Deal With The Real Challenge

Perhaps it’s time for West Virginians concerned about public education to stop worrying so much about the achievement gap between black and white students.

That got your attention, didn’t it?

We don’t want any subgroup of students not doing as well as others. That’s why we worry so much about black students’ achievement. However, here in West Virginia, there’s a very good reason we shouldn’t be as concerned about an achievement gap based on race.

The gap between how well black students do in school, compared to whites, is nearly nonexistent in West Virginia public schools.

You read correctly. Let me finish before you angrily throw the paper down in anger.

One key measure of school effectiveness — and, I would add, at how well parents and others in the community support education — is the high school graduation rate. The most recent national figures for that are from the 2014-15 school year.

On average, the graduation rate for white students in U.S. schools was 88 percent that year. For blacks, it was 75 percent. There’s a racial gap there, of 13 points.

But in West Virginia, the gap was just 4 points — the smallest of any state in the union. The rate for blacks was 83 percent; for whites, it was 87 percent.

Similar results can be found in other measures of achievement, such as standardized tests. We West Virginians do a better job than just about anyone in the country at serving black students as effectively as whites.

Don’t pat yourself on the back just yet. That was the good news. There’s bad, too.

It is that we know what the achievement gap problem is, but haven’t figured out how to correct it.

Look at another set of high school graduation rate numbers, also from 2014-15:

The rate for all students, of all races, in West Virginia was 86.5 percent. The rate for students from lower-income families was 82.9 percent — a difference of 3.6 points.

Notice anything? Perhaps that the gaps between white and black, all students and those from lower-income households, were nearly the same?

We don’t do a bad job of helping kids from lower-income families, either. Stop reading for a moment, while you applaud the many good, dedicated teachers in our public schools.

Incidentally, we in West Virginia again do better with low-SES kids than do our neighbors in many other states. The national gap is 7.1 points, nearly twice ours.

We have to do better for all students. Clearly, that is going to be more difficult for low-SES children. They have more ground to make up.

None of this is news to educators. They are well aware of the challenge. Here in West Virginia, we do a better job of overcoming it than do those in many other states.

We have to. According to some measures, more than 40 percent of the children in our schools may need help to cope with learning disadvantages that go with living in low-income households.

We do very well with some of them, not so well with others. Finding out why what works with some kids doesn’t work with others is a key.

The problem isn’t race. It’s economics, in more ways than one.

Myer can be reached at: mmyer@theintelligencer.net.

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