As it wound down its 40th annual convention this weekend in Minneapolis, the National Association of Black Journalists on Saturday held a discussion about the persistent academic achievement gap between white and minority students.
Despite its overall educational successes, Minnesota has one of the nation’s most glaring achievement gaps. In that regard, the convention’s host location served as a focal point among a panel of national and local education leaders.
“One of the richest, most college-educated places in the United States, with a serious social welfare infrastructure and a lot of investment in public education, is the second worst place to raise a black family,” said Chris Stewart of the nonprofit Education Post.
He and fellow panelists Michelle Walker, CEO of St. Paul Public Schools, New York Times Magazine writer Nikole Hannah-Jones, Eric Mahmoud, founder of Minneapolis’s Seed Academy & Harvest Preparatory School, and Brian Bridges, the United Negro College Fund’s chief researcher, agreed that failures in educating students of color have led to socio-economic challenges.
Low academic achievement is directly linked to safety, economic, health care and social problems, Mahmoud said. He described the damaging consequences as a “national security issue.”
White students continued to outperform students of color by more than 20 percentage points on average, according to recent results of the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment.
There was general agreement on the panel that adults, and not students, were responsible for such disparities.
Hannah-Jones, who won accolades for a story on the resurgence of school segregation, said research suggests black students perform best in racially integrated settings, which are where resources are commonly directed. “The data show black kids get the least qualified teachers, least experienced teachers and least access to college preparatory curriculums,” she said.
But not all of the panelists agreed that desegregation should be at the top of the agenda in addressing the achievement gap. An earnest debate followed Hannah-Jones’ comments as other panelists criticized the premise that blacks needed to “chase white people,” as one person put it, in order to learn.
Mahmoud said, “If we can’t figure it out, we can’t ship enough white children in order to solve the problem.”
“I’ve seen the impact of the concentration of poverty and students of color,” said Walker, who is CEO of a school system in which about 75 percent of students are minority members. “I also go across to Minneapolis, where I live, and I see Mr. Mahmoud’s schools and other schools that are successful that are black and brown.”
WCCO-TV’s Angela Davis, who moderated the discussion, which featured audience questions, asked the panelists for ideas on what schools and the federal government could do to close the gap.
Bridges said historically black colleges and universities build a strong sense of culture and actively engage with students on their campuses, which K-12 schools with large minority populations can learn from. Stewart said federal officials should better fund public education and the mandates they place on schools.
“There are stories we should be telling about black children succeeding,” Stewart said.