Roxanna Haghighat ’15, THURJ Staff

With the 2012 elections fast approaching, discussions about the need for education reform have reentered the spotlight. President Obama’s State of the Union address on January 24, 2012, highlighted the need for more affordable college education and the undeniable importance of teachers in K-12 education. Given the general consensus that former President Bush’s No Child Left Behind policy has failed to concretely improve education standards and maintain American competitiveness with the rest of the world, a more creative eye must be turned towards education policy. Dr. Ronald Ferguson, Senior Lecturer in Education and Public Policy at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Harvard Kennedy School, argues that changes need to occur not only in the realm of government but also at home and in the classroom.

In tackling the complicated issue of the achievement gap between whites and blacks in America, Dr. Ferguson has applied his background as an economist and Senior Research Associate at the Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy. Surveys from wealthy, racially mixed suburbs reveal that the average grade of black students was a C+, a vast difference from the white average of a B+. According to his research, which examines both racial and economic status, part of this gap can be predicted by economics, as blacks are statistically more likely to face greater financial burdens. Even in wealthy suburbs, 79 percent of blacks fall into the bottom half of earners whereas 73 percent of whites are in the top half.

At the same time, though, he finds that a crucial component of bridging the achievement gap lies in the hands of parents. Using metrics such as the number of books owned, Ferguson found that black parents on average do not emphasize the importance of education as much as their white counterparts. Other standards included reading books aloud to children; interestingly, while both white and black parents seem to read to their children at approximately the same rate in first grade, the difference widens dramatically within a few years. By fifth grade, 60 to 70 percent of white parents read aloud to their children, as compared to only 30 to 40 percent of black parents. How-ever, Ferguson clearly emphasizes that simply reading aloud does not foster the rich intellectual environment necessary for mental enrichment. Rather, the manner of reading is key; interacting with the text and child, by discussing the literature and asking hypothetical questions about the scenarios presented, for example, fosters imagination and critical thinking skills. Ferguson also found that even black and Hispanic 12th graders with the most highly educated parents (over sixteen years of schooling) still scored lower than white students with parents of the same background on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Black students within this category actually scored near the average of white students whose parents did not receive an education beyond high school.

The final component highlighted by Ferguson is the presence of teacher bias in the classroom, which inherently encourages the achievement gap. This teacher bias includes the assumption, by some educators, that black students are less likely to finish assignments because they are simply lazier than their white peers. While Ferguson did find that blacks were less likely to finish homework, they actually spent the same amount of time on tasks as white students; however, the disparity in skill set, not laziness, was the cause of differentiation.

To resolve this educational problem—the result of a combination of economic, parental, and teaching biases—Ferguson propounds that parents and teachers must be seen as the keys to change. Indeed, the achievement gap arises not because of inherent differences between races but between social environments, as no differences in the mental ability of infants have been linked to racial or social class before their first birthday. Ferguson argues that, rather than lecture at parents and teachers, as done in the status quo, they need better models. To facilitate an understanding of what a nurturing environment should resemble, Ferguson has prepared “Research Based Tips for High Achievement Parenting,” a list that he often gives to parents, but he stresses that parents cannot simply follow the tips as if they were a cookbook recipe. Rather, each child has a unique skill set and different capability, which must be considered when setting goals. Instead of focusing on just academic performance in a dictatorial environment, Ferguson urges an emphasis on life-long learning and engagement.

In addition to these changes, Ferguson believes that a national effort must be made to introduce students at a younger age to the opportunities for work in their future. To motivate students in their studies and to encourage them to develop personal goals, he suggests that employers should begin to interact with students in the 5th grade, providing opportunities for employees to discuss their daily lives every two months or so. Ferguson cites the need for a sense of purpose and direction among students as the driving force behind these proposals. By understanding the practical importance of concepts learned in class, American students can better integrate technical and problem solving skills. Indeed, American students are lagging behind in math and science standardized test scores when com-pared to students from East Asia. However, American students score better in problem solving, indicating this need for a balance between critical thinking skills and techniques.

So the question remains: how to evaluate the effective-ness of these teachers? Dr. Ferguson contends that the students have the answer. Research has found that student surveys about their teachers are highly accurate concerning how well they learn concepts in class, as reflected in scores on standardized tests. As a general guideline, the best 10 percent of teachers are voted favorably by 70 to 80 percent of students; a 10 to 20 percent favorable vote, then, suggests a teacher who does not facilitate learning as well. Ultimately, Dr. Ferguson hopes to redirect American education so that it supports hardworking learners, rather than discourages them; by actively engaging students with the education system, integrating their input and focusing on learning both at school and at home, they will be motivated to challenge themselves and excel academically.