Closing the Gap

We’ve blogged several times about Roland Fryer‘s research on education and the black-white achievement gap. Now Fryer thinks he has identified one system that successfully closes the gap. His new working paper, with co-author Will Dobbie, analyzes both the high-quality charter schools and the comprehensive community programs of the Harlem Children’s Zone (which was chronicled in Paul Tough‘s excellent book Whatever It Takes), with hopeful results: “Harlem Children’s Zone is enormously effective at increasing the achievement of the poorest minority children. Taken at face value, the effects in middle school are enough to reverse the black-white achievement gap in mathematics and reduce it in English Language Arts. The effects in elementary school close the racial achievement gap in both subjects.” Fryer and Dobbie attribute the program’s success to the high-quality schools or the combination of high-quality schools and community programs but find that community investments alone cannot close the gap. “The HCZ model demonstrates,” the authors conclude, “that the right cocktail of investments can be successful.” [%comments]

Jowanza Joseph

I have been following professor Fryer's work for sometime. I am always impressed with his scientific method approach to the education gap. I would love to have him as a mentor someday for my graduate school studies.


How much of the achievement gap is psychological? I heard of a study where people were tested around a laboratory putt-putt course. When they were told it was a test of geometric understanding and strategy, there was an performance gap between blacks and whites. When they were told it was a test of innate athletic skill and hand-eye coordination, the performance gap was REVERSED.


I had been a skeptic about the America's ability to close the achievement gaps (both minority and income). However, I have been very encouraged about recent developments in education reform.

I recently went to a panel discussion regarding the Denver Public School districts and was surprise to hear about the effectiveness of the program. One of the charter schools (which consists of more than 80% minority and 90% free/reduced lunch) outperformed a selective talented and gifted school in the Colorado performance tests!

It was not done without a lot of hard work but there were a few key features of the programs working. The first is autonomy. The charter schools are free to hire, set curriculum, set policy, and spend as they see fit. What this allows them to do is to provide an environment to hire and retain the best teachers (teachers are non-union but receive a higher salary and professional development). They have longer school days, have Saturday and summer school days, and have after school tutoring program.

The second feature is culture. These schools engage families by having them "buy-in" to the school program and support the schools and children in achieving academic success. In many ways I see the the school becoming the driving influence for academic success instead of the family. In some cultures there are high expectations for academic success where others place a low value and this is often out of the hand of a school. When a school develops a culture of high expectations and integrates it with other aspects of a students life then everyone can experience an equality of academic opportunity.

Autonomy and culture are key and school districts are too monolithic and bureaucratic to implement these simply because of the 'federalism' of a district.

The bar has been raised. Let's give the children the best we have and leave pride aside.



I am always skeptical when journalists discuss the "achievement gap". I am never clear whether it describes the average score on achievement tests or the percentage of students that score above a certain level on achievement tests.

Having said that, the gains are impressive.


I know I'm wasting my time to say this again, but here goes. In any grouping in which one side has control over enrollment and one side does not, the side that has control will always win in any competition.
One of the highest correlates of school success is parental involvement in schooling, namely is it important to your parents that you do well in school. By definition children in charter schools, or non-public schools, have parents involved in their education. (they have to apply and incur costs ie. no transportation or free lunch programs) There are children in public schools who have parents who are involved in their education, but there also are many whose parents are uninvolved. Comparing students in charter, and other selective enrollment institutions, with public schools is like comparing apples and oranges.


Jim - read the study. HCZ students are admitted by lottery. In their study, the treatment group is composed of students who won the lottery and the control group is composed of students who entered the lottery and did not win seats (this controls against the common criticism that even when charters admit via lottery -- as many do -- you need to account for the fact that their parents are sufficiently motivated and engaged to pursue charter enrollment).

