As recently as 1998, the press was reporting that African-Americans score lower than European-Americans on vocabulary, reading, and math skills tests in general, as well as on standardized tests claiming to measure scholastic aptitude and intelligence. Although the gap had narrowed somewhat after 1970, the American black child still scored lower than whites, as much as 15% lower. Despite abundant speculation and a wealth of research, no one had yet come up with a 'magic bullet' to put a stop to the disparity; in fact, research had shown that the problem was extremely difficult to overcome, despite integration (a fact for more than 40 years) and improvement in other socioeconomic factors. "It is true that the gap shrinks only a little when black and white children attend the same schools. It is also true that the gap shrinks only a little when black and white families have the same amount of schooling, the same income, and the same wealth." (Jencks and Phillips, 1998) students have both high and low GPAs. The disparity is substantial, as revealed by grades. Researchers in Shaker Heights, Ohio, found that "black-white GPA gap equals roughly one letter grade. The mean GPA is in the neighborhood of C+ for blacks and B+ for whites." (Ferguson, 2001)
Several researchers studied the 5,600-student school district of Shaker Heights, Ohio, to try to discover the causes of the problem. In that district, some trouble achievement disparities had been identified. "While blacks constituted more than half the enrollment at Shaker Heights High at the time, they accounted for fewer than 10% of the top-achieving students, but 90% of those at the bottom. (Viadero and Johnston, 2000)
The fact might be even more troubling if anthropologist John Ogbu is correct. Ogbu was the main proponent of the idea "that the historical mistreatment and continuing marginality of blacks in the United States foster 'attitudes and skills less favorable to white middle-class type school success'."10 (Ferguson 2001) Ogbu died in 2002, but shortly before that, speaking to the City Club of Cleveland, he also noted that "blacks shunned good grades and challenging schoolwork for fear of acting white, that black students didn't listen in class, they had poor study habits..." (NPR 2003) and had a fear of acting white.
Other researchers have also identified that syndrome. "Studies since the 1980s have identified a tendency among some African-American students to accuse high-achieving black students of 'acting white' -- especially if they also use standard English or associate with white classmates," according to Viadero and Johnston. In their work, they spoke with many of the students. This answer was typical:
lot of black kids have in mind that we just got to go to school and get our C's and D's,' said MAC scholar Jaronn Lawson. 'If we could just break that perception, they'd see there is no such thing as 'acting white' or 'acting black.' (Viadero and Johnston, 2000)
That might be a chicken and egg question; perhaps the students retreat into 'acting black' because they started the game a few chips short. Black students entering kindergarten show weaker reading skills overall than White counterparts. This disparity persists right through secondary schooling, and worse, it exists and continues even when students' parents have equal years of schooling. Researchers who worked with that idea have found that schools can positively affect the disparity if they examine two speculative causes: teachers and students. "In an ideal world, schools would reduce these disparities." (Ferguson, 2003)
In fact, some research has found teachers sustain and even exacerbate the problems by carrying and acting on inaccurate perceptions, although the same research has also shown that "Few teachers can sustain grossly inaccurate expectations for many of their students in the face of daily feedback that contradicts those expectations," Ferguson noted. The question then becomes whether they are fostering those same expectations.
Each of the experimental studies suggests that some teachers may be helping Whites more than Blacks and that the differences may be large enough to have nontrivial effects on performance. Studies of real classrooms confirm this hypothesis. (Ferguson, 2003)
The same studies found no racial differences but had found differences favoring Whites. The author of the study noted that studies finding differences were more likely to be published, indicating a contrarian bias in the nature of research allowed to reach the marketplace.
Nonetheless, if our benchmark is unconditional racial neutrality, there is strong evidence of racial bias in how teachers treat students." (Ferguson, 2003) This statement, in face of the acknowledged contrarian bias, might also need to be considered for its potential bias.
And it is not possible to leave out the bias of the Black students themselves in favor of 'acting black' and the potential effect this might have on student-teacher interaction. In another version of the 'acting white' problem, researchers have found that black students who are low achievers seem to be less engaged with academics than the high achievers. They allow other concerns -- notably 'being cool' -- to take up 'brain space' that might otherwise be used in studying and academic achievement. "Among black males and females whose predicted GPAs are 2.0 or lower, the mean value of the 'friends think academic zeal isn't cool' variable is right around the mean for all students in Shaker Heights. At the same time, 32% of these males and 21% of the females report that they hold back." (Ferguson, 2001) The same research found that holding back was most prevalent among students reporting negative peer pressure and who took no honors or AP classes. Some reported that their friends " 'make fun of people who try to do real well in school'" and if "friends disapprove of grade competition, then the rate of holding back rises to over half." (Ferguson, 2001)
Holding back is an issue studied fairly extensively in an attempt to explain the achievement gap. Researchers noted that peer pressure was perhaps not the only reason for holding back. Those who had the skills to achieve at a higher level sometimes didn't not because of overt peer pressure, but because they personally wanted to fit in. One researcher uses the example of Sidney and Max.
Though Sidney and Max scored higher than most of the high-achieving males on The PSAT, nonetheless their response was to avoid learning what their scores were and, once that was no longer possible, to minimize the importance of what they had done. Since their friends are like them -- football players and athletes -- they do not want to call attention to themselves in areas other than athletics. (Ferguson, 2001)
Avoidance of taking honors and AP course also was form of holding back, not reported in surveys. Anecdotal evidence says that black students are far less likely to take honors and AP course, even adjusting for attitudes, behaviors and family backgrounds. (Ferguson, 2001)
The idea of engagement is another that was used in defining the holding back attitude. Four categories were found to affect engagement. The first was having a purpose or goals. The second was a need for recipes or strategies to apply in pursuing those goals. Then the student needed to believe he or she had sufficient abilities. Finally, they required rewards sufficient to make the effort worthwhile. If any of these was substantially absent, "then engagement is likely to be minimal." (Ferguson, 2001)
Completing homework would have to be considered part of 'engagement.' However, in some studies, blacks have been shown to spend as much time as whites in doing homework, or even more time, but also:
lower rate of homework completion. Note also that the amount of time spent doing homework (a measure of effort) does not help in predicting GPA, once the percentage of homework completed (a measure of effort and proficiency) is taken into account. Overall, the data indicate that blacks on average spend about twenty minutes less time each night on homework than whites do. (Ferguson, 2001)
Anecdotal evidence, however, pointed to a 'homework' problem. Teachers and administrators in Shaker Heights told researchers that black-white differences in 'tough behavior' and rates of homework completion make it appear "blacks exert less effort than whites and have more oppositional attitudes about achievement." (Ferguson, 2001) Amazingly, the same researcher was able to conclude on the heels of that that although these behavioral differences had been observed, their effort is no less than that of white classmates and their peer culture is no more opposed to achievement. This rather inexplicable conclusion would render it impossible to make improvements, and probably can be discounted as some sort of 'white guilt' reaction to the researcher's own findings. It is difficult to cure a problem if you find it exists and then declare that it doesn't. And in any case, the same researcher shortly backs off and notes that both skill-related and effort-related " play major roles in predicting GPAs of B. Or better for some black students, but C. Or lower for others." (Ferguson, 2001) He notes…