Every spring in high school, when it came time to enroll in courses for the upcoming school year, I self-selected to take as many honors and AP classes that I could. And every fall I would walk into those advanced classes and see I was one of only three black students—the same three—who had opted into them.
My high school in Brown Deer, a suburb of Milwaukee, was incredibly diverse but had clear segregation within the advanced courses. It was just one sign of a persistent opportunity gap between black and white students in Wisconsin, which has a long-term achievement gap problem.
The achievement gap is the significant and continuing disparity in academic performance or educational achievement between groups. The most talked-about gaps are those between black and white students and high-income and low-income students. Indicators of this gap are grades, course selection, drop-out rates, and, of course, standardized tests.
Newly released test results from the National Assessment Educational Progress ranked Wisconsin as having the nation’s worst black-white achievement gap. This is nothing new.
Within the last decade, there were only three times when other states reported worse achievement gaps in the subjects and grades tested than Wisconsin.
The new report shows that black eighth-grade students scored forty-seven points lower on the math exam compared to white students; the gap was thirty-nine points between black and white fourth-graders. Wisconsin has shown no major improvement in closing the gap over the last decade, even while its scores as a whole are higher than the national average. In part that’s because the scores of its lowest-performing students continue to decline.
According to ProPublica’s 2018 project, “Miseducation: Is There Racial Inequality at Your School?,” Milwaukee Public School black students are, on average, 2.5 grades behind white students academically.
“In spite of what everyone would like to say, there is a direct correlation between the funding of any school district and student performance,” Marva Herndon, a member of Milwaukee’s public school board, tells The Progressive. “Milwaukee has been systematically defunded by the school choice program enacted by our state legislature.”
According to the National Education Association, many factors work together to produce lower educational outcomes for black students. A student’s income level, large class sizes, a culturally unresponsive environment, and other contributors can negatively impact educational outcomes.
This issue has reverberated among educators and advocates for many years.
“[O]ur focus on the achievement gap is akin to a focus on the budget deficit, but what is actually happening to African American and Latina/o students is really more like the national debt,” wrote Gloria Ladson-Billing, a professor in the department of education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, back in 2006. “We do not have achievement gap; we have an education debt.”
Ladson-Billing, in an interview with The Progressive, says things have stayed much the same.
“The point of my reframing was to stop blaming the kids, and stop blaming their parents and start looking at what we do as a system and a society to ensure we are providing the kind of resources we need so the students are successful,” she says.
If improved educational outcomes for all is the goal, giving a handful of students “choice” will not suffice.
Ladson-Billings argues that there is a historical, economic, sociopolitical, and moral debt that needs to be addressed for marginalized students. Other states in the Midwest, she says, have taken this gap more seriously than has Wisconsin.
“What I think those scores speak to is how we have been able to meet the needs of white students,” Ladson-Billings says. “In many ways, Wisconsin is late to the game of looking at all students.”
Following the release of the report card, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos inaccurately interpreted the achievement gap data to push her education reform agenda, in a way that suggested the problem was with public schools. But the history of education reform in Wisconsin underscores the dangers of that approach.
Milwaukee is the birthplace of the nation’s first school voucher program, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, which began in 1991.
The educational outcomes from school choice are a mixed bag, at best. The earliest research showed no substantial improvements in test scores between students who received vouchers and other students in Milwaukee Public Schools, although more recent research has shown choice students outperforming their public school peers.
It’s clear that school choice is not a fix-all solution to the problem of achievement gaps. That may be why Ed Choice, an organization advocating school choice, opposes requiring voucher students to participate in state tests at all. That protects the ability of school choice proponents to claim their programs are doing better than public schools.
If improved educational outcomes for all is the goal, giving a handful of students “choice” will not suffice. Education reform tactics ignore the need to take other steps, including hiring more educators of color, hiking teacher pay, promoting restorative justice programs, and providing culturally responsive instruction, among other things.
In Milwaukee, the school district has tried to implement programs on a small scale, according to Herdon. And that often comes down to the allocation of resources. As Herdon puts it, “They can make all the plans they want, but if they can’t fund it, then what?”
No one is more concerned about Wisconsin’s achievement gap than Carolyn Stanford Taylor, the first African American to serve as the state’s superintendent of schools. She’s called these gaps “a crisis” and said that closing them “is not only the right thing to do, it is imperative for our state.”
Taylor is calling the new state’s education budget, adopted under newly elected Democratic Governor Tony Evers, himself a former state school superintendent, an “equity budget.” The plan looks to fund areas in which schools can have the biggest impact on addressing the achievement gap.
“Everyone wants the best for their child,” Taylor told The Capital Times, “but everyone is trying to make a living, so if we start to back up, and think about our youngest learners and where we have them, and look at our priorities and frontload for our youngest, that’s when we start to level the playing field so our children come into school being ready to compete.”