Princeton sociology professor Angel Harris gave a presentation at the College on Monday, April 22 on the achievement gap between blacks and whites in the education system.
According to national test scores, there is a four-year gap between black and whites by the time they graduate high school, with black seniors scoring as high as white eighth graders.
Harris also cited different explanations for why the gap exists.
Harris observed the effect of different measures of parental involvement in children’s educations, which he categorized as “punitive” and “non-punitive.” Blacks tend to use more punitive responses when their children perform poorly in school, which is associated with declines in achievement. Whites generally use non-punitive responses, which correlate to increases in achievement.
Other explanations he gave were the existence of bias in standardized testing, access to resources and cultural influences.
Harris found that the gap is smallest between white and black kindergarteners and widens with each grade. Blacks and whites are similar at birth in terms of cognitive ability. It is only after they enter school that the gap is formed.
“I found it particularly interesting when he talked about how the gap between the various groups actually widens once children enter the school system,” said Deborah Compte, Spanish professor and co-chair of the Department of World Languages & Cultures. “So we’re not doing the job that we think we should.”
Harris showed that, in terms of achievement, there are two separate distributions for blacks and whites. It is important to note socioeconomic background — where an individual lies within his own distribution — when evaluating members of the two groups.
“I found it interesting when (Harris said) smart white people are just considered smart, as opposed to smart black people, where that’s considered a success story,” sophomore psychology major Jonathan Michaels said.
Harris noticed that many people tend to avoid the topic of race. It is only by talking about stereotypes that people can break them down, he believes.
“We don’t need to have the race police there ... It’s okay. Your experiences in life have led you to this position,” Harris said.
The observations may not always be correct, though, he noted.
Finally, many hypothesize that blacks are teased for “acting white” if they perform well in school. Harris believes that achievement may not be a factor in this mindset. In primarily black schools, students who do well are just that — smart black students. But in predominantly white schools, high-achieving black students are accused of trying to imitate their white peers.
“Every time you come across a black person who people say they’re acting white, it’s not because of their grades or they’re doing well. Usually it’s because … I don’t know …they don’t have swagger when they walk,” Harris said.