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Event Transcript
March 9, 2004

Closing the Racial Gap in Education:
Problems and Solutions for New York City

MR. HENRY OLSEN: We’ve become aware over the last decade or more how important education is both to the health of our nation and to the health of our children. And yet, we have also become increasingly aware of how, for all too many of our children, education is a promise that has been left sadly unfulfilled, despite the expenditure of many billions of dollars and countless hours of effort. 

Increasingly, discussion over how to solve that problem has been wrapped up in the phrase “No Child Left Behind”, a phrase captured by President Bush’s program for education reform.  But we’ve also become increasingly aware that the children who are “left behind” are not randomly distributed.  They’re all too often concentrated amongst the poorest of our citizens and even more concentrated among black and Hispanic youth, particularly those who are living in the inner city or in rural, poverty-stricken areas.

On our panel today are a policymaker, two practitioners and an academic, people who have thought long and hard about this problem and grappled with what policies can be used to help solve it. They are here today to offer their thoughts and observations both as to the nature of the problem and to offer some programs that we can implement to help close the racial gap and make sure that we fulfill our national promise that no child will be left behind.

Our first speaker today is Deputy Mayor for Policy, Dennis Walcott.  Prior to taking this position with Mayor Bloomberg, Mr. Walcott was, since 1990, President and Chief Executive Officer of the New York Urban League.  Before that post, he was Executive Director of the Harlem Dowling West Side Center for five years. 

He has a particular passion for education and is a strong proponent of educational standards and fairness in the allocation of educational services and resources among public schools.

Following him will be Abigail Thernstrom, Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, member of the Massachusetts State Board of Education, and a Commissioner on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. With her husband, Harvard historian and Manhattan Institute Senior Fellow Stephen Thernstrom, she is the co-author of America in Black and White, which in 1997 was named by the New York Times Book Review as one of the most notable books that year.  She is also the co-author, again with her husband, of the recently released book No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning, which addresses precisely the topic that we’re talking about today.

Ms. Thernstrom will be followed by David Brennan, Chairman of White Hat Management.  Mr. Brennan discovered his passion for education when he was the CEO of a manufacturing company in the 1980’s that found that many of his employees were functionally illiterate despite having graduated from public high schools. His solution was to set up internally financed schools within his company that would educate employees and pay his employees to attend classes. He has since built on that experience and formed a school management company that operates 20 schools in three states and will operate many more in the coming year.  They are called “Life Skill Centers” and they provide a unique blend of on-the-job experience and academic instruction to people who are likely to drop out or have dropped out, particularly urban minority youth. His centers offers young people both a high school diploma and job training, not a GED.

Our final panelist is Carol Reich. Carol is the President and Founder of the Beginning with Children Foundation, which runs the Beginning with Children School in New York City.  She’s been with the Foundation since its institution 14 years ago.  Prior to that she was Project Director of the Literacy Network and President of the Lexington Center. Ms. Reich holds a PhD in developmental psychology from the City University of New York.

DEPUTY MAYOR DENNIS WALCOTT: I approach this discussion really from two different perspectives.  First of all, I am Deputy Mayor for the City of New York. Second, I am a concerned person who is black and very much involved in the community and how we address the racial disparities in education that are evident throughout the city.

Let me begin by laying out some pertinent facts. The citywide student population is about 1.1 million students, and we have over 1,200 schools.  The demographic breakdown of the student population is roughly 33.7% black, 38.4% Latino, 14.8% white, and 12.6% Asian.

Let me next explain to you where the racial gaps fall, starting with elementary and middle schools in grades three through eight, including both 2003 citywide and state tests. In English Language Arts for elementary and middle school grades, about 65% of white and Asian students compared to only about 35% of black and Hispanic students met standards on the city and state tests last year. Nearly 20% of the black and Latino students scored at level one, the lowest possible level, and did not meet standards at all last year.

