Illegitimacy and the achievement gap

A report on big city schools was released this week with The New York Times reporting it under this headline: "Proficiency of Black Students Is Found to Be Far Lower than Expected." Expected by whom would be a fair question, but we find no answer to that in the story.

Data mined from the National Assessment for Educational Progress, and focusing on black male students in the fourth and eighth grades, shows only 12 percent of black fourth-graders are proficient in reading, compared to 38 percent of white fourth-graders.

Only 12 percent of black boys in the eighth-grade were proficient in math, compared to 44 percent of white boys.

"Poverty alone," says the Times story, "doesn't seem to explain the differences: poor white boys do just as well as African-American boys who do not live in poverty, measured by whether they qualify for subsidized school lunches."

Though racial achievement gaps have remained intractable despite massive efforts to narrow them, the scope of the gap shown by this report is stunning.

What causes this persistent difference in test scores? Is it racism, the handy fall-back for explaining outcome differences between racial groups? As we've seen, poverty doesn't seem to be the cause. So, what is it?

This is where this story becomes intriguing. Ronald Ferguson is the director of the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard. One assumes he knows a lot about the issue.

"There's accumulating evidence that there are racial differences in what kids experience before the first day of kindergarten," Mr. Ferguson says. "They have to do with a lot of sociological and historical forces. In order to address these, we have to be able to have conversations people are unwilling to have."

The conversation he alludes to includes talking about early childhood parenting practices: how much parents talk to the kids, how discipline is enforced, and how the children are encouraged to think and develop "a sense of autonomy."

Of course, the report urges more money for schools and the development of black mentors in the urban schools. Baltimore Schools CEO Andrés Alonso got an approving nod for showing progress in lowering the dropout rate for black boys to 4.9 percent during the last academic year.

This week also saw a spate of news stories reporting that 72 percent of black babies born in this country are born to unwed mothers. Tie that story to the one above and you begin to get a clue as to causation.

Children born out of wedlock to mothers of any race are more likely to do poorly in school, to use drugs, be poor in adulthood and to wind up in prison. According to the Associated Press, this isn't just a problem among American blacks — though they suffer a higher percentage of illegitimacy than any other group — it is a growing problem among Asians (the lowest rate at 17 percent), whites (29 percent), Latinos (53 percent) and Native Americans (66 percent).

When Daniel Patrick Moynihan, later a U.S. Senator, released a government report in 1965 raising an alarm about black "illegitimacy" rates, he was castigated for "blaming the victim." At that time the rate was 24 percent among blacks and just 4 percent among whites.

If that represented, In Moynihan's words, a "tangle of pathology" 45 years ago, how dire is the situation now? What kind of society can we expect to have with the breakdown of marriage and the increasing phenomenon of letting kids raise themselves on the angry streets that so often devour them?

With prospective husbands jobless, destitute, living the life of the street or incarcerated, a huge number of poor African-American women have found solace in having children they raise alone or with the help of other women in their families.

Considering the accelerating white illegitimacy rate, it won't be long before one gap is closed. That will be some achievement, though not a positive one.

Ron Smith can be heard weekdays, 9 a.m. to noon, on 1090 WBAL-AM and His column appears Fridays in The Baltimore Sun. His e-mail is

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