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Volume 21, Number 1
January/February 2005

Beyond the Gap

What educators and researchers are learning from high-achieving African American and Latino students


Seventeen-year-old Deryle Daniels Jr. serves on his school's junior class council, plays varsity football and basketball, and participates in the Youth Leadership Institute. A student at Chapel Hill (N.C.) High School, Daniels maintains a 3.8 grade-point average, when weighted to account for all of his honors and Advanced Placement classes. He is one of four African American students in his AP U.S. history class this year, is one of three in junior honors English, and was the only African American student in his AP world history class last year.

In addition to his involvement in high-powered activities at Chapel Hill High, Daniels has represented his school for the past two years at conferences of the Minority Student Achievement Network (MSAN), a consortium of 25 school districts aimed at raising the achievement of African American and Latino students in U.S. schools. And while closing the widely publicized "achievement gap" is a high priority for MSAN, an equally important item on the group's agenda is to understand what makes students like Daniels tick. Why do some African American and Latino students thrive while others—even those from well-educated, middle-class families—underachieve relative to their white and Asian American peers?

For the past five years, MSAN has held annual conferences with high-achieving minority students aimed at coming up with answers to this question. Member districts send teams of six to eight students who have been identified by school officials either as high-achieving or as "promising scholars," those who have not yet achieved high levels of academic success but demonstrate strong potential to do so. About 125 students attended the most recent conference, held September 30—October 2, 2004, in Princeton, N.J.

The MSAN student conferences include presentations and discussions led by top university scholars in the area of minority achievement. The latest conference in Princeton also included a college recruitment fair featuring some of the most competitive colleges and universities in the nation. But perhaps the most powerful components of these conferences are the small-group discussions in which African American and Latino students meet with their peers from all over the country, discuss how issues of minority student achievement play out in their schools, and come up with recommendations that they agree to share with administrators, school boards, faculty groups, and parent organizations back home. (See sidebar "Students Weigh In on Ways to Raise Achievement" for a summary of student recommendations from the most recent conference.)

Common Threads

In listening for clues to these high achievers' success, Ash says the most recurrent theme she has heard from students is the importance of supportive relationships with adults. Parental involvement is an issue that comes up again and again, she notes.

Daniels, for one, says his parents have been major factors in his academic success since his early childhood. "My parents are highly involved in my education," he says. "It means a lot to me, knowing that they care."

Daniels says he also feels fortunate to have a computer at home, to live in a relatively affluent suburb, and to have other advantages that he realizes many of his peers do not share. But Pedro Noguera, an education professor at New York University, notes that many of the factors that support high-achieving minority students cut across socioeconomic (as well as racial) lines, including parental involvement. In a 2002—03 study of minority students in 10 Boston-area high schools, Noguera found that African American and Latino students from various socioeconomic backgrounds identified their parents as their greatest source of academic motivation.

Regardless of the level of encouragement students receive at home, positive relationships with adults at school—teachers, counselors, administrators, coaches—can also make a crucial difference. Students at all of the MSAN conferences have cited these relationships as important, Ash says, and a survey of nearly 40,000 students in 15 MSAN member districts conducted in 2000-01 resulted in similar findings.

"For African American and Latino kids, having a positive, encouraging relationship with adults in the school is absolutely critical," Ash says. "But it can't just be encouraging—it also has to be a demanding relationship. When teachers don't demand things of students, they say that's a sign that 'the teacher doesn't care about us.'"

Despite their excellent academic records, virtually all of the high achievers attending MSAN conferences have had experience with low teacher expectations based on race or ethnicity, Ash reports.

"When I was starting to take advanced classes, teachers were surprised," says Stephanie Betancur, a high-achieving Latina senior at East Chapel Hill (N.C.) High School. "And since they were only used to teaching white, Asian, or Indian kids, they actually did not know how to deal with me. Some teachers would give me less work, thinking that I was not ready to do as challenging work as the rest of my classmates. Sometimes they would even give me more time to take a test or to turn in a project."