In math for elementary and middle school grades nearly 64% of white students and 70% of Asian students met standards last year while only 32% of black students and 34.5% of Latino students did so. Nearly one third of black and Latino students scored at level one for math (again, the lowest level) and did not meet standards last year.

If we disaggregate the New York City achievement scores on the 2003 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the nation’s most respected education testing program, for the fourth and eighth grades we find similar numbers of students scoring below proficiency level (proficient means solid academic performance for that grade).  NAEP scoring doesn’t correspond exactly to New York City and New York State scoring, but the disparities unfortunately do.

On NAEP, if you look at fourth grade reading scores for blacks the percentage at or above proficiency is 13%, for Latinos 16%, whites 45%, Asians 39%. If you take a look at the eighth grade the percentage of black students who are at or above proficiency is 13%. Latinos are at 17%, whites 42% and Asians 35%.

If you look at the NAEP data on math scores for fourth grade, blacks are at 12%, Latinos 13%, whites 42%, Asians 47%. In eighth grade math, blacks are at 9%, Latinos 15%, whites 40% and Asians 38%.

If we jump to high school and look at the class of 2002 we can compare four-year graduation rates as well as drop out rates for different ethnic groups.  Of course, these are just four-year graduation and drop out rates.  But when the look at the statistics you can see the racial gap emerging yet again. When you look at blacks, only 44.4% graduated in four years, and 22.1% dropped out after that period of time. For Latinos, 41.2% graduated in four years, and 26% dropped out. On the other hand, 70.5% of whites graduated in four years, with only 12.2% dropping out.  Among Asians, 66.9% graduated in four years and only 12.2% dropped out.

For the class of 1999, if we compare the final graduation and drop out rates at the end of seven years we see more of the same (and this was a class that we tracked for seven years with final rates in June of 2002). Three years after their expected graduation date in June of 1999, if you look at blacks, 65.2% graduated and 34.8% dropped out. If you look at Latinos, 60.6% graduated and 39.4% dropped out. Among Whites 83.6% graduated, 16.4% dropped out.  Among Asians 81.5% graduated and 18.5% dropped out.

Now that you have the real numbers, you can see that the national disparities indicated in books and academic literature are duplicated in New York.

But where can we go from here? Even with the increase in performance of some of the students and scores in New York City over the last year there’s obviously still a wide gap. And while we in New York have some of the best public schools in the country, we also have some of the worst schools. We have a tremendous job to do in making sure that we educate all students while still placing a focus and emphasis around the black and Latino students who are falling behind and dropping out in disproportionate numbers.

We know that the achievement gap that we can measure really doesn’t address the true disparity that is taking place because even with the gap we have there are still many more students who are basically uncounted. [What is meant by this?  Where is the undercount happening?] The roots of the problem are very deep and wide and the solution is going to have to be implemented over several years although we’re trying, in this administration, to correct it as best we can in a very short time.

But I think that if we’re going to correct it we have to have a very honest discussion about race and class.  And this discussion can’t be limited to the policymakers and the education establishment. It must resonate throughout the city and especially in the communities where these students are coming from.

If we examine this problem along the lines of race and ethnicity, some of the factors that impact these particular scores are due to socioeconomic conditions.  But we also have to look at family conditions.  We have to look at parental involvement.  We have to look at student attitudes towards education.  We have to look at how we have children who are black and Latino reading considerably less than white children whose parents read to them more at earlier ages. We have to take a look at the influence of television because research has shown that black and Latino students are watching television significantly more than white and Asian students. 

We also have to take a look at other influencing factors in the school system, for instance, the level of teacher education and how teachers are assigned to schools; teacher experience and attendance at particular schools; the expectations that teachers have for their students; teacher-student relationships; the curriculum and instructional rigor and the way the curriculum equips or fail to equip students to succeed educationally. Finally, we have to address safety issues in the schools as well.

Along with identifying some of the various factors that contribute to the achievement gap we—both policymakers and the community—really need to stop the blame game. We’ve gotten into the habit of always blaming the other person instead of looking at our own culpability.

