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Have questions on Achievement Gap?
Tom Tobin

Welcome to Times Talkback. Times staff writer Tom Tobin has answered your questions about the academic achievement gap between white students and their ethnic peers. You can still submit your questions.

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Latest questions and answers: (updated May 19)

Question: You mentioned the Asian and White students dominating the graduating class of Lakewood. To what do we account for the Asian successes? Those students are not seeing their faces in text books, being taught by their own or being of the same culture as most of their educators and yet they are succeeding. Many of their parents don't even speak English as a first language whereas that is not a battle felt by African-American students. For me this reiterates the emphasis placed on education in the home being a key factor. Are there any studies done on this?

Tom Tobin: The success of Asian students and other immigrant groups is a very intriguing one that the Times plans to explore in coming months as part of a continuing look at the achievement gap. There have been studies on this topic. One of the academics quoted in our stories, anthropologist John Ogbu, has delved into this area. He distinguishes between "voluntary" immigrants, such as Vietnamese families who have settled in the Tampa Bay area in recent years, and "involuntary" immigrants, such as black Americans whose ancestors were slaves. To paraphrase very loosely, Ogbu theorizes that many black families have built up a distrust of school systems over many decades based on the way they have been treated in American society. The result, he says, has been a certain resistance to the material taught and the school environments created by mostly white school staffs. Other immigrants, he says, don't have that history and thus are able to put aside that baggage (my word) and concentrate on what is being taught. Some even adopt what Ogbu calls "white ways." As a group, they tend to be more successful than black Americans, Ogbu says. As you can see, this is a very complex and sensitive area.

Question: Why is it that the media usually ignores Asians when discussing educational performance gaps?

Tom Tobin: We discussed Asian students at length as we designed this first series of stories several months ago. We quickly came to the conclusion that the achievement gap is an enormous topic that could not be adequately covered in one story or even a few stories. Our efforts will continue throughout the year. We decided to write about the black achievement gap first because the nation has been trying to solve that problem for the better part of 50 years. We plan to examine the impact on Hispanic and Asian students in coming months.

Question: Isn't it possible that evolutionary selection by the sub-Saharan environmental conditions may have favored attributes other than those of academic achievement?

Tom Tobin: I have spent months studying many theories about the reasons for the achievement gap. That is not one I have come across.

Question: I was wondering why the Amish and Mennonites, who take vows of poverty, and live in greater poverty than the blacks in all the states I've lived in, don't go to jail in Florida (according to "Showcap" data) and do well in reading and academics? I thought poverty caused the achievement gap. Why doesn't poverty affect the Amish and Mennonite reading and test taking skills?

Tom Tobin: Anyone who takes a vow of poverty is impacted differently than someone who is born into poverty or suffers from poverty involuntarily, as are many black students. We also don't know if your premise is true. I have not seen any data on how Amish and Mennonite children fare on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test or any other standardized test.

Question: Has integration hurt the Black students? Also, do you think Catalog of Choice is segregation again? What's the solution? Who is actually helping to bridge the gap: parents, Pinellas County Schools, the state, the NAACP? Where's the solution in all this?

Tom Tobin: Several questions there. I'll address a few of them. Your question about integration is the subject of some very strong discussion locally and across the country. I've spoken with black parents and grandparents who went to all-black schools. They speak of a time when black students felt more loved and successful among their black peers. They recall that black teachers were more apt to notice and help when students were struggling. Not graduating or getting a C was almost unthinkable, they said. On the other hand, there is very compelling data showing that black students don't do as well today in predominantly black schools. What's the solution? In the words of a local school board member, "If any of us had the answer we'd be on Oprah." The search for solutions continues. But you touched on a big one - parental involvement. There is universal agreement that the gap would at least be narrowed significantly if more parents involved themselves in schools, turned off the TV and read to their children from an early age. In Pinellas County, we see that the gap is narrowest in the fundamental schools, where parental involvement is mandated. But not every family can maintain the requirements set down by those schools. Also, I've come to the conclusion that the gap is in part a problem of size. Some school districts are so large that even the very best ideas have trouble getting implemented because of sheer numbers. Try getting 8,000 employees on the same page, be they teachers, journalists or widget makers. Would Florida be better off with smaller school districts? The last article in our series is about a small school district that is having some success closing the gap.

Question: Has anyone looked at the "achievement gap" strickly by economic status, removing ethnicity from the equation? It seems to me that poverty and the lack of opportunity that goes with it are much more important factors in achievement than skin color. It is also a much more practical way of looking at the issue because then we can work at getting to the root of the problem.

Tom Tobin: Poverty is a big factor but not the only one. Many, many studies have done just what you said - removed ethnicity from the equation and looked at the impact of poverty. When they do that, the gap still exists. Pinellas did its own study in 1999 and found that poverty was a prime determinant in the gap. But the numbers in the back of that same report showed that a black-white gap existed among non-poverty students at many schools. I also wonder whether focusing on poverty is a more practical way to get at the problem, as you say. We haven't found a solution for poverty either. I'd submit we've been trying to solve poverty a lot longer than we've been trying to close the gap.

Question: I have an 11 year old white daughter who just made it to 5th grade. She failed kindergarten and 3rd grade. She is still not reading at the level of her other 5th grade peers. I even placed her in private school in an attempt to bring her up to speed to no avail. If money and emphasis is to be placed on low achievers, why not allocate that for all underachievers? Why does my daughter have to over looked for special assistance because she is white?

Tom Tobin: I don't know if your daughter has been overlooked. What I have seen in many special classes designed to close the gap is a mix of black, white, Hispanic and Asian kids getting help. These classes tend to be disproportionately black, but low-performers of other races seem to be benefiting as well. In Hillsborough County, school officials tell us they don't consider black and white when it comes to getting kids extra help. They say they want to help all low performers. School officials on both sides of Tampa Bay also tell us they make every effort to ensure that high performing kids aren't shorted in the effort to help low performers. They say they try to seek a balance. Maybe you have cited an instance where they haven't succeeded.

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