The Tragedy of the Performance Gap: Two stories, two casualties of our intransigence

The performance gaps between white and black students in this country, and to a lesser degree between white kids and their classmates from other racial groupings are not only destroying lives, they place our entire society at risk.

The existence of this performance gap is arguably the greatest contributing factors to the reality of a two-tiered society in which the citizens residing in poor neighborhoods in communities across the face of our nation live in a world that is separate and apart from mainstream America. The segment of our society that is separate and apart includes whites as well as minorities but blacks and other people of color or more readily stereotyped. Make no mistake, it is the existence of this separation that is at the root of the tragedy of Ferguson, Missouri and similar incidents that have taken place in other communities throughout the United States for as long as most of us can remember.

It is a reality in which people reside in the same communities but do not share the same dreams and aspirations, do not trust one another, and cannot relate to the cultural differences between them. It exists when black men and women are unable to trust the agencies of government charged with public safety. It also exists when public safety officials look on certain neighborhoods and their populations with distrust; when, routinely, they look at black males in particular with implicit suspicion.

Our first example that personifies the existence of the performance gap was a young black man who was a high school graduate who was taking an admissions exam for the third time. He was a personable young man with a smile that lights up the room; when in conversation he was engaging and able to look one in the eye. On the first two attempts to pass the test the young man earned identical scores of “4” out of a possible “100.” On the third and most recent attempt, it just so happened that the young man was the last individual to finish the test. While waiting for me to pull and print his score from the system he told me that he was nervous about getting his score but added “I think I did well, this time.” In the sense that he improved his score by fifty percent, it was an improvement but the reality is that he only scored a “6” on this third attempt.

The second young man, also a black high school graduate, was taking the exam for the first time. During the registration process this kid made a good impression, looked me in the eye, and asked intelligent questions. About a third of the way through the exam the young man raised his hand. When I arrived at his station he asked a question that had such a profound impact on me that I will never forget it. He asked “How are we supposed to know this stuff?” He was in the part of the exam that was focused on math and language skills. That he asked his question with such seriousness after so recently becoming a high school graduate is staggering. He earned a score of “9.”

As these two young men walked away from me I felt great sadness as I wondered where life would take them.

To these two young men the gap between them and their dreams must have seemed unbridgeable. At this point in their lives their ability to bridge the gap and become a full partner in the American dream may still be possible but it is highly improbable.

While the data collected on the two young men offers no clue to their family’s economic circumstances, both were well-attired and well-groomed and displayed no evidence to suggest debilitating poverty.

Are these kids a victim of a racist system of education and racist teachers and principals? The legitimacy of such assertions is diminished by the knowledge that many classmates of these two young men, also black, received quality educations and went on to be successful in both college and vocational schools and will ultimately find a place in mainstream society. It will be a place where they can be productive citizens while still retaining their identity as part of their cultural heritage.

Both of these kids also attended high schools with a number of African-American teachers and administrators and one had an African-American principal. Both high schools were part of a school corporation led by an African-American superintendent.

Sadly, these two young men are not exceptions to the norm rather they are two of many young people who have been unable to take advantage of an opportunity for a quality education. Because education is the key to full participation in the American dream, these young people are effectively barred from entry.

Few things are simple in life and this is particularly true of the complex socio-political challenges of the Twenty-first Century. What we do know, with a high level of certainty, is that there is a burgeoning population of young people who place no demonstrable value on education and come from families that provide minimal if any encouragement to their children to work hard to acquire that education. What we also know, and to which the overwhelming majority of teachers will attest, is that nothing contributes to academic success as much as parents who stress the importance of it and who support their children and their children’s teachers as they pursue it.

As we have so often stated in my book, Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream: The Challenge of Twenty-First Century America and in many articles, in order to be supportive parents must truly believe that getting an education will enable their children to have a better life. For many of these parents, the evidence from their own experience gives them no reason to hope that their children’s experience will be any better than their own.

The missing ingredient is hope and the operative question becomes “What can we do to re-instill hope in the hearts and minds of millions of mothers and fathers who feel hopeless and powerless. Helping these American men and women regain hope and faith in the American dream for their children, if not themselves, is the key to solving the problems with public education in America and we go about our important business as if it is an unalterable given.

If we are unable to give hope and faith to these parents and guardians and to their children nothing else we do will matter and the barrier between us will become ever more intractable.