Maybe the most critical education reform in New York we’ve taken so far is mayoral control and accountability for education. Since we achieved that, we’ve attempted to really streamline the school system and have a more accountable system through reforming both the management structure and as well as what is going on in the schools.  We are reorganizing classroom instruction and looking at K-12 schools, how we can move into a more coordinated system. As most of you know, in the past we had a two-tiered system where we had a division between K-8 and high school. We’ve eliminated that.

We’re taking a look at having an operational center in place to work with the schools so that we can free the principals to concentrate on the quality of pedagogy in their schools.  We’ve developed a core curriculum and are in the final stages of implementing a new promotional policy as well.

What we have proposed to the Panel for Educational Policy is to have a promotional policy that really focuses on the third grade. We proposed using the standards of the citywide test and focusing on those students who score at the lowest level, level one, and possibly retaining them in the third grade while providing supportive services to them in summer school.  If they’re still testing at level one after summer school they will be retained in the third grade. If they move up to level two, which is still below city proficiency standards, then they will be passed on.

We’re also focusing on how we can better involve parents in this process.  As most of you know, every school has now been assigned a parent coordinator whose responsibility is to engage parents and make sure that they work in conjunction with the principal and teachers.  We’ve also built interim assessments into the schools so that both parents and teachers have an ongoing scorecard on how students are doing in a particular class and how a class is doing, as well as how that school is performing. We’re making sure that at each level within our schools parents and administrators have a profile of what’s taking place in the school and can hold the school accountable.

One of the perennial arguments against ending social promotion is that some students will eventually catch up.  Well, we did an analysis of third graders in 1999 who took the citywide test and who scored at a level one and were promoted each year after that. Of that cohort, 81.7% of those students, when it came time to test them again in the seventh grade, were still performing at level one. So social promotion merely perpetuates the academic failure of the vast majority—8 out of 10—of New York City students.  We think that social promotion is an educational travesty and we are going to correct it.

ABIGAIL THERNSTROM, PhD: We, that is my husband Stephen and I, have analyzed the new NAEP comparisons of nine of the ten urban school districts studied.  After examining the results, we came to a very heartening conclusion: schools matter.  It is not, as the saying goes, all family.

In fact, if your family lives in a large urban district, which city you live in matters. Some urban districts do better than others on the fourth and eighth grade reading tests, which is where the NAEP assessments focused.

Taking into account all the normal factors, race, ethnicity, family income, and parental education, New York and Houston do well. D.C. and Los Angeles do abominably, and the other districts that NAEP tested fell somewhere in between.  I would further point out that the different results cannot be explained by per pupil spending or by class size. That’s the good news.

The typical black or Hispanic student in the fourth or eighth grade in New York City or in Houston, has stronger academic skills than the average non-Asian minority youngster in other urban districts. Or at least that was true in 2003 when the test was given.

But here’s the bad news. All boats were lifted in New York and Houston, but the racial gap in those cities is no smaller than the national average. The difference between white and black scores mirrors the national picture. In other words, the racial gap is as the Deputy Mayor described it: alarmingly, appallingly, and sickeningly wide.

We don’t have district level data for the 12th grade.  But there is zero chance that between 8th and 12th grade the gap narrows.  In cities across the nation, including New York, the average black or Latino student is leaving high school with junior high school skills and without an education essential to doing well in life.

As we argue in our book, No Excuses, this is the nation’s number one educational problem and has become a civil rights issue. Equal skills and knowledge mean equal earnings regardless of race or ethnicity.  But we are far from that point here in New York or anywhere else.

There’s been a lot of press recently about high school dropout rates, particularly those of black and Latino youngsters. The problem, as we see it, is not that a large number of black and Hispanic students never get a high school degree.  In fact, they do eventually.  The problem is that their diplomas are worthless.  They are graduating as effective illiterates. And that is an American tragedy.

The racial gap in academic achievement has got to be closed. Racial equality depends on it. The fabric of American society depends on it.  And the gap can be closed.  But not, I think, by conventional reform strategies. They will be insufficient.

