By JONATHAN TILOVE
June 27, 1999
c. Newhouse News Service
ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Ann Arbor is a liberal, integrated college town. A place known for its good minds and goodwill. And excellent public schools, among the best-funded and best-performing in the state. Except, of course, for that huge achievement gap between black and white students, nearly a full grade point on average.
The gap is an old, and national, dilemma. But why here and and why in America’s other Ann Arbors _ college towns like Amherst and Cambridge in Massachusetts, Berkeley, Calif., Chapel Hill, N.C., Evanston, Ill., and Madison, Wis., and affluent suburbs like Shaker Heights and Cleveland Heights in Ohio, Oak Park, Ill., Arlington, Va., and White Plains, N.Y.? More to the point, why are children of the black middle class among those faring so poorly in some of America’s finest public schools?
These are the questions that are drawing these dozen school districts together in what is called the Minority Student Achievement Network that will try to divine what is depressing black achievement.
After all, said Donald Offermann, the Oak Park and River Forest high school superintendent, “If this challenge is going to be met anywhere, it should be met in our school districts.”
But their shining, liberal images aside, a closer examination reveals the ways in which these hometowns of America’s educational elite actually accentuate achievement gaps. And how that happens helps explain why racial equality nationally is so elusive. Close to home, visions of a more just world fade in the face of self-interest, never more purely expressed than in the desire to provide the best for one’s own children.
These are communities where the public schools are geared to the needs and demands of some of the nation’s most academically driven students, who soar above their peers elsewhere and whose parents are more focused on fortifying their children’s competitive advantage than crusading for the social justice of more equal outcomes.
“We have parents in Ann Arbor who love their children more than anything else in the world _ their children and their children alone,” said Cheryl Garnett, a former school board chairman, who is black. “They like the idea that their children live in a community that is racially diverse,” said Garnett, whose five children graduated from the Ann Arbor schools. But, she added, “It is not diversity at all cost. It’s diversity as long as it’s at no cost.”
The individual acts of self-interest by the educationally savvy perpetuate privilege, though it looks like nothing more than the triumph of merit. And then, because in all these communities the difference in achievement is so glaring, so worried-over and so enduring, the gap has become a given, lowering expectations for black students in ways that further undermine their success.
“(Ann Arbor) views itself as magnanimously liberal,” said David Flowers, the interim superintendent, who is white, “but it’s a veneer.”
And beneath the veneer?
“At the heart of this problem, if you had to single out any one thing, it would be expectations and a mind-set that some can learn and some can’t,” said Flowers, who is leaving to become superintendent in Fargo, N.D. “That’s the ugly underbelly of this _ the bell curve mentality,” referring to a belief that intellect is distributed in ways that the schools are largely helpless to affect.
“We’re trapped by our own success,” said Brad Orr, a white parent and University of Michigan physics professor who serves on the Ann Arbor school board. He thinks because the schools work well for a large percentage of students, their parents oppose change.
Patty DeYoung, a white elementary school principal in Ann Arbor who has been active in efforts to get rid of tracking, saw how many black children were labeled slow in first grade and never recovered, and how threatened many teachers and white parents were by reform.
“Do people really want to close the gap?” asked Dr. Charles Moody, who founded the National Alliance of Black School Educators and co-chairs Ann Arbor’s most recent African-American Achievement Initiative. Moody, a retired vice provost for minority affairs at the University of Michigan, thinks white folks enjoy pondering “why they’re on top.” Their true view, said Moody: “We want you to do well, but we don’t want you to do too well.”
Or as his wife, Christella Moody, the former director of staff development for the Ann Arbor Schools, puts it, “Every black kid is seen as having an achievement gap,” and white teachers and parents react accordingly.
Paul Masem, the superintendent of the Cleveland Heights-University Heights School District, put it this way: “I’ve had a million meetings where a white parent comes in and says, `I chose this district because of its diversity, but my child needs to be with his peers,’ and his peers are always defined as socioeconomically and racially alike.”
