Education choice gives Black students a way out of ‘achievement gaps’ – and the systems that cause them

Keith Jacobs

A recent article on The 74 noted the controversy over using the term “achievement gap” to describe learning disparities between Black and white students, with critics arguing that the education reform movement’s focus on “widespread, high-stakes standardized testing”  heightens racial stereotypes.   

This is like blaming a thermometer for a fever while ignoring the virus that caused it – in this case, systemic racism and inequity in education. Giving families in underserved populations more choice in how and where to educate their children must be part of the cure.

Standardized testing can be a blunt instrument that fails to capture the individual circumstances of the learner or the inequity in the system, and too often emphasizes failure rather than student gains. However, we must have a standard by which we can measure learning across all spectrums. 

While the article focuses on standardized testing as a measure that propagates racial bias, it barely mentions how few Black and low-income students graduate high school and the fact they get accepted to colleges at lower rates than their white peers. 

However we define this “gap” in educational achievement, it remains that many of our nation’s children leave school without high school diplomas and basic reading, writing and math skills. The failures of the schools are not evenly distributed. They fall disproportionately on students of color and low-income families.

It permeates a mainstream school system that was never designed for these populations.  Martin Luther King Jr. highlighted these inequities in 1967 when he said, “In elementary schools, Negroes lag one to three years behind whites, and their segregated schools received substantially less money per student than do the white schools.”

If we focus on the instrument that measures this disparity or on what we name it, but not on the inherent inequities in the system, we will continue to fall short of a real solution.

We can call it an achievement gap, or an opportunity gap as referenced in the article, but the results will remain the same. 

We can debate whether it is based on race or income, but minority and low-income populations will still be prisoners of their ZIP codes.

We can talk about de jure segregation in the 1960s or de facto segregation today, but Black students will still experience systemic racism and inequity in education. 

Income and racial disparities often are interconnected. In 2018, Black and Hispanic families made up 38% of families living in poverty compared to 18% of white and Asian families. Rather than blaming standardized testing and the use of the achievement gap as the reason why whites view Blacks as being inferior, we must decipher the root cause of why these inequities exist and how implicit biases permeate mainstream education. 

Education choice is key to exposing and breaking those biases and inequities and helping students actualize their full potential. According to a 2019 Urban Institute study, the low-income students who received the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship were up to 20% more likely than public school students to earn bachelor’s degrees.  Annual evaluations of the scholarship by the Florida Learning Systems Institute have consistently found that Florida’s most disadvantaged students have the same annual learning gains as all students of all income levels nationally.

Choice can have a positive impact on public schools, too. A study released earlier this year from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that benefits of the FTC scholarship went beyond students utilizing it. Researchers found that as the program expanded over the years, not only did lower-income, Black and Hispanic students benefit, but public schools most impacted by private school competition had higher test scores, fewer suspensions, and reduced absenteeism.

In The 74 article, Shavar Jeffries, head of the group Democrats for Education Reform, discussed his experience as a first-generation college graduate who received a full scholarship to Duke University. He lamented that he had to consistently inform people that he was on an academic scholarship, not an athletic scholarship. I understand where Jeffries is coming from. I also am a first-generation graduate who attended the highly regarded University of Florida and had to inform people that I was there for academics. 

I owe my success to the true remedy for the virus of inequity in education: education choice.

Although I grew up as a recipient of the federal free and reduced-price lunch program, education choice afforded me the opportunity for cross-cultural immersion and an escape from the prospect of generational poverty. When I was still young, my teachers and parents praised my intellectual abilities and scores on standardized assessments despite my relegation to traditional courses that lacked rigor. This all changed when I applied for and was accepted into the International Baccalaureate program. It empowered me to see beyond my current situation and defy the stigma assigned to being a Black male student on free and reduced-price lunch.  

At that time, there were not many choice options beyond public magnet schools, but the experience broadened my perspective. Today, there are magnets, charters, scholarship programs, vouchers and other choice programs available to students.

The adversary to progress for Black students is not the terminology used for analyzing standardized testing results, but rather the latent systemic racism that these tests reveal. Education choice gives them a way out of a system that for too long has worked against them.

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3 comments

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David J. September 2, 2020 - 11:16 am

Another great piece Mr. Jacobs. Honest head-on dialogue on this tough issue of educational choice and race is extremely important. Your voice and perspective is changing minds and making a real difference. Hat tip to you!

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Joan September 2, 2020 - 1:51 pm

Excellent article. As grandmother of many your article has given me some hope for my grandchildren. The education facts you have given is unbelievable. My hope for my grandchildren for the future is amazing because of people like you. Please continue your articles. It’s our responsibility to spread these articles. This article can most definitely help people of all races. Thank you Mr. Jacobs.

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Joseph September 11, 2020 - 10:34 am

I am very impressed with your point of view, unfortunately, the reality is that many people will simply spend money on a fake diploma, without making any effort to study and will be engaged in a completely different direction in life.

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