I’ve seen a lot of inner city schools over the last five years while working on this book. The great schools that I discovered all look more or less alike. My favorite school—and there are lots that I haven’t seen, but among those I have seen, my favorite school is right here in New York.  It’s the KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) Academy in the South Bronx. It set the standard for me in looking at all others. And I have spent a lot of time at KIPP.

The best inner city schools have greatly extended instructional time with more hours of the day, longer weeks and longer school years. They have terrific principals who have the authority and the autonomy to manage their budgets, set salaries, staff the school with fabulous teachers, and get rid of those teachers who don’t work out.

These principals are constantly in classrooms giving feedback to teachers, which is the best sort of professional development. The schools we describe in No Excuses focus relentlessly on the core academic subjects—insisting that their students learn the times tables, basic historical facts, spelling, punctuation, the rules of grammar, and the meaning of often unfamiliar words. They provide safe and orderly environments in which to learn and for the teachers in which to teach.

But they also aim to transform the culture of their students as that culture affects academic achievement.  In other words they recognize, as we put it, that culture matters. Meeting the demands of school is harder for members of some racial and ethnic groups than others. Some group cultures are more academically advantageous that others. It’s a point that everybody knows but few want to discuss.

Asian parents typically expect their children to work extraordinarily hard in school and the children do so, cutting classes less often than their peers. And this is all grounded in data; it is not anecdotal.  Asian students cut classes less often than their peers, enroll in AP courses at triple the white rate, and spend twice as much time on homework as their non-Asian classmates.

As a result, on some math tests the white-Asian gap is actually larger than the black-white gap. People have asked us why we use the word culture, because that word seems to imply an inheritance impervious to change.  We did hesitate precisely because we worried that the term would be misunderstood. But our assumption is quite different. We assumed that cultural traits are shaped and reshaped by the environment.

Hard work, for instance, is a culturally transferable skill. And, most important, schools can play an invaluable part in shaping values, habits and skills.

For historical and other reasons, not all of which we can pinpoint as social scientists, too many black youngsters are tragically disconnected from the world of academic learning. The Hispanic picture, we argue, is slightly different. We see Hispanics as an immigrant group analogous to Italians in about 1910.

So our main concern is African American children.  It is an important part of the mission of schools to connect disconnected children to academic learning as the key to climbing the ladder of economic opportunity in our marvelously open and fluid society.

That process of connection involves not only teaching well the core academic subjects, but also includes an education in etiquette, for instance arriving at school every day on time, working in a disciplined and organized fashion, meeting deadlines, learning that there are consequences for slovenly behavior, dressing for success at school because it will be expected of you in a work environment, learning standard English, learning to shake hands, writing thank-you notes to visitors and so forth. The list is long, but these are critical social and cultural skills that every child must learn.

David Levin of the KIPP Academy has said that we are fighting a battle to instill skills and values in our students.  Consequently, he is not afraid to set social norms. Setting social norms in schools is essential to academic achievement.  And the alternative to closing that gap is the perpetuation of ancient inequalities.  Unless we close the racial gap in education America will continue to have a racially identifiable group of educational have-nots. This is morally unacceptable, and it’s economically and socially disastrous.

MR. DAVID BRENNAN: Let me give you a snapshot of this problem nationally.

About four and a half million youngsters turned the age of 18 last year. But at least a million and a quarter of those youngsters did not have a high school diploma at the age of 18.

Now that’s a national epidemic.  The problem that we are talking about today is not limited to New York City.  It’s primarily an urban problem in that there’s no place for these youngsters to go and get adequately employed and support themselves.

We are raising an underclass that will be drawn into crime and homelessness. This is totally unacceptable, against all the rules of our society, and yet we’re promoting that outcome with an educational system that does not want to provide alternatives to children that will allow them to secure an education and deal with the realities of their lives.

