Better teaching can help shrink achievement gap between black and white students

The achievement gap separating black and white students has been known and studied for a number of years. However, new research focusing on black males shows the gap may be much bigger than originally thought.

William F. Tate

How to breach the divide? Better teachers, suggests a Washington University in St. Louis expert in science education proficiency.

The new data, produced by the National Assessment for Educational Progress, and reported by the Council of the Great City Schools, indicate that only 12 percent of black fourth-grade boys are proficient in reading, compared with 38 percent of white boys, and only 12 percent of black eighth-grade boys are proficient in math, compared with 44 percent of white boys.

“Our research on Missouri high schools suggests that having a good teacher results in better learning outcomes in science for traditionally underperforming groups,” says William F. Tate, PhD, the Edward Mallinckrodt Distinguished University Professor in Arts & Sciences and chair of the Department of Education in Arts & Sciences.

“The same is true in mathematics,” Tate says. “Eradicating the teaching or instructional gap is a significant part of addressing the achievement gap problem. The literature is clear that when students have teachers who cultivate high expectations while exhibiting a high level of support the outcomes trend toward student learning.”

Tate suggests in his most recent research paper, School Competition and Context Factors That Moderate and Predict 10th-Grade Science Proficiency, that it may be possible for schools with high percentages of free and reduced lunch and minority students to increase science proficiency by having more science courses taught by faculty trained in science content areas, more teachers who are regularly certified and more teachers who have master’s degrees.

“While teacher quality is generally acknowledged in public debates as important, there remain some skeptics who view state certification as non-essential, as well as the lack of capacity and dedicated resources to address this significant equity challenge in science education,” Tate writes.

His study suggests that teacher quality in high-poverty majority-minority school settings remains an important policy target for reform and improvement.

At WUSTL, programs in science outreach are helping teachers and school systems improve teacher quality. These include the National Science Foundation-supported Life Sciences for a Global Community graduate degree program, the partnerships with Hazelwood, University City Schools and St. Louis Public Schools and the MySci hands on science mobile enrichment program.

New research focusing on black males shows the achievement gap may be much bigger than originally thought.

“We’re taking systematic approaches in our school partnerships,” says Victoria L. May, director of educational outreach and assistant dean in Arts & Sciences. “We know that teacher quality is a big part of the picture, but so is parent and community involvement, school leadership, and curriculum and assessment. Combining these efforts is crucial to closing achievement gaps in situations where race and poverty are affecting children.”

Closing achievement gaps can also require assistance with social and medical services. WUSTL places social work interns from the Brown School at Brittany Woods Middle in University City and at the university-sponsored KIPP Inspire Academy in St. Louis City.

Science teacher Joan Braun of Cross Keys Middle in Feguson-Florissant is a member of a teacher-leader collaborative group at WUSTL, also supported by NSF through Science Outreach.

“Washington University creates opportunities for science teachers that aren’t available anywhere else,” she says. “[They] provide a way to go beyond the surface, to look more deeply into science-related topics. We collaborate and develop supportive projects and share experiences with each other.”

Tate, also has appointments in American Culture Studies, Urban Studies and the Center for Applied Statistics, all in Arts & Sciences, is director of the Center for the Study of Regional Competitiveness in Science and Technology.

The center, also in Arts & Sciences, examines the alignment of people, policy instruments and partnerships, as well as other relevant factors associated with regional scientific and technological growth and production.