Presenter tackles racial and cultural roots of nation-wide academic achievement gap

Saturday, April 24, 2010 | 4:42 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — Raymond Terrell wants teachers to talk about race.

In his presentation at Saturday's national Parents for Public Schools conference, entitled "Culturally Proficient Leadership," the published author said the root issue in the nation's current academic achievement gap among students in public schools is race. He explained his ideas for correcting this problem through "cultural proficiency."

"It's not a socioeconomic gap we have, it's a racial gap," he said, pointing to a bar graph to illustrate his point. According to his graph, white students coming from households with $24,000 of income per year still outperformed black students coming from households with $60,000 of yearly income.

The achievement gap commanded local attention as a key issue for candidates in the recent Columbia School Board election, as well as national notice with the proposed revisions of the No Child Left Behind Act. In forums leading up to the April 6 election, all candidates agreed the gap was a serious issue, but none articulated a specific plan to deal with the problem.

Parents for Public Schools, an organization that works with parents of public school students to better the education system through local chapters, held the conference at MU from Friday to Sunday. Terrell, the assistant dean of research and diversity at Miami University in Ohio, has more than 40 years of professional educational experience. He spent 90 minutes detailing the underlying cultural causes of the achievement gap to three conference participants.

"If the gaps are to be closed, we must step forward as leaders to examine our values and behaviors and the policies and practices of our schools," Terrell said.

He explained that research shows students in the racial minority and low-income households learn best from a hands-on, inquiry-based, small group approach, but often these students are placed in large classes and told to sit down and be quiet.

"I do worry about the pedagogical approaches because I maintain that they are the major cause of the achievement gap," he said.

According to Terrell, the technical methods used to address the gap, such as tutors and test score requirements, will not help because the achievement gap is an adaptive problem based on relationships. Student need to care about those teaching and feel accepted by them before they care about what they're learning.

He said a major roadblock to student achievement is students feeling culturally alienated in their learning environments. He described a time a student had been sent to his office for disrespecting a teacher and the student claimed that the teacher had disrespected him. Terrell said he found both were true because the teacher didn't know she had insulted the student's culture.

"We have to create an awareness of the need to change,” he said.

Sally Gray, a parent educator for the organization from Tupelo, Miss., expressed her frustration about the challenges of the Spanish-speaking community in her district. She said she knows of schools of 250 students, some of whom speak no English, where not one educator in the building speaks Spanish.

"I know that's going on in other places," Gray said. "How do you expect to connect with the families when you can't communicate?

Terrell advises educators to examine their own cultural heritages and prejudices in order to achieve "cultural proficiency." It's not enough, he said, to celebrate Black History Month and Cinco de Mayo. Educators must be able to change attitudes and behavior to relate to their students.

"When we look at things folks simply don't know they don't know, that's where they get themselves in trouble," he said.

Terrell said educators must realize that it is largely a community of "nice" people perpetuating the racial inequalities that lead to the achievement gap and look at themselves to begin changing the system.

"(Cultural proficiency) is about being aware of how we respond to those who are different from us," he said.

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