In addition, many students from MSAN districts, most of which are in racially integrated, middle-class suburbs or small cities, report that they are one of only a few African American or Latino students in accelerated classes. Daniels says that being the only minority student—or even one of only three or four—in an Advanced Placement or honors course can result in his feeling especially isolated and conspicuous, especially in situations where issues related to African American history or experience might arise. "When we're talking about slavery in AP history or we're reading Toni Morrison's Beloved in honors English, sometimes it feels like everybody's looking at me," Daniels says. "It's a bit of a burden to bear when everyone's looking to you to make a profound statement."
Benefits of Advanced Curriculum

Knowing how many African American and Latino students participate in academically advanced programs is an important first step toward understanding their overall achievement patterns, says professor and researcher William Darity Jr. of Duke University and the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill. Darity, along with colleagues Karolyn Tyson of UNC and Domini Castellino of Duke, has been studying minority student participation in advanced curriculum in North Carolina schools since 2001. In the first phase of their research, Darity and his colleagues found that African American and Latino students are severely underrepresented in "advanced and intellectually gifted" (AIG) programs in the state's elementary and middle schools, and in Advanced Placement and honors courses at the high school level. For example, Darity notes, while approximately 40 percent of North Carolina's public school students are African American, just 5 percent of AIG-identified students are. Moreover, he says, Latino enrollment has grown significantly in North Carolina schools in recent years, but there has been no accompanying growth in Latino representation in AIG programs.

Later phases of the North Carolina project have focused specifically on the experiences of high-achieving African American students to help determine the factors that contribute to their success. One key finding from the latest study, which included in-depth interviews and "shadowing" of 65 high-achieving African American tenth graders, was that 27 of them—more than 40 percent—had been identified as gifted and talented in elementary and/or middle school. Though Darity points out that his findings are not based on a random sample, he still believes it is noteworthy that the percentage of AIG—identified students in his study far exceeds that of African American students in AIG programs statewide. Darity theorizes that there may be an "anointment effect" associated with identifying students as gifted that spurs further academic achievement in the later grades.

"There seems to be some benefit that comes with having gifted and talented identification and exposure to a gifted and talented curriculum," he says. "But if there's gross underrepresentation of a certain group of students in these programs, you've in some ways locked the door [on high achievement]."

The "Acting White" Theory

Darity and his colleagues have noted several other findings that both support and challenge existing theories about minority achievement. Somewhat predictably, the high-achieving students in the North Carolina studies have been strongly goal oriented and have reported high levels of parental involvement. But the researchers' findings also call into question some aspects of the widely cited "acting white" theory, which has been used to explain much of the minority underachievement in U.S. schools.

This theory, put forth most notably by scholars Signithia Fordham and the late John Ogbu, holds that many African American students develop an "oppositional" attitude toward school because it is part of the white-dominated system of power that has oppressed African Americans throughout U.S. history. Under the theory, African American students who excel academically are accused by their peers of "acting white." Scholars have also applied the theory to Latino student underachievement.

But Darity and his colleagues found that less than one-third of the high-achieving African American students in their latest study reported feeling peer pressure against academic achievement from their African American peers. And, in a previous study of 11 North Carolina schools, the researchers noted that pressure against acting white appeared to be a significant factor only in one high school where very few minority students were enrolled in advanced courses. This led the researchers to theorize that academically segregated school environments may be more responsible for students' equating achievement with acting white than any cultural attitudes within African American communities.

"Our position is not a claim that it [the 'acting white' phenomenon] never occurs, but that it occurs contextually," Darity says. "In cases where the vast majority of students in advanced classes are white, students tend to view these classes as belonging to the white students." But this phenomenon is far less likely to occur, Darity notes, in schools where students of color have a history of participation in advanced classes.

