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Achievement Gap the Focus at Askwith Education Forum

Attendees of the March 10 Askwith Education Forum took home one message from the panelists: Yes, we can close the achievement gap.

"I think it is time to think of the work as a national social movement," said Harvard Kennedy School Professor Ronald Ferguson, cochair and director of Harvard's Achievement Gap Initiative. "We can come pretty close in the next 20 years to closing the gap."

In addition to Ferguson, participants of the forum, Yes We Can! A Panel on Closing the Achievement Gaps, included Columbia University Professor Jane Waldfogel and University of Michigan Professor Richard Nisbett. They emphasized that, while many people might think closing the gap is impossible, black-white test scores, evolving research on intelligence development, and motivation as a nation are all indicative that a future without the achievement gap may exist.

"I want to underscore one thing, which I think is very clear as you look at data across the past 30 years - those who asserted the black-white assessment gap could not be closed were clearly wrong," Waldfogel said. "We can clearly see tremendous convergence at some periods over the past 30 years and see other periods where policies shift, factors shift, and there is not so much convergence. This suggests that the black-white test score gap is extremely sensitive to environmental factors, to social factors, and to policy factors."

Waldfogel noted that trends in black-white test scores over the last 30 years indicate that we may be entering a period of steady gains among black students in America.  For instance, according to the National Assessment Educational Progress (NAEP) math and reading data examined by Waldfogel, the 1970s and early 1980s brought closure between white and black children's scores from 44 points to 29 points. However, by the late 1980s and 1990s, the gap between black and white children grew larger. The gains and gaps, said Waldfogel, fluctuated with declines or increases in segregation, teacher quality, and improvements in parental education.

As for the latest trends, Waldfogel said, "We are entering a period of renewed progress and gap-closing in the late 90s and early 2000s. We can only speculate what is driving these factors but it is likely that both family and school factors are playing a role like they did earlier." Additionally, a decline in black family poverty can also have an effect, she said.

In recent years, Waldfogel credited "good" things happening in education like accountability and increased governmental spending on programs and policies as encouraging for the gap closing. "These are exactly the right policies to be closing the achievement gaps," she said. "What I don't think any of us foresaw over the last years as we worked on this project is what would happen with the economy...the recession is very concerning for a lot of reasons but in particular what it can do for child poverty and state education budgets."

Beyond test scores is lingering misinformation about intelligence, according to Nisbett, author of the book, Intelligence and How to Get It, who addressed how schools and culture do shape intellectual development. For some time, the well-known book The Bell Curve has propagated ideas that heredity dictates intelligence, schools can't develop students' intelligence, and the social classes are growing further apart, Nisbett said. However, he concludes that, due to IQ not actually being solely determined by heredity, many of these ideas are untrue. In the past 60 years, IQ has increased by 18 points which is enough, Nisbett said, to prove that IQ is hugely malleable and possibly influenced by environment. Further, in recent years, the average IQ difference between blacks and whites has dropped from 15 points to 9.5.

"We know that early childhood education can make a huge difference. We know that education at the middle school level can make a huge difference. We know that differences can be made at the high school level from a stand and deliver experiment..." Nisbett said. "If we want the poorer to be smarter then we should make them richer. We have high socioeconomic status differences in this country and the [socioeconomic] gap is highly related to the academic achievement gap."

Ferguson concluded that it is imperative to create a social movement focused on closing the achievement gap. In 2050, the United States will be a nonwhite nation, he said, noting the important effects of education on America's future. "If we don't make the progress that we need to make in narrowing the achievement gap then that's a recipe for social instability and economic decline," Ferguson said.