My purpose today is to talk about at least one approach to this problem that we should not ignore.  While we try to rebuild our schools, and I’m very pleased to hear Deputy Mayor Walcott describe the city’s efforts to do just that, there are things we can do today to change the lives of our children.

In the population we are talking about dropouts are growing in number and represent, in my opinion, a cancer that will destroy our society if we do not deal with it very quickly in large numbers. We need to offer these students alternatives now.

The public school system is failing to solve this problem. I agree with Abby’s comment that many of those who manage to graduate with a high school diploma really don’t have an adequate education. But I can assure you that everyone who does not have a diploma does not have an adequate education and his or her employment prospects are dim at best.

What we’ve learned is that we can provide these children with an alternative that we believe works well, and our solution is to empower the student.  A student who comes to one of our Life Skill Centers, which is what we call the offices where students can work toward their high school diplomas, when he or she enters the school environment they find that they can tailor their education to their needs and succeed. 

We have also made a conscious effort to operate in a business environment. Our Life Skills Centers are located in office buildings in downtown areas.  We do this to give our clients access to bus routes and employment opportunities because our school also provides job training and employment. 

That’s what these children need. They have to be socialized to recognize that an education is the prerequisite for success in the work world and giving them a job in tandem with education teaches them that.

That is one reason they have sought us out.  They have found out by the age of 16, 17, or 18 that their future is going to be very dim without a job. We all know that.  And we have to have educational alternatives that respond to that reality. 

When students arrive at our Life Skills Centers they are evaluated to see where they are academically. This evaluation, we have found, can be very daunting.  There are 18-year-olds out there reading at the third grade level. Nonetheless, they will be put into an education plan that is tailored for them.

I suggest to you this should be the cornerstone of every education reform, no matter what grade we are talking about. Individualized learning plans are essential to recognizing and addressing the tremendous differences among children for whatever reason. 

School choice programs are beginning to provide a lot of viable alternatives for students and parents. And that’s what we are.  My company operates these programs. We’re a profit making company. We are an education management organization because we see a gap in the public school system that we can address.

It takes an enormous amount of capital to offer the kinds of individual instruction that we offer and we don’t call upon the government to provide us with that capital. We take in revenues equivalent to about two-thirds of what public schools spend on the average high school student.  We are now graduating about one out of three students who come to us.

This may not seem impressive until you consider that we are dealing with a population that is at tremendous risk of dropping out of the education system altogether. Almost none of them would get a diploma without our help. This is only our fifth year offering our life skills programs, and so we will naturally get better.

How do our schools actually operate? We spend three hours a day on academics through a computer that controls and monitors a student’s academic progress. Computerized learning is a magic bullet for students that don’t want to sit in a classroom and be embarrassed or frustrated by their ignorance in front of their peers. Learning in privacy is very important to an underachiever and computers provide that.  It’s a very powerful tool.

Our students come into class, choose the academic material they want to study that day, and can spend all three hours on one topic or some mix of topics. These students are tested constantly both on computers and on traditional paper and pencil tests.

In the typical classroom there are 35 to 50 workstations, each student has their own computer, and there are five to seven educators who are there to assist students at all times. The students who graduate say the reason that they succeeded at our life skill centers was one, they were in control, and two, they got all the attention they needed when they needed it. That kind of attention is critical.  Students who don’t succeed in traditional classrooms need individual attention. They are crying out for attention. Lacking that attention, these students will act out in schools or dropout altogether.

So these students want individualized attention. But by definition they want attention when they are ready for it and not necessarily when you want to give it to them. That’s a huge problem that we have found a way to address in our programs.

A third aspect of our program is personal bonding. Every one of our graduates will say that there was a mentor in our Life Skills Center that they bonded with. Most of these young people have no one in their personal lives to bond with. They have to find someone who is going to give them the attention and emotional support they need to succeed.

Are we the only answer?  Of course not.  There are thousands of answers out there. What educators in New York, Cleveland, and Los Angeles have to embrace is the concept that there are incredible opportunities for innovation in education, and that we have to innovate to satisfy the individual needs of young people and bring them the success that society promises people who work hard and apply themselves. This is the American promise, and if we don’t make it available to these children our society will be torn apart.