Attorney DC

As a former teacher, I believe that much of the success of selective schools (however students are selected) is that ALL the students in the school have families who care about education and are motivated to succeed. As Debra points out above, the HCZ student compared "lottery winners" to "lottery losers" in an effort to control for the difference between students who applied for the selective schools and those who did not apply.

However, the result of "losing" the lottery is that the child continues to attend school with many other students who did not apply to the lottery. I don't have any special knowledge of the HCZ schools but, in general, selective schools can maintain higher standards, and can "counsel out" or expel children who do not meet these standards.

Thus, students at private or charter schools are often surrounded almost exclusively by other students who care (or at least have parents who care) about education. As a former teacher, I can attest to the fact that a few misbehaving or unmotivated students can make learning very difficult for the remaining students (and can create peer pressure against scholastic achievement). As Jim noted above, the ability for any school to have control over its enrollment is a major boost to its ability to succeed.


Attorney DC

Correction: In the second sentence of my post (above) the phrase "HCZ student" should have been "HCZ study."

M Stein

Some points made earlier in relation to David Brooks column:

The difficulty about talking about achievement gaps is that there's no control group of white students in this study.

How much white students' scores would go up if a huge amount of money was given to a well-known superstar educator (in this case, Geoffrey Canada -- here's a more skeptical analysis of Canada's accomplishment in Slate in 2008).

It's not that hard to increase school achievement test scores. It's especially not hard to do it in a handful of schools. (It's hard to replicate a local success, though, just like it's hard to take a cool movie, like "The Matrix," and make it a cool series, or to take a cool movie like "The Manchurian Candidate" and come up with a cool remake. Sometimes with movie-making, all the pieces click, other times not. Much the same is true for schools.)

The school is also a charter school, which means attendance is optional. Allegedly the goal of the school is to recruit a random cross-section of a neighborhood in Harlem and not just the students of parents who are motivated to seek out something other than the default school, but the city didn't force every student in the district to attend this school, so I'm sure there is still some selection bias.


Brian R

"It's true that eighth-graders in 2008 scored .20 standard deviations above the citywide average for white students. But it may also be apparent that this is a very unusual pattern relative to the other data represented in this figure, all of which show continuing and sizeable advantages for white students in New York City over HCZ students. The fact that HCZ seventh-graders in 2008 were only .3 standard deviations behind white students citywide in math is a real accomplishment, and represents a shrinkage of the gap of .42 standard deviations for these students in the preceding year. However, Fryer and Dobbie, and Brooks in turn, are putting an awful lot of faith in a single data point — the remarkable increase in math scores between seventh and eighth grade for the students at HCZ who entered sixth grade in 2006. If what HCZ is doing can routinely produce a .67 standard deviation shift in math test scores in the eighth grade, that would be great. But we're certainly not seeing an effect of that magnitude in the seventh grade. And, of course, none of this speaks to the continuing large gaps in English performance.

But here's the kicker. In the HCZ Annual Report for the 2007-08 school year submitted to the State Education Department, data are presented on not just the state ELA and math assessments, but also the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. Those eighth-graders who kicked ass on the state math test? They didn't do so well on the low-stakes Iowa Tests. Curiously, only 2 of the 77 eighth-graders were absent on the ITBS reading test day in June, 2008, but 20 of these 77 were absent for the ITBS math test. For the 57 students who did take the ITBS math test, HCZ reported an average Normal Curve Equivalent (NCE) score of 41, which failed to meet the school's objective of an average NCE of 50 for a cohort of students who have completed at least two consecutive years at HCZ Promise Academy. In fact, this same cohort had a slightly higher average NCE of 42 in June, 2007.

Normal Curve Equivalents (NCE's) range from 1 to 99, and are scaled to have a mean of 50 and a standard deviation of 21.06. An NCE of 41 corresponds to roughly the 33rd percentile of the reference distribution, which for the ITBS would likely be a national sample of on-grade test-takers.

Scoring at the 33rd percentile is no great success story.

