The Achievement Gap’s Silent Partner, And Its Even Quieter Solution Header


The Achievement Gap’s Silent Partner, And Its Even Quieter Solution

Elizabeth Rosenberg
Eva Harder

When Robert Murphy taught a class of mostly minority students back in 2004, the textbooks were so outdated that Nixon was listed as the current president.

Murphy spoke about this experience for the American Public Health Association’s recent webinar, Racism: the Silent Partner in High School Dropouts and Health Disparities. Murphy appeared on a panel with Dr. Adewale Troutman and Dr. Camara P. Jones.

Troutman, associate dean for health equity and community engagement at the University of South Florida, emphasized the link between higher education and lifelong health, naming education as the single most important factor for influencing future occupation and earning potential. Higher education corresponds with better job prospects and a higher income, he noted, which in turn coincides with increased health knowledge, awareness, and social and psychological wellbeing.

But Troutman and his fellow panelists argued that as long as the achievement gap between students of color and white students persists, so will racial disparities in job prospects and health outcomes.

More Resources, Less Discipline

Murphy, now a consultant on education reform, said that the lack of advanced placement classes in struggling high schools is a major reason that students of color fall behind. As the recent Building a GradNation report found, a quarter of high schools with the highest percentages of Black and Latino students do not offer Algebra II, and a third don’t offer chemistry

But if there’s one policy that is hurting students of color more than other students, Murphy said, it’s zero-tolerance discipline policies.

In a recent op-ed, he noted that African American boys are suspended three times more often than their white peers, and African American girls are suspended six times more often. Once students have been suspended or expelled, they are twice as likely to drop out of school.

Murphy says the offenses triggering suspensions are not typically violent in nature; they’re mostly minor infractions, such as dress code violations or arguing with teachers. His research leads him to believe that teachers tend to inherently view students of color as troublemakers, contributing to higher rates of suspension.

U.S. in Violation of UN Treaty on Race

According to Jones, a research director at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the United States is currently in violation of a 50-year-old UN treaty on ending racial discrimination.

These violations include the persistence of racial profiling, residential segregation, disparities in access to health care, disproportionate rates of incarceration, the ongoing achievement gap in education, and the number of minority students that continue to attend segregated schools.

Jones and her fellow panelists left no doubt that, more than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, racism in schools is hardly a thing of the past.

While she didn’t appear on the webinar’s panel, New York Times reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones has explored modern-day segregation and its impact on the achievement gap extensively in the past year. Earlier this summer, she appeared on the This American Life podcast to talk about what she says is a surefire way to narrow the achievement gap: integration.

 “There's a lot of data that shows that black students going through court-ordered integration, it changed their whole lives,” she says in the episode, “The Problem We All Live With.”

“They were less likely to be poor. They were less likely to have health problems. They live longer. And the opposite is true for black kids who remained in segregated schools.”

The reason that integration is so effective, she says, is because it allows minority students to have equal access to resources. “It gets black kids in the same facilities as white kids. And therefore, it gets them access to the same things that those kids get—quality teachers and quality instruction.”

Hannah-Jones says policy makers and educators are not talking about integration as a solution. “We have this thing that we know works, that the data shows works, that we know is best for kids, and we will not talk about it. And it's not even on the table.”

But as the Washington Post recently pointed out, that may change once New York Education Commissioner John King takes over for Arne Duncan as the Secretary of Education this December.

The webinar concluded the American Public Health Association’s (APHA) four-part summer webinar series, The Impact of Racism on the Health and Well-Being of the Nation, a report on the implications of both overt and subtle biases on the long-term prospects of American children hailing from minority backgrounds. The recordings of all four installments are available online on APHA’s website