'The Secret Shame': Educators say student achievement rates are divided along racial lines

“Places like San Francisco, Seattle, Minneapolis—which boast a very strong economy and very strong levels of education for white kids—are doing so poorly for kids at the bottom of the well.”

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By Curtis Bunn

America’s most progressive cities have alarming racial gaps in student academic achievement and graduation rates, and local politicians must help reverse the trend, according to the findings of a new report.

The report, “The Secret Shame: How America’s Most Progressive Cities Betray Their Commitment to Educational Opportunity for All,” tells a bleak story of black students in economically viable municipalities struggling to achieve, and doing at disheartening low rates.

The study was conducted by Brightbeam, the umbrella organization for Education Post, a nonprofit organization that supports school reform. The dozen cities examined in the study were San Francisco; Washington, D.C.; Seattle; Oakland, California; Boston; Minneapolis; New York; Buffalo; Baltimore; Chicago and Portland, Oregon. They were considered “progressive cities” based on an algorithm that measured municipal government, the cities’ voting history, budget and other quantifiers.

“The conversations we have about improving education for kids is often negative,” Chris Stewart, CEO of Brightbeam, told NBC News. “But in the cities that have the most resources, and frankly the most places where the kids really need help, we have done outstandingly bad. Not just bad results, but results that defy the imagination of what you’d expect for a place like San Francisco, where they have so many resources it boggles the mind.

“Places like San Francisco, Seattle, Minneapolis—which boast a very strong economy and very strong levels of education for white kids—are doing so poorly for kids at the bottom of the well,” he said.

Chris Stewart.Courtesy Chris Stewart

The study points out that black students in Washington, D.C., have a 62-point deficit in math proficiency rates compared with white students, the highest disparity among the progressive cities.

“D.C. shocked me,” Stewart said. “It was the most shocking of all. l always considered D.C. a good black city with strong black political power. But it’s changed. The gaps between education, wealth, home ownership . . . are outstanding.”

San Francisco (58 points difference), Minneapolis (53) and Oakland (51) round out the top four progressive cities that have disheartening gaps. And the achievement disparity between Latino and white students was glaring.

Stewart stressed that the report "highlights a fixable problem" local politicians could remedy by allocating more funds to their school systems, soliciting advice from families on how best to educate students and by implementing programs that "monitor year-over-year" progress.

Here are some of the study’s highlights: 

  • Progressive cities, on average, have achievement gaps in math and reading that are 15 and 13 percentage points higher than in conservative cities. 

  • In San Francisco, for example, 70 percent of white students are proficient in math, compared with only 12 percent of black students—a 58-point gap.

  • In Washington, D.C., 83 percent of white students scored proficient in reading compared with 23 percent of black students—a 60-point gap.

  • In contrast, three of the 12 most conservative cities—Virginia Beach, Virginia; Anaheim, California; and Fort Worth, Texas—have effectively closed or even erased the gap in at least one of the academic categories examined.

“We looked at other pertinent factors that might create correlations between larger achievement gaps and progressive cities, such as the percentage of white students in the city or the per-pupil spending,” Patrick Wolf, lead researcher for the report, said.

On its website, the Education Post list funders that include Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Walton Family Foundation, Emerson Collective, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The website says these philanthropists “support the work of dozens of advocates, activists and contributors all across the country.”

Kathy Wood.Courtesy Kathy Wood

Dr. Kathy Wood, the associate dean of education at Buffalo State College, said that teacher preparedness could be a factor in the study’s results.

“There are a lot of layers that come into play that causes that poor performance,” said Wood, who tracks academic achievement gaps. “A lot of it has to do with teacher preparation, being well prepared to work in urban settings. It requires a different sensitivity and understanding.

“Kids many times come from situations where it’s hard to even get to school,” Wood said. “The parents have to work and are relying on an 11-year-old to get the other kids together for school. These are different dynamics. And many times they don’t even make it to school. So many variables come into play when we’re discussing student performance.”

Still, Wolf said, the goal of the study was to highlight performance differences and to “shed light on a troubling mismatch and invite those who care to take action.”