Edward Joyner, Ed.D., is an Associate Professor and Director of Five Year Program at Sacred Heart University. For 20 years, he led the most comprehensive school reform model in American Education. Below are some highlights of our discussion on the achievement gap:
Akpalu: Prof. Joyner, what is an appropriate framework for understanding the achievement gap?
Joyner: Any discussion of the achievement gap with a view toward reducing it has to consider several levels of analysis to ferret out the factors both historically and presently that include individual and group achievement as measured by standardized assessments. We should first recognize that the gap typically refers to standardized test differences between groups erroneously called races. Tests might include state level exams, general tests of intelligence, and college admissions examinations. Some municipalities release civil service data disaggregated by race.
It should also be noted that the gap is a measure of central tendency comparing the mean scores of groups perceived to be of a socially defined race, or who hail from a specific continent, despite the wide cultural variances among people who inhabit such large landmasses. Measures of central tendency have their advantages, but one disadvantage is that everyone in the higher mean group typically believes that they are smarter than everyone in the group with the lower mean. And we end up with statements like whites are smarter than Blacks and Asians are smarter than all of us. Consequently when a high scoring member of a group at the bottom of the achievement ladder encounters institutional representatives in an academic setting, he or she is often treated as a low achiever.
Akpalu: Fascinating. How do we maximize student potential among different groups?
Joyner: I believe that the core problem in our community is the character gap. I believe that good character is the engine that drives human achievement. I believe that when we emphasize character we create within students the habits of heart and mind that not only lead to academic achievement, but to the civic responsibility and commitment to service that has the potential to save our country and the world. High academic achievement without good character is what has led us to our current national predicament. Rather than a discussion about the achievement gap, we should be discussing the question of how to maximize student potential across the behavioral spectrum. Any analysis should consider the following factors:
- The group’s advantages and disadvantages over time relative to access to formal learning opportunities
- The degree to which the group values academic learning
- The degree to which the student’s family values academic learning
- The degree to which the student values academic learning and is willing to make personal sacrifices in favor of academic pursuits
- The quantity and quality of capital resources in the institutions serving students
- The commitment of staff to teach students effectively using culturally responsive teaching, but maintaining goals consistent with the academic and personal development needed for students to achieve in school and over the course of their lives
Any institution or individual that wishes to help Black students achieve should rigorously examine these factors and influence those they can to initiate structures and processes for change with a view toward institutionalizing effective practices. Moreover, this also requires some challenging work with parents and students while holding teachers, administrators, support staff, and central office officials accountable. While we cannot go back and correct the injustices in the Black experience we can learn from successful institutions and individuals in the past and present.
Akpalu: I absolutely agree with your statements. However, we cannot ignore the fact that high achievement can facilitate both good and bad character. What happens to many high achievers and institutions is that after a string of successes, PRIDE takes hold and you have “what has led us to our current national predicament“.
It’s important that we learn from the past to inform the present and the future. As a student, father, teacher, administrator, college professor, and school reformer, what are some of the characteristics of effectiveness for academic achievement?
Joyner: Students tend to so better academically when their reference group values learning, especially literacy and critical thinking. These values are reflected in the group’s rituals and ceremonies, how they spend their time and money on materials and experiences for their children, and what is explicitly stated and rewarded with respect to academic learning and character development.
Students who are academic achievers exhibit the following behaviors.
These behaviors are complementary and enhance performance over time.
Teachers tend to be more effective when they are:
- Plan effectively
- Relate to students in a caring, firm, and supportive manner
- Evaluate their own professional behavior, student behavior, and student mastery of content and skills for continuous improvement
- Manage time, space, and behavior (including their own) effectively and efficiently
- Instructive by providing each class with the most effective teaching models, methods, and activities found in research and experiential wisdom
- Enthusiastic and Energetic in their-interactions
- Resilient, as teaching is the hardest job in the education enterprise and perhaps on
the planet, yet it is the most important.
Teachers cannot however, do their work effectively if they are not supported by school administrators within their buildings and by central office administrators. Principals and superintendents must establish an academic and social climate conducive to learning. This is especially true in an era of unprecedented student and parental defiance-a level of unreasonable defiance that threatens our way of life and severely undermines teaching and learning. We may be the first generation in American history where adults are-afraid of their own children.
Perspectives on effective parenting:
While my generation was defiant in the face of the injustices perpetrated by a racist, sexist, and classist system, children today are fighting for IPods and headphones, the right to wear flip flops to school. And too many parents are challenging the authority of educators in cases where the evidence is clear that they have abdicated their responsibility to send their children to school. Parents should send their children to school at least with the adequate learning tools (notebook, pen or pencil, and textbooks) and an admonition to cooperate with school authorities. Since public libraries are more public than when I was a child, there is no excuse for not using public libraries to enhance one’s education beyond the classroom.
Akpalu: Illuminating! This has been a highly inspirational and educational discussion. Thank you, Prof. Joyner, for sharing your analytical framework for understanding the nature of the achievement gap and how to close it. Thanks again for your time.
Joyner: You are most welcome.