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Prepare for More Black Mathletes
We know how to close the math achievement gap, now we just have to do it
PREPARE FOR MORE BLACK MATHLETES
We know how to close the math achievement gap, now we just have to do it
Imagine flipping through channels and landing on “Middle School Math Championships.” You’re anticipating what the teams will look like. A crew of Asian-Americans versus some preppy white kids in blazers, perhaps? Sure enough, the mathletes walk on stage and fit your preconception. However, there is one black participant. “Good for him,” you think to yourself, though you didn’t have that thought about any of the other nerdy participants.
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You have just engaged in racial stereotyping. And yet a math achievement gap between blacks and whites (and Asians) does exist. Dr. Roland Fryer may have cracked the code on how to eliminate that gap. If we allow his research to guide policy, perhaps there will be no mathlete stereotypes within a decade.
White students score about 30 points higher on math tests than black students. Fryer implemented a strategy at a failing Houston school district that closed the gap. He did it by applying to elementary and secondary schools in the Houston district the five tenets of school success that he discovered in researching the habits of highly successful charter schools. Theories on how to close the academic achievement gap vary from “fix the home” to “fix the school” to “fix the community.” Fryer’s results make a compelling case for “fix the school.”
The five tenets are clear-cut:
Increased Time in School
Good Human Capital Management
High Dosage Tutoring
Data Driven Instruction
Culture of High Expectations
Increasing time children spend in school may be unpalatable for parents concerned about indoctrination but this concern is addressed with the human capital management tenet (more on this in the following paragraph). Others may balk at longer schooldays, citing conflicting research on foreign schools pointing to shorter days as a tenet of student success. However, research on small homogenous countries like Finland is unlikely to reveal practices easily transferable to the United States. Fryer’s experiment confirms, in contrast, that when time in school is spent well, it’s good to spend more of it, particularly when the alternative might be a home environment non-conducive to children’s learning. Fryer had treatment schools in the Houston district increase time on task in various ways, including eliminating breaks between classes, expanding the school day by one hour, offering weekend classes, and adding days to the school year.
Human capital management is probably the most obvious tenet of improving education. In other words, get rid of teachers who won’t embrace the mission and hire ones that will. This tenet is likely the most difficult to execute. Politics and scarcity of resources are the challenges. A whopping 19 out of 20 principals were replaced in the Houston experiment. It took over 300 interviews to find 19 principals to replace them. Of the teachers, 46% were replaced. The district spent more than $5 million buying out teacher contracts. Additionally, feedback to teachers was constant. In the treatment schools, teachers received ten times more observations and feedback than those in the control group. Principals regularly lead staff development and training sessions.
Few schools tutor the number of students for the length of time that Fryer recommends. Remember that extra hour added to the school day? This is where it’s put to work; daily, focused small-group tutoring. In the Houston experiment, low performing fourth graders and all sixth and ninth graders were intensively tutored.
Like their teachers, students in the experiment were constantly being evaluated. Many schools collect data, but few are good at adjusting instruction in light of data. In Fryer’s experiment, treated schools held assessments every three weeks as well as benchmark exams three times in a school year. These results informed tutoring and allowed teachers to set highly specific performance goals with students.
A culture of high expectations is the trickiest tenet to measure. The tenet goes beyond posters that say “Nobody Cares, Work Harder.” Indicators that a real attitude shift has occurred may include things like professional dress codes for teachers, posted achievement goals and/or contracts between parents and schools agreeing to honor expectations.
Math achievement rose significantly in the schools that implemented Fryer’s tenets. Assessment scores increased by 0.15 to 0.18 standard deviations in a year. In layman’s terms, under this program, there is potential to close the math achievement gap between black and white students in less than three years. Even more important than comparison between groups and closed gaps is the absolute good of increased math proficiency among students who have been too long neglected.
Parents may look at Fryer’s tenets and think, “What can I do with this? I’m not an administrator.” The takeaway for parents is not what they should be doing to their schools but what they should be looking for in a school. As school choice spreads, empowered parents set the standards. Parents don’t have to stress about commonly used but inaccurate indicators of quality schools, such as class size, a classical curriculum, or highly credentialed teachers. Just look for the five tenets and you have reason to believe that your children will thrive academically.
For administrators and lawmakers responsible for struggling schools, the tenets offer an instant and effective plan of action, which may be complemented by steps such as the following:
Audit the school day: Repurpose wasted time to time spent on task.
Teacher Union Reform: Replacing teachers who won’t adopt the tenets must become both affordable and timely.
Rethink Student Teaching: All teachers in training are required to participate in student teaching. Perhaps this could be reimagined to include participation in small-group, high-dosage tutoring. This would help lower costs and establish buy-in to the tenets from young teachers at the start of their careers.
Upgrade the Dress Code: Have teachers set an example by upgrading to professional dress first. Then have students follow. Being a “classic man” was once cool.
Fryer’s research yields a clear set of five practices that can be implemented in struggling school districts across America and used as guidelines by parents looking for effective schools. Let’s stop spinning the wheel on solving the achievement gap and do what we know gets results. Future mathletes are depending on it.
Connie Morgan is a Christian, wife, and mother living in Washington state. She started her professional life in the craft-beer industry and is now transitioning out of the Armed Forces, where she served as a military intelligence officer. Her first post-military civilian job is with Free Black Thought, where she is currently researching and writing about education and other issues. Follow her on Twitter and subscribe to her new Substack.