As superintendent in Little Rock, Ark., 20 years ago, Masem devoted considerable resources to an aggressive minority achievement effort premised on the simple notion that “we’re not accepting as a given poor performance on the part of minorities.” It led to a sharp increase in black enrollment in high school honors courses, from 5 percent to almost 30 percent. But, said Masem, “People were absolutely sure we had abandoned quality.”
Anne Wheelock was a consultant to the NAACP in its effort to reduce tracking in the Amherst, Mass., schools a few years ago, against much teacher and parent opposition. It met with mixed success. “People could imagine black students or Hispanic students succeeding, but they fell back into a kind of ranking mentality in which (those students) still could never be as good in their minds as the most able, articulate white student,” said Wheelock, who is white and lives in Boston.
In a 1996 article in the Harvard Educational Review, UCLA education professors Amy Stuart Wells and Irene Serna detailed how elite white parents were able to successfully resist detracking efforts in 10 racially integrated school districts (they do not name the communities) because the white parents held all the cards. Their trump card: We lose, we leave.
“The question we need to ask is are we interested in helping all kids to succeed or is that just a cover story for a system that is about triumphing over everyone else,” said Alfie Kohn, a white, Boston-area education critic who last year wrote a piece in a leading education journal titled “Only for My Kid: How Privileged Parents Undermine School Reform.”
But as parents of the most successful students in these communities know best of all, admission to America’s top universities is precisely a matter of triumphing over everyone else. In that context, the perceived cost to their child of eliminating ability grouping appears crystal clear, while the benefit to the children on the other side of the achievement ravine is murky at best.
Ellen Brantlinger, an education professor at Indiana University, studied well-educated middle-class mothers in her hometown of Bloomington and found that while they supported integrated and inclusive education in theory, they preferred segregated and stratified schools for their own children. “We talk out of both sides of our mouths,” she said.
“What this school is proud of and what this school is driven by are the top performing students,” said Robert Galardi, the principal of Ann Arbor’s Pioneer High School. It is their parents, Galardi said, who will come visit him freshman year to alert him to the “Princeton material” they are delivering to his care, and it is those parents from whom he will hear the most for the next four years.
This year’s graduating class at Pioneer, where about 17 percent of the enrollment is black, included 31 students with a grade point average between 3.9 and a perfect 4.0. Only one was African-American.
The top achievers, said Chris Argersinger, a white parent who has just completed six years on the school board, tend to come from very education-oriented backgrounds. “Their parents don’t play poker, they play Scrabble,” is how she put it.
James Rosenbaum, a professor of education at Northwestern University, thinks these districts, which serve significant poor as well as middle-class black communities, are too hard on themselves, noting that “most of the difference you find in the 12th grade is seen in the first grade.”
Rosenbaum, who was a parent in the Evanston schools, said one finds kindergartners there who are already fluent readers sitting next to children who don’t know their ABCs. It is silly, he said, for educators there to beat themselves up because they cannot even that score. The point is, he said, even the black kids lagging behind in Evanston are better off than in neighboring Chicago.
Perhaps that is true in Evanston, but in Ann Arbor, middle-class black students are doing less well than poor white students (which is consistent with a national pattern). And black students in Ann Arbor don’t do as well as black students in the rest of Michigan, even though their parents tend to be better educated and their schools are reputed to be among the best.
Some are not surprised.
“My own children were C students,” said Christella Moody, despite her and her husband’s influence and concern. But, she said, that reflects more on the Ann Arbor schools than her sons. “We knew they were not going to get what they deserved.”
One of their boys was given the free lunch card provided for low-income students. “If you’re black, you’re black,” she said.
Today all three sons are hugely successful in Atlanta. The eldest, David, is founder and CEO of C.D. Moody Construction, whose projects have included the Olympic Stadium.
Some black students do, of course, excel.
Jessica Ransom is one of the relatively few blacks in advanced classes at Pioneer. Once there, she said, “There’s a lot of pressure to do well, to break the stereotype.” But others who might succeed won’t risk failure or isolation.