Two earlier, large-scale studies support the North Carolina group's finding that attitudes that equate achievement with acting white are far from universal among students of color. Using 1990 data on more than 17,500 students who participated in the National Education Longitudinal Study, Duke University researchers Philip Cook and Jens Ludwig found that high-achieving African American students were no more likely to be unpopular in school than their lower-achieving peers. And an analysis of the 40,000-student MSAN survey conducted by Ronald Ferguson of Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government found that African American and Latino students were more likely than their white peers to believe it is "very important" to "study hard and get good grades."

Promising Strategies

These findings suggest that a promising strategy for fostering high achievement among African American and Latino students would be to include more of them in advanced curriculum at all levels of schooling. In addition, efforts to support educators in being effective mentors to African American and Latino students, and to reach out to minority parents and encourage more school involvement, also seem to hold promise.

Successful programs in individual schools and districts have pointed to additional strategies for supporting high academic achievement among African American and Latino students:
  • Once a low-performing school, Hambrick Middle School in Houston's Aldine Independent School District has scored in the top 20 percent on both the reading and math sections of Texas' standardized achievement tests for the past four years. The school's population is about 99 percent minority (77% Latino and 22% African American) and 90 percent low income. Hambrick principal Nancy Blackwell credits a multifaceted approach that includes increased instructional time in math and English; staff development geared to stronger student-teacher relationships and higher levels of subject-area competence; and the implementation of "gifted and talented" teaching strategies in all classes. "You start by looking for higher potential," Blackwell says.

  • A study by Amanda Datnow and Robert Cooper of Johns Hopkins University found that both formal and informal peer networks, which the researchers say create "a space for the affirmation of racial identity" and help dispel notions that achievement is equivalent to acting white, helped support the academic success of African American students attending a predominantly white independent school.

  • Mentoring programs that connect high school-aged students of color with middle or elementary school students also show promise. Brandon Frame, a high-achieving African American senior at Windsor (Conn.) High School who has participated in MSAN conferences, has mentored younger African American students both in his own suburban district and in nearby Hartford. Frame believes programs like these are highly effective because academic achievement "starts when you're young." He also notes that giving younger students of color high-achieving role models can help counteract perceptions that achievement equals acting white before they develop. "When you're young, you don't see color," Frame says.

Changing the Language

In addition to learning from the successes of high-achieving students like Daniels, Betancur, and Frame, MSAN's educators hope to expand the dialogue about minority school performance beyond the "achievement gap," a term some believe can have a damaging effect on teacher expectations and student attitudes.

"We need new language that allows us to face the facts, but also shows the complexity of the picture," says Laura Cooper, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction at Evanston (Ill.) Township High School, one of the original MSAN schools. "We'll move students by helping them identify with the high-achieving students, not by reminding them that someone is 'blaming them' for the gap."

MSAN executive director Rossi Ray-Taylor agrees that the "gap" discourse works its way down to students, and that even high achievers like those attending MSAN conferences feel its effects. "The kids are a little conflicted. They worry a lot about the talk about the achievement gap," says Ray-Taylor. "They worry that they're getting lumped into a stereotype."

But Ray-Taylor also says the students recognize that facing the gap head on is necessary to raise the achievement level of all African American and Latino students: "We can't duck the achievement gap—let's solve the problem."

For Further Information

For Further Information

P.J. Cook and J. Ludwig. "The Burden of 'Acting White': Do Black Adolescents Disparage Academic Achievement?" In C. Jencks and M. Phillips, eds., The Black-White Test Score Gap. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1998, pp. 375-400.

W. Darity Jr., D. Castellino, and K. Tyson. "Increasing Opportunity to Learn via Access to Rigorous Courses and Programs: One Strategy for Closing the Achievement Gap for At-Risk and Ethnic Minority Students." Raleigh: North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, 2000.

A. Datnow and R. Cooper. "Peer Networks of African American Students in Independent Schools: Affirming Academic Success and Racial Identity." Journal of Negro Education 66, no. 1 (Winter 1997): 56-72.

Education Trust. Latino Achievement in America. Washington, DC: Author, 2003.

R.F. Ferguson. "A Diagnostic Analysis of Black-White GPA Disparities in Shaker Heights, Ohio