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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

The Achievement Gap

In my last post I mentioned the discussion in my men’s reading group of what change we thought might come in our lifetimes. My own contribution to that discussion had been our acceptance of the 50% black high school graduation rate. Today in the Times, there is a profile of Tonald Ferguson, the Harvard professor who has taken a lead in studying the achievement gap. While my concern was about how we as a nation accept the formula for life failure which is being a teenager without even a high school education, and Fegruson is most concerned with the relative success or failure of black students throughout their education, his insights are relevent. He says there are bascially two main reasons for the gap: money, and family focus.

Money – “79 percent” of black families “are in the bottom 50 percent financially, while 73 percent of whites are in the top 50 percent.” And to add a startling number to that, in 2008, some 35% of black children were living below the poverty line — meaning that their family income was less that $21,000 (for more see So the baseline fact is that we have a poverty gap that we see measured and reflected as an achievement gap.

Family Focus:  Again this is speaking about Dr. Ferguson: “The other half of the gap, he has calculated, is that black parents on average are not as academically oriented in raising their children as whites.” Now it would be interesting to map this against The Warmth of Other Sons, Isabel Wilkerson’s magnificent book on the Great Migration. In other words, how many generations are kids removed from living in the rural South where whites discouraged black education and the work available to them did not depend on reading and writing? It might be interesting to compare immigrant groups from similar rural backgrounds — say Sicilians or Mexican migrant workers — and to develop a model for how many generations it takes for a reading-oriented family ethos to develop. I recentlyread a reviuew of William W. Cook and James Tatum, AFrican American Writers and Classical Traidtion” A book which argues that the classics — the great books of Greece and Rome — have had a great influence on African American writers. So clearly even as we have had the gap, we have also had a community of writers, teachers, intellectuals deeply at home in reading. I wonder if — in kids books — too much of our focus has been on books that echo the world we believe African-American kids live in, and not enough on books that link them to a broader world and wider literary tradition. Just last week a African American woman wrote a post to that effect to a discussion on the CCBC listserv. How can we expand the mental library kids have available to them, even while recognizing that terrible cost of poverty?