In Berkeley, Pedro Noguera, an education professor at the university, former member of the school board, and the leader of a research project within the Berkeley schools, said his son refused to take Advanced Placement biology. “He didn’t want to be the only black kid in the class,” Noguera said.
Odell Palacio, 16, is excelling at the Roberto Clemente Student Development Center, a small Ann Arbor alternative school with a heavily black enrollment. But he recalls being over at Pioneer for football practice during a school day and how two white teachers joked with him while ignoring the four other black students nearby cutting class.
“We’re talking about the achievement gap and here at the same time we’ve got teachers who don’t really give a damn,” said Palacio.
“Nobody is invested in these kids,” said Gloria Ladson-Billings, an education professor at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Too often, she said, the teacher attitude toward black children is, “If you want to learn, fine; if you don’t want to learn, that’s OK too.”
Ladson-Billings, the author of “Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African-American Children,” is deeply involved as a researcher and mother in the Madison schools but, she said, last year a teacher attempted to keep her daughter, a nearly straight-A student, out of eighth grade algebra, a critical course for the college-bound. The teacher said her daughter lacked the aptitude for it. “I went absolutely ballistic,” said Ladson-Billings. “But what if I hadn’t advocated for her?”
Cheryl Garnett worked her way through college while putting five children through the Ann Arbor schools. But she said fighting for her children was full-time work.
“This district broke my heart,” said Garnett, recalling the time one son, then in third grade, scored 100 on his math test only to have his teacher ask him if he cheated. “I was all prepared to go up there and punch some white woman in the face, and I walked up there and turned around and had to walk away because it was a black woman who had taught my kid that he was not smart.”
Allan Loeb, the president of the Ann Arbor teachers’ union, said the notion that teachers are sending negative signals to black students doesn’t ring true with his 25 years of experience in Ann Arbor schools. And school board member Argersinger is also skeptical. “That’s such a lame excuse,” she said. “Get over it.”
Far more crucial, she said, is the issue of black parental involvement. “The parents need to go to school conferences, they need to get their kids up in the morning.” And, she said, if black youths are discouraging each other from achieving, “you know there isn’t a white person in the world that’s going to be able to change it.”
Joe Dulin, the tough-love principal at Roberto Clemente who founded National African-American Parent Involvement Day, exhorts his mostly black student body, “Your success or failure depends primarily on you.”
But some don’t like the explicit race-consciousness of these efforts. Ann Arbor’s African-American Achievement Initiative has been challenged by Jack Rice, a retired industrial engineer, who filed a civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Education.
Numerically, Rice said, more white children fail than black. The focus on race divides and, he believes, unfairly stigmatizes all black children in self-fulfilling ways.
“If you think it’s race, it is race,” said Rice.
It is the hope of Evanston Township High School Superintendent Alan Allson, the man spearheading the new minority student achievement effort, that in the years to come they can begin to untangle the weave of race and class through issues of school readiness, teacher expectations, parental involvement, student motivation, peer pressure and community attitudes.
“What’s new about it is that they are trying to understand the problem before they rush into solutions,” said Edmund Gordon, a retired professor of psychology at Yale and a member of the College Board’s National Task Force on Minority High Achievement. He will be directing the new multidistrict initiatives’ cooperative research effort with at least some of the institutions of higher education in their midst.
“If this problem can be cracked,” said Gordon, “I am rather optimistic about this effort.”
But Flowers, the departing interim superintendent in Ann Arbor, remains skeptical that these districts, tuned to the fever academic pitch of the Harvards, Amhersts, Northwesterns and flagship state universities in their midst, can adjust.
“The University of Michigan is not going to change, so when we talk about changing the paradigm from one that’s based on a belief in innate ability and the bell-shaped curve to a different model, you have to ask realistically will the pick and shovel work, will the pioneer work in the transformation take place in the Ann Arbors of the world, and I think the answer is `no.’
“The rest of the world will have to change first before these traditional bastions of higher education will change,” said Flowers. “They won’t lead. They may follow, but they won’t lead.”