Skip to Navigation
University of Pittsburgh
Print This Page Print this pages

September 28, 2006

Racial disparity in performance must be focus, superintendent says

The disparity in performance between black and white students in America is “the most complex, serious, politically and emotionally charged critical issue of our time,” Pittsburgh City Schools Superintendent Mark Roosevelt told a Pitt audience this week.

Roosevelt’s talk, “The Intersection of Race and Educational Opportunity and Achievement,” drew a crowd of well over 100 people Tuesday. Pitt’s Center on Race and Social Problems sponsored the event.

“This economy will treat undereducated people with absolutely no courtesy whatsoever and that is why the educational performance of our students and the racial components of this discussion have so much power,” he said, arguing that an aggressive, multifaceted resolution is necessary if American students are to compete in a global economy.

“This is not only the civil rights issue of our time, it dwarfs any other issue that pretends to be about civil rights. And one of the reasons we haven’t made progress is this agenda gets hijacked all the time and it gets hijacked by other agendas that may or may not be about civil rights but which make advancing the achievement of African-American students secondary to other issues.”

Roosevelt said that he dislikes using the “gap” between black and white students’ performance as a yardstick because white students themselves aren’t performing well enough to be held up as a standard for achievement. Nevertheless, most studies of student performance draw comparisons along racial lines.

“The facts are just plain depressing,” he said citing national proficiency scores that show only 13 percent of black 4th graders and 12 percent of black 8th graders are performing at or above grade level in literacy. In math, only 3 percent of black 11th graders test as proficient, he said.

To bring the issue closer to home, he drew local examples from among what he called “tons of bleak statistics.” A recent Rand study showed that black children in Pittsburgh’s best city schools do worse than white students in the district’s worst-performing schools, he said. “Even schools that are doing something right aren’t doing right by African-American kids,” he said.

And only three black students in the Pittsburgh School District, which in 2005 had 10,111 students enrolled in its secondary schools, passed AP exams last year. “That’s it. Three,” he said.

“There’s the picture: Bleak, terrifying, embarrassing, humiliating … but all of us should recognize that in an economy that is changing as fast as this one is that these numbers represent a threat to this republic that is gargantuan. To our civic life, to our social life, to our cultural life, to our ambitions to be fair, to our ambitions, period,” he said.

If progress is to be made, Roosevelt said, educators must be honest about what the objectives are and clearly define them.

“The lens you should look at,” he said, “is children, not adults … adult interests have been trumping children in school policy for a long time.” While others might cite such laudable goals as integration or a diverse workforce in the classroom as the most important, Roosevelt said, his primary goal simply is to improve significantly the academic performance of black children.

His other goals are to increase the number of black children graduating from high school, and to raise the value of what that attainment means, to increase their college graduation rates — not merely acceptance rates — and to better prepare non-college-bound students for the workforce.

Standing in the way of that is a complex set of obstacles, all of which must be addressed, he said. Poor schools are one problem, but belief systems — including racism and differing expectations of students of different races — affect students’ performance, too, he said. “How many of us really believe in every fiber of our being that every child sitting in front of every teacher can learn to a high standard?” he asked, citing studies that show “not only do white teachers have different expectations of African-American, white and Latino students, but so do Latino and African-American teachers.”

Other factors include the breakdown of community and families, he said, noting that more than 70 percent of African-American children in Pittsburgh public schools live in single-parent households.

And, toughest to talk about, he said, is the cultural issue.

“In some ways we know that there is a culture that permeates a great part of African-American youngsters that emphasizes swagger way more than it does work,” he said, adding that it’s a controversial topic. “It is clearly hugely debilitating.” He noted that in Boston’s public schools, Vietnamese immigrants who may not yet speak proper English consistently are at the top of honor rolls, thanks to a cultural infrastructure that emphasizes educational success. “The little culture that they inhabit puts education above anything else and it trumps all the other issues that they face in their lives,” he said, emphasizing the importance of that social infrastructure.

Roosevelt proposes developing “alternative scaffolding” for students who lack a supportive family structure in their own lives. As educators, “We’re going to need to have deeper relationships in our children’s lives,” he said, predicting that within a matter of decades there will be boarding schools for public school children whose home situations are so damaged as to stand in the way of their educational success.

Among the most important things schools can do, he said, is to break the cycle that lets students fall behind by getting help quickly to those who need it.

“What is happening now is that as a kid leaves each grade just a little bit behind, the cumulative total is why you see the scores the way they are,” he said. “Our kids do better in elementary school than they do in high school. It’s like the longer they’re with us the worse they do. That’s not good.

“The reason is their lack of gaining the full grade-level knowledge accumulates and, in the end, wins,” he said.

Roosevelt, who became superintendent of Pittsburgh Public Schools in August 2005, has closed one administrative building and 21 of 86 schools in the district as part of a “right-sizing plan” that also aims to make schools more racially diverse.

Roosevelt said his plans for Pittsburgh schools include increasing academic rigor in all classrooms, including the mainstream programs where expectations for students are “paltry,” and to work on changing the belief systems that may limit expectations for student success.

Noting that no country in the history of the modern world has been an economic superpower for more than 100 years, and that indices of decline are apparent in America, he said, “If we do not act, if we do not put the full force of our intellectual and our monetary assets on this issue, it will be the issue that most helps to bring this country down.”

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Filed under: Feature,Volume 39 Issue 3

Leave a Reply