How are we to make sense of this? One possibility is that the HCZ students didn't take the Iowa tests seriously, and that their performance on that test doesn't reflect their true mastery of eighth-grade mathematics. The HCZ Annual Report doesn't offer this as a possibility, perhaps because it would be embarrassing to admit that students didn't take some aspect of their schoolwork and school accountability plan seriously. But the three explanations that are offered are not compelling: the Iowa test skills were not consistently aligned with the New York State Standards and the Harcourt Curriculum used in the school; the linkage of classroom instruction to the skills tested on the Iowa test wasn't consistent across the school year, and Iowa test prep began in February, 2008; and school staff didn't use 2007 Iowa test results to identify areas of weaknesses for individual students and design appropriate intervention.

If proficiency in English and math are to mean anything, these skills have to be able to generalize to contexts other than a particular high-stakes state test. No college or employer is ever going to look at the New York State ELA and math exams in making judgments about who has the skills to be successful in their school or workplace. I'm going to hold off labeling the HCZ schools as the “Harlem Miracle” until there's some additional evidence supporting the claim that these schools have placed their students on a level academic playing field with white students in New York City."



I think Steve Sailer has the quickest, easiest solution for the "achievement gap": donk all the white and asian students on the head with a ball peen hammer.


As a former high school teacher who is now officially a stay-at-home mom, parental involvement is the key. Some parents assume parental involvement simply means volunteering some time at the school, ... such as, visiting at an Open House or attending a sports game, etc. Since the vast majority of parents are of average intellect, then it would be wise for someone to come right out and explain to these parents the true definition of parental involvement. (Maybe at a mandatory parental meeting at the school each year ... ?) Which should be defined by someone in very simple language along the lines, "... despite being tired at the end of your work day, or despite what you have come to assume that the weekend means free play, etc, parental involvement means that you, the parent, must motivate yourself for at least another hour at home after work each day and on either Saturday or Sunday. Furthermore; you, the parent, must ensure that your child is doing his/her assignments, reviewing his/her assignments to ensure understanding, and read with your child, etc. "

Drilling this concept into the minds of the masses has a two-fold advantage or even more. First, it would certainly boost student performance and attitudes towards education and learning. Secondly, these children will grow up and become parents. Many, (hoping for most), would then understand that reproducing has serious consequences and expectations from these now new parents! Thus, maybe we can break this cycle we now find ourselves in? Then again, who knows?



The Black/White Academic Achievement Gap can be closed within this decade. The cycle of the Cumulative Deficit can be broken. Black social and others, including prominent linguists, psychologists and educators can make the difference between effectively closing the Achievement Gap or not. Please preview the book "Between the Rhetoric and Reality" Lauriat Press; Simpkins&Simpkins, It can be previewed on" Amazon.Com, and Borders " .


Corected comment:
The Black/White Academic Achievement Gap can be closed within this decade. The cycle of the Cumulative Deficit can be broken. Black social scientists and others, including prominent linguists, psychologists and educators can make the difference between effectively closing the Achievement Gap or not. Please preview the book '" Between the Rhetoric and Reality" Lauriat Press; Simpkins&Simpkins, 2009. It can be previewed on "Amazon.Com, and Borders".

Frank Simpkins

I recently read an article by Colin and Alma Powell titled "One in Three Kids Drops Out of School"....These figures are even more devastating for Black inner-city students....Black students graduate three years behind White kids.....Black students have a drop-out rate of 53%..... If we combine this drop-out rate with the highly conservative estimate that 16% of these students will fail to pass state required exit exams, we arrive at a figure indicating that only 37& of Black students will receive high school diplomas! ....The Black/White Academic Achievement Gap can be effectively addressed and substantially reduced during during this decade.....History teaches us that "men and nations behave wisely, when they have exhausted all other alternatives".....(Abba Eban). Our book "Between the Rhetoric and Reality" Lauriat Press; Simpkins&Simpkins, 2009.... It can be previewed on either "Amazon.Com, or Borders"