DR. CAROL F. REICH, PhD: If you want to see evidence of the racial gap in this city or in the cities where the people in this room came from, look around it. It is, from where I’m standing, 99.8% white.

We are preaching to the converted. We need to figure out a way to talk to those people who don’t know what we’re talking about.

The Beginning with Children Charter School was the first charter-like school in New York City.  We opened in 1992 in collaboration with what was then the Board of Education and Pfizer. 

Racially, the makeup of our student body is 60, 30, 10 and has remained fairly constant. Sixty percent Latino, thirty percent black, ten percent white. And a reporter asked me yesterday if I could say something significant about how the culture of our school differed from mainstream schools. I had to stop and think about this question for a moment. 

Then I looked at our PTA roster. The first head of our PTA was white. The second head of our PTA was Latino. And the present leader is a black man. That is social evolution by my lights.

Seventy five percent of our kids are eligible for the federal free lunch program.  We converted to charter status under the then Board of Education in 2000. We began with the belief system that all children can learn if you know who they are; something like David’s IEP.

We believe that early success is important.  We use the Peabody Individual Achievement Test Revised to evaluate our students at the beginning and end of each year after entering the school.  Remember, in a charter school children enter by lottery.

For those of you who were as confused as I was by the amount of testing going on, let me give you a little primer. Grades three, five, six and seven are administered tests by New York City. Grades four and eight are administered New York State tests. On our own initiative, we decided that from day one that reading was the essential skill to teach children, not math, reading. Let me explain why we made this decision.

Reading is essential to success in reading but also to success in math or any other subject. At the Beginning with Children Charter School, the city and state math scores correlate with the reading scores on our internal exam.  In other words if a child doesn’t read well on the Peabody we can predict that the child is not going to do well on any of those math tests.

And while all the students understand the concepts on the Peabody with no racial differences, as the New York City and New York State tests show they perform only as well on math tests as they can read.

On your chairs are graphs of the New York City average against ours. They look like this.  All we can discuss right now in eight minutes is that the blue line is the Beginning with Children charter school.  And the green line is the city average on both of these.  One is English.  And one is math.  As you can see, we generally outperform city schools by wide margins.

That’s very good in New York.  But it’s not good enough in a competitive, global economy. The CEO of a major company places us, the United States, at 47th in the world in math and science. Some data state that we are 17th, but that’s still not very good.

The collapse of public education is endangering our democracy and our place in the global economy.  In the Thernstroms’ book, they say that racial composition alone does not determine the level student achievement. Other factors are cited; attitude, the culture of the school, school structure, and pedagogical approach. Those elements are all part of the culture of a school into which students bring their own ethnic culture.

When we looked at our school in the spring of 2003, the percentage of students who tested as proficient in grades three through eighth were as follows. On the ELA, the English Language Assessment, Hispanics are proficient at 60.3%, blacks at 49%. Better than the averages that Deputy Mayor Walcott was talking about earlier, but still not good enough. In math, 58.9% of Hispanics are proficient, 39.8% of blacks. Again you have a case where reading is influencing math. Still, you can see that children of color are not a homogenous population.

We now know in our school that it is imperative that all of our children read well by the end of the second grade. Remember the city gives its first tests in third grade.  They are officially measured at third grade but we have to start identifying problems sooner than that.  That’s why we test them immediately after entry into school.  We realize that the city and state tests are a scorecard but not a timely diagnostic tool.

Our school is not perfect, but the success we’ve had in closing the racial gap stems from our school culture, a culture that we pass on to our students.


Center for Civic Innovation.


Dennis M. Walcott, Deputy Mayor for Policy, The City of New York
Abigail Thernstrom, Senior Fellow, Manhattan Institute
David Brennan, Chairman, White Hat Management LLC
Carol Reich, Beginning with Children Charter School

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