Practitioner Articles


Many teachers, organizers, administrators, and communities have taken steps to decrease the size of the racial achievement gap in schools. The articles discussed below examine two methods of approaching this inequality in the performance of minority vs. non-minority students.

In the article “The Challenge of Creating Schools that ‘Work for Everybody’,” Catherine Gewertz emphasizes the importance of teachers and administrators encouraging minority students to pursue upper-level and AP courses. In this article, Gewertz reports on disparities in minority student engagement and achievement at Wheaton North High School, a public school in Chicago, Illinois, and its efforts to better prepare minority students for opportunities to further their education after graduation.

In his article “Black Teachers Matter. School Integration Doesn’t,” Rafiq R. Kalam, a charter school teacher hailing from Brooklyn, New York, calls for minority representation in teaching staff. Kalam asserts the importance of representation by citing the way in which minority students, particularly low-income, African-American males, benefit by having African-American educators. Kalam suggests minority teacher representation is more important than school integration for reducing the achievement gap for African-American students, pointing to studies that cite teacher representation as a larger factor in increasing minority student achievement levels in public schools.


The Problems

Gewertz (2017) notes that there is a serious discrepancy in the backgrounds of students electing to take upper-level courses at Wheaton North; citing the following statistics:

  • More than 25% of Wheaton North students take AP classes.
  • Of that 25%, only 16% of those students are minorities, even though “nonwhites” constitute 31% of the high school’s student body.
  • Minority and low-income students at Wheaton North have been observed to be more likely to be suspended and twice as likely to fail a class as their fellow non-minority students (p. 12).

Image 1.

Looking at the distribution of students amongst the three different levels of classes available, low-income and minority students are “overrepresented” in the lowest level and underrepresented in the highest: AP level classes (Gewertz, 2017).

Kalam holds a similar view towards the educational inequalities for minority and non-minority students, looking more specifically at African American students. Kalam (2017) notes the following concerning statistics:

  • Only 72.5% of black students nationwide graduate from high school in four years, compared to 87% of white students.
  • The numbers are even lower for black male students: In the 2012-2013 academic year, only 59% graduated in four years (p. 24).

Both authors note that the “disparity” between minority and non-minority students is often obscured by reporting the overall performance of a school’s student body. Kalam (2017) states that when scores at integrated schools are categorized by race, it “becomes clear” that wealthy white students bring up averages. This causes a critical oversight, as schools failures to meet the needs of low-income black students will often fall through the cracks (p. 25).


Possible Solutions

Image 2.

Above, Gewertz (2017) identifies areas for improvement to provide equal educational opportunities for white and African American students, specifically citing differences in numbers of enrollment in AP classes and school suspension rates. However, she also acknowledges the measures Wheaton North takes to “[defy] some national patterns” typically associated with inequality. Gewertz notes that the school ensures that all educators teach a range of lower-level and higher-level courses, so that it doesn’t leave its least-experienced teachers in classes with the “neediest students” (p. 14).

Both authors emphasize the power that teachers have in facilitating a positive educational experience for their students, no matter what their racial identities. Kalam places a heavy emphasis on the importance of minority students having black teachers at some point during their K-12 careers. This sentiment is echoed by the statistic that “low-income black students who have just one black teacher in grades 3-5” are more likely to graduate and consider college, the likelihood they drop out decreasing by 29% (Kalam, 2017).


Different Interpretations

Teachers at both schools – Wheaton North High School and Kalam’s charter school – expressed different views on how to handle diversity in a school climate. Teachers at Wheaton North say they prefer to be “colorblind”, and to support students based on their “academic or emotional needs, not their race or class” (Gewertz, 2017).

Image 3.

Kalam (2017) expresses a very different sentiment – his charter school, where black teachers make up more than 90% of the teaching staff, aims to facilitate development of student agency (p. 25). He also notes that a “more diverse teaching force” would essentially remove the need for suspension in schools, in part because “black teachers are far less likely” to characterize black student behavior as “problematic”, which could result in suspension or expulsion.

Both articles offer different approaches to addressing differences of race and background in a school context. Despite this difference in technique, both schools have found success in establishing a more level playing field for all students. This sentiment demonstrates the way in which schools must first acknowledge the diversity of its students before attempting to bridge the gap between white students and students of color.