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Article of Interest - Michigan News

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Bridges4Kids LogoState Looks to Bridge Student Achievement Gap
by Judy Putnam, Booth Newspapers, November 3, 2003
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Determined to close a yawning achievement gap between Michigan's white and minority students, Michigan Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Watkins has created the first state-level position to try to address the stubborn problem.

Educators have known for years that such a gap exists, but the Michigan Educational Assessment Program tests released in October for the first time closely track race and other demographic factors.

Among the scores on the tests taken last school year:

*73 percent of white fourth-graders were considered proficient in math, compared with 43 percent of black students and 51 percent of Hispanic students;

*85 percent of white fifth-graders scored in the proficient range in science, compared with 53 percent of black students and 65 percent of Hispanic students;

*69 percent of white seventh-graders were proficient readers, compared with 35 percent of black students and 47 percent of Hispanic students.

Michigan's Asian students scored above all other groups.

The gap is gaining new urgency as federal requirements under No Child Left Behind of 2001 require schools to count achievement of minority students as part of tracking Adequate Yearly Progress. Schools that don't make AYP face a series of sanctions, leading up to such measures as changing the staff or reorganizing as a charter school.

In September, Watkins appointed Lloyd Bingman, 43, an Oklahoma native with a master's in urban education and a doctorate in education administration, as a special assistant in charge of closing the gap.

"His job is to be a productive pain-in-the rear and to keep our focus on it,'' Watkins said. "His sole responsibility is to be that broken record to ask us what are we doing to push, to challenge."

Bingman has a renewable, one-year $75,000 contract with the state, paid from new federal money under the No Child Left Behind Act, said Martin Ackley, spokesman for the Department of Education.

Bingman said he'll be looking for best practices across Michigan and across the country.

"I'm trying to just gather information at this point. What can we do to actually help these kids learn?'' he said.

David Plank, director of Michigan State University's Education Policy Center, said the gap has to be closed in the classroom, with better teachers in urban schools.

"We can have sort of a public advocate for closing the gap, but the work of closing the gap is going to take place in schools,'' he said. "It's probably going to take more resources.''

Bingman, married and the father of two, said he'll draw on his experience growing up in Tulsa, Okla., in a single-parent family in a black neighborhood. His mother took advantage of a school integration plan to send her son to an affluent white school, where he was exposed to the idea of college.

"Some African-American children, they don't even think about college because they don't know anything about college,'' he said.

He said his success was bolstered by attending graduate school at a historically black college, Oklahoma's Langston University, where professors pushed him but also gave him support and role models.

"I believe a teacher or a professor can really change kids to want to succeed,'' Bingman said. "That's one thing I'm trying to focus on here. What are the attitudes of the teachers? What are they doing to actually engage students? Are they communicating to them that they can be anything they want to be?''

Bingman moved to Michigan in 1997 to pursue his doctorate in educational administration at Michigan State University. His background includes work as a career counselor at MSU and supervisor of child nutrition services for Oklahoma City Public Schools.

Among theories for the achievement gap is the link to poverty, with more minorities living in poverty, the lack of family involvement and the failure of schools to offer challenging curriculum to minorities. More controversial theories have suggested a link to genetics, as in the 1994 book "Bell Curve,'' and a recent book by a California professor that suggests African-American attitudes toward education are to blame.

Kati Haycock of the Education Trust, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit group that works to close the achievement gap, said strong evidence suggests that minority students have less qualified teachers and are offered less rigorous courses than their white peers, even when skill levels are the same.

"We teach down to them, rather than challenging them,'' Haycock said.

She said Ohio created a position similar to Bingman's last year, and is using lessons from successful Ohio schools with high concentrations of minority and poor students.

"Every state has schools with high concentrations of poor kids that are doing a good job. To me, it makes a lot of sense to start there,'' she said. Haycock said Bingman's position could help.

Others disagree. Joseph G. Lehman, executive vice president of the Mackinac Center, a free-market policy group in Midland, said parents don't want "one more bureaucrat in Lansing.''

"Parents want teachers who can teach and safe classrooms. And if the local school doesn't offer those things, parents must be allowed to freely choose another school that does,'' Lehman said.

But N. Charles Anderson, president of the Detroit Urban League, called it a "good decision.''

"It's a great concern that all of us have around the country and around the state, particularly here in Detroit,'' he said.

Kevin Hollenbeck, president of the Michigan Association of School Boards and an education researcher at the W.E. Upjohn Institute in Kalamazoo, said the achievement gap isn't as dramatic as it appears when measured by the MEAP because large groups of minority students are just under the proficient range while large groups of white students are just above. Raw scores show the groups closer together, he said.

"The gap is still there. Nobody denies the gap,'' he said.

Some closing of the gap has been reported. In June, after minority reading scores had stagnated for a decade, Michigan reported that black and Hispanic fourth-grade students in 2002 had made greater gains in reading than white students on the National Assessment of Education Progress. The study assessed 250 schools with about 5,000 students as part of a national assessment.


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