Third grade students raise their hands in reading comprehension class at Success Academy Harlem  in March 2009

Third grade students raise their hands in reading comprehension class at Success Academy Harlem in March 2009

According to the latest Pew Research data, college graduation rates are up for Americans in nearly every racial and ethnic group.

Last year, former President Barack Obama spoke about how crucial this is for the U.S. economy.

“By 2020, two out of three job openings will require some form of higher education,” he said during an event at Benjamin Banneker Academic High School in Washington, D.C. “Our public schools had been the envy of the world, but the world caught up. And we started getting outpaced when it came to math and science education. And African American and Latino students, in part because of the legacy of discrimination, too often lagged behind our white classmates — something called the achievement gap that, by one estimate, costs us hundreds of billions of dollars a year.”

The so-called achievement gap is pretty big. As of 2016, according to Pew, 55 percent of white 25- to 34-year-olds had attained at least an associate degree. African-American students? 35 percent.

But there is work underway throughout the country to do something about this achievement gap. And it’s happening in the classroom, in the community, and in the home.


  • Rinaldo Murray Executive director, College Tribe
  • Adrian Miller 6th grader at Center City Charter School in Washington, D.C.
  • Sean Beach 8th grader at Friendship Tech Prep Middle School in Washington, D.C.
  • William Darity Professor of public policy and director of the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke University
  • Joseph Neff Investigative reporter, The News & Observer
  • Pastor Kirby Jones Founder and executive director, The Daniel Center for Math and Science
  • Anya Kamenetz Education reporter for NPR and author of "The Test: Why Our Schools Are Obsessed with Standardized Testing - But You Don't Have to Be"

Interview Highlights

On racial disparities in gifted classes

Joseph Neff: In our reporting in North Carolina, whether you’re rich or poor, we found three levels of being placed into gifted or advanced classes at any grade. If you’re Asian, you’re more likely to be placed in these classes. White students are in the middle. And if you’re black or Hispanic, you’re less likely to be put in.


Does systemic racism contribute to the achievement gap?

William Darity: I don’t think that’s a simplification. Approximately 20 years ago I did a study on the state of North Carolina on the exclusion of black students from the most challenging curricula that are offered in the state’s schools. The situation really has not changed. And so as a consequence I think that what we have to focus on is the process of exclusion of black kids from the most advanced classes, and that process I think has to be explained on the basis of forms of systematic racism. And that’s why I’ve been emphasizing what happens inside of schools – to give that a greater emphasis than what happens outside of schools.


On Latino students and the achievement gap

Anya Kamenetz: We did a very large reporting project on 4.5 million English language learners, many of whom are Spanish speakers, and there’s a specific achievement gap to that particular students that has to do with the availability of resources as well as the tracking into gifted and the inappropriate use of special education for those students. A lot of times coming into school with a different language background is conflated with a person’s academic ability.


On the importance of parents

Pastor Kirby Jones: It is very challenging to lift children to where they need to be without parental involvement, whether it be a single mom or single dad or a two-person home. It is imperative that parents understand how to advocate for their children, that they can advocate for their children, that they have a right and to understand how to go to the school and question the track that their student was on. One of the things that was really striking when [investigative reporter Joseph Neff] came to me and brought the data from his research is in fact how many children were on the less rigorous academic tracks who produced scores that clearly showed they were qualified. Certainly they have a parent or parents who aren’t noticing that, picking up on it, going to the school and asking why.


Possible solutions

Kamenetz: One study that we covered earlier this year was partly based in NC – over 100,000 students in NC. And what they found was that low-income black boys who had at least one black teacher in elementary school were 39 percent less likely to drop out of high school, so the effects were felt for years and years. And in Tennessee they were much more likely to contemplate college if they’d had that role model. This matches up with research that I covered last year that showed in the process of being identified for gifted programs, the real magic bullet for black students was having a black teacher.

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