Tuesday, June 15, 2010

An achievement gap AMONG blacks?

Take a look at this list of black high school students honored in Montgomery County, Md., recently for their “outstanding achievement in academics, community service and leadership.” Notice anything interesting?

Judging from their names and some information I dug up online, about three-fifths of them are African, in a school district where I think immigrants are by far the minority among blacks. This list, you know if you pay attention to this sort of thing, is not unusual.

We are aware of the immigrant paradox, but most people think about it in terms of Latinos. Musing out loud: If the performance of (first- or second-generation) immigrant black students exceeds the performance of the descendants of American slaves, does that distort what we know about the achievement gap? What does it mean about our perceptions of the role of racism in student achievement? How the hell did a kid from Togo who arrived with no English five years ago accomplish so much in so little time? (Could Serge Amouzou be more awesome? I don’t think so.) What can we learn from what the children of Africans have learned?

We often think of racial minorities as monoliths when within them lies a range of experience. Hmongs and Koreans may check off the same ethnicity box on registration forms, but their academic achievement, we know, is not similar in the aggregate. The same goes for all those people checking “African American.” They each are probably better described by one of those two words, and if there is a difference in their academic experiences because of it, we should explore that.


  1. John Ogbu spent a lot of time exploring this issue, and he differentiated between immigrant students, who come to the US with a certain set of beliefs about the path to success and the value of hard work, and involuntary minorities, students who are in the US not of their choosing.

    This is more anecdotal than anything else, but Nigerian students are well-represented among African students at elite colleges and universities, and my Nigerian friends tell me that Nigerian culture very much stresses academic success. The "Nigerian mother" is a similar stereotype to the "Jewish mother" or the "Asian mother."

  2. I agree that Serge is awesome. The reason why he's awesome can be found in the story's 3rd paragraph, I think. If a reporter were to write stories about all these immigrant kids, I think you'd see a lot of them would have similar 3rd paragraphs: Parents demonstrating high expectations for their kids and valuing education themselves.

  3. Read Elijah Anderson's "Code of the Street" to learn about the inner-city pathologies that force kids to be oppositional and disengaged from school as a matter of sheer survival.

  4. Social Identity Theory and Oppositional Culture could play roles here. Two disparate groups of students think their way is the best and behave accordingly. Very interesting point about broad group identification of African American having a negative impact. Do you think that the term "black" would be a bad substitute because it's even broader, or better, because it's inclusive?

  5. Montgomery County has to include Africans in their data because homegrown American blacks have such a low performance rate that the school system would be terribly embarassed.

  6. i have been a teacher in the south bronx for just three years and have taught 15 african students in that time. every one of them was a model student - they were polite, attentive, worked hard, and dedicated, even when handicapped by limited english and/or interrupted formal education.

    what my african students had in common with all my other top performers (african-american and latino) is parental expectation and involvement in education.

    it is a little scary to realize as a teacher that so much of our outcome is based on something we have no control over: home life. it is no coincidence that at parent teacher conference i never see the parents of students i've failed, but all of my honors kids' parents show up and ask me WHAT ELSE their kids can do at home!!!

    if african students are successful in america, despite language barriers, it is a tribute to the culture of africa and the parents' values.

  7. As a parent in a Title I school in the District of Columbia Public Schools, I see our students whose parents were born in Africa and their academic achievement is notable.

    Much of it is parenting. There is a focus on books, over video games. The children don't have the latest tennis shoes or fancy cell phones, but they have a library card.

    It isn't as if these parents are wealthy. Most of the families are on a free or reduced price lunch. Regardless, there are expectations for excellence and they support their child's learning in concrete ways.

    Sadly, the Chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools has declared that parenting means noting and all you need is a "rock star" teacher and ALL children can achieve. (For the record, I believe all children can achieve, but some can achieve higher than others with the proper home support.)

  8. Nobody cares about poor WHITE students, and they check the same box as the Rockefellers. Just saying.

  9. What does the data show about poor white students of all types? Does anyone know?

  10. i actually think that nclb has done us a disservice rather than a service. everyone acts like it shone a spotlight on how our students of color were faring (not well). but i think it actually obscures the real issue.

    white students of poverty have more in common with black students of poverty than white students of wealth. we don't have a racial gap, we have a wealth gap.

    the only reason it appears to be a racial gap is because so much of our community of color lives in poverty.

    more studies should focus ONLY on poverty to expose this further.