging and supporting more highly qualified and experienced educators to work in low-income area schools in order to improve the quality of instruction.
  • Addressing racial disparities in school discipline and reducing school suspensions.

“This meeting was an important first step,” Cofield said. “It’s going to be up to all of us to make sure this is not an end step.”