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Mellon Minority Fellow Speaks to Black-White Achievement Gap

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Ronald F. Ferguson

Ronald F. Ferguson

As part of a series of talks presented by the Institute for Urban and Minority Education (IUME), which is sponsored by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Professor Ronald F. Ferguson of the Malcolm Weiner Center for Social Policy at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, spoke on "Why America's Black-White School Achievement Gap Persists."

Ferguson, an economist, is Senior Research Associate at the Wiener School of Public Policy at the Kennedy School. He has published widely on educational policy and co-edited "Urban Problems and Community Development." He has also consulted on issues dealing with educational policy, employment, youth development, and urban development. Ferguson's talk was based on a paper to be published in an edited volume on social mobility in the U.S. and Great Britain.

As Professor Edmund Gordon, the Director of IUME, has said of the Visiting Mellon Fellows Program, "the ideas and perspectives of these scholars will help the College pursue its principal activities of researching the critical issues facing education?."

According to Ferguson, "Fifty years after the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed forced racial segregation in schools, there continues to be test-score disparity between school-aged African-American and European-American children."

He said this topic is important for two reasons. "One is that test-score disparities among children turn into other forms of disparity among adults. For example, studies in the 1980s and 1990s found that test score disparities predicted at least half of the hourly earnings gap between black and white young adult workers."

A second major reason that the topic is important, said Ferguson, concerns the future of the U.S. economy. "The U.S. labor force is changing. The size of the prime-aged workforce-adult workers who are ages 25 to 55-grew by 54 percent during the last two decades of the 20th century. In sharp contrast, it will grow hardly at all during the first two decades of the 21st century. However, its racial and ethnic composition will be shifting: By the year 2020 the number of prime-aged non-Hispanic whites in the labor force will decline by 10 percent. Eventually, whites will be a minority in both the population and the workforce. No single racial or ethnic group will be a majority. Consequently, leaders in the U.S. are beginning to understand that the future of the economy will depend in large measure on the skills of its non-white citizens."

The black-white achievement gaps persists because "because current routines in homes, schools, communities and society at large are not configured to accelerate the disappearance of historic disparities."

Even with that, according to Ferguson, the situation is not static and hopeless. "A great deal of progress has occurred since 1863 when President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, and even since 1964 when President Lyndon Johnson launched the War on Poverty and signed the landmark Civil Rights Bill. More advancement will come as struggles to overcome opposition and to change routines continue and as it becomes increasingly clear that educating all children well is in the long-term national interest, and feasible," says Ferguson.

This talk described ways that parents, teachers and youth culture seem to contribute to the persistence of the black-white achievement gap. Ferguson says, "the evidence reviewed indicates that if parents become more active as teachers of pre-school children, if teachers become less accepting of poor performance and more aggressive in seeking ways to unlock potential, and if youth do their schoolwork and also engage in high-yield leisure activities, such as reading for fun, then achievement is likely to rise."

Finally, Ferguson believes that "All children deserve the opportunity to reach their full potential and to make whatever their distinct contributions might be to the well-being of the society. A burden on leaders is to mobilize sufficient resources for this work, including attracting more talent to the teaching profession, so that progress will not be perceived as a zero sum game, in which helping some groups to excel requires denying opportunities to others."

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