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Closing the Achievement Gap Without Widening a Racial One

Originally published in The New York Times

February 13, 2011
Michael Winerip (Reporter, The New York Times)

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — There is no more pressing topic in education today than closing the achievement gap, and there is no one in America who knows more about the gap than Ronald Ferguson.

Although he is a Harvard professor based in Cambridge, Mass., Dr. Ferguson, 60, spends lots of time flying around the country visiting racially mixed public high schools. Part of what he does is academic, measuring the causes of the gap by annually surveying the performance, behaviors and attitudes of up to 100,000 students. And part is serving as a de facto educational social worker, meeting with students, faculty members and parents to explain what steps their schools can take to narrow the gap.

The gap is about race, of course, and it inevitably inflames passions. But there is something about Dr. Ferguson’s bearing — he is both big (6-foot-3) and soft-spoken — that gets people to listen.

Morton Sherman, the Alexandria school superintendent, watched him defuse the anger at a meeting of 300 people. "He talks about these things in a professorial way, a kind way," Dr. Sherman said. "It’s not about him. He doesn’t try to be a rock star, although he is a rock star in this field."

While he has a personal stake in closing the gap as an African-American parent who has raised three boys, Dr. Ferguson does not get emotional in tense situations — he gets factual.

He is frequently quoted in the news media, and in recent months, he has played a major role in four important educational stories: the Gates study on evaluating teachers (his research shows that when kids say a teacher is good, they usually know what they’re talking about); the Council of the Great City Schools study of the widening gap between white and black boys (12 percent of black fourth-grade boys were proficient in reading on a national test, compared with 38 percent of whites); a front-page story in The New York Times last year on the effectiveness of big high schools (at a time when small schools are in vogue); and as a member of the eight-person New York State panel that decided whether Cathleen P. Black should qualify for a waiver to be New York City’s chancellor (he won’t say how he voted).

Geoffrey Canada, president of the Harlem Children’s Zone and star of the documentary "Waiting for Superman," calls him a "national treasure." Michael Casserly, director of the Council of the Great City Schools says, "He has done more to help us understand the dynamics behind the achievement gap than anyone else in the country." Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, calls him "thoughtful, careful, fearless."

And yet, as best he can remember — and he is a busy man with lots on his mind — he has never been the subject of a profile in the news media.

One reason may be that his views on the gap are too research-based and nuanced to accommodate in a sound bite.

He is not as famous as John Ogbu, the late African-born Berkeley professor who argued that the gap could be explained by the cultural behavior of African-Americans, like mocking hard-working classmates for "acting white."

Nor is he as famous as Charles Murray, co-author of "The Bell Curve," who suggested that the achievement gap is explained by inherited low intelligence.

Unlike Dr. Ogbu, an anthropology professor, and Dr. Murray, a political scientist, Dr. Ferguson has his doctorate in economics from M.I.T.; he has been trained to quantify everything. From his surveys of students in dozens of wealthy, racially mixed suburbs — including Evanston, Ill.; Maplewood, N.J.; and Shaker Heights, Ohio — he has calculated that the average grade of black students was C-plus, while white students averaged a B-plus. The gap.

At the high school here, T. C. Williams — the setting of the movie "Remember the Titans" — he found that 55 percent of white girls reported having an A or A-minus average, compared with less than 20 percent of black girls and boys.

His research indicates that half the gap can be predicted by economics: even in a typical wealthy suburb, blacks are not as well-to-do; 79 percent are in the bottom 50 percent financially, while 73 percent of whites are in the top 50 percent.

The other half of the gap, he has calculated, is that black parents on average are not as academically oriented in raising their children as whites. In a wealthy suburb he surveyed, 40 percent of blacks owned 100 or more books, compared with 80 percent of whites. In first grade, the percentage of black and white parents reading to their children daily was about the same; by fifth grade, 60 percent to 70 percent of whites still read daily to their children, compared with 30 percent to 40 percent of blacks.

He also works with teachers to identify biases, for instance: black children are less likely to complete homework because they are lazy. His research indicates that blacks and whites spend the same amount of time on homework, but blacks are less likely to finish. "It’s not laziness," he says. "It’s a difference in skills."

How these messages get delivered is crucial. "I don’t want to be another one of those people lecturing black parents," he says. "I tell them we in the black community — we — need to build stronger intellectual lives at home."

He recalls speaking to a primarily white group at Georgia State University. Afterward, a black parent came up to him. "He told me, ‘I’m not saying you’re wrong, but I’m not comfortable with you saying it in front of this audience,’ " Dr. Ferguson said. "And I said, ‘It’s not ideal, but this was an opportunity to get these things to you.’ "

Ronald Franklin Ferguson grew up the eldest of five boys in a blue-collar section of Cleveland. Getting a good education was a top priority for his family. His grandmother and mother were both public school teachers; six of the seven children in his father’s family attended college.

Two of his brothers picked careers that give back to the community. One is a rural doctor, the other works with children in the Fergusons’ old neighborhood, using karate lessons to instill good values. The two other brothers had drug problems, and one died at age 39. Dr. Ferguson is raising the living brother’s son.

Dr. Ferguson was not a typical child. "When I was 8, I wanted to know what’s a good job to help people," he said. "The person I asked said, ‘city planner.’ So anyone who asked, I said, ‘I want to be a city planner when I grow up.’ "

In 1986, he did his first educational study, and by the late 1990s, his work focused on the achievement gap. The first district he worked with was Shaker Heights. After the student newspaper published an article contrasting test scores of white and black students, all hell broke loose. Dr. Ferguson was invited in to help calm the waters.

He is a senior lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Kennedy School of Government. In 2005, he was a founder of the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard.

He is often surprised by what the numbers tell him. He was compiling test scores for special-education students when he noticed that the biggest school in Massachusetts, with more than 4,000 students, Brockton High, also had the largest gains in English scores by minority students. "Just popped out at me," he said.

At meetings, he will turn passive-aggressive to move his agenda forward.

Shawn Thorpe, the T. C. Williams academic principal, suggested that teachers be given a list of Dr. Ferguson’s suggestions so they could comment on those they liked and didn’t like.

"I don’t do that," Dr. Ferguson said. "You get so much input, it’s like a Tower of Babel."

"Right," Mr. Thorpe said.

"Too many cooks in the kitchen," Dr. Ferguson said.

"A lot of pots on the stove," Mr. Thorpe said.

Dr. Ferguson offered to aggregate and disaggregate the data. "Right," Mr. Thorpe said, and they moved on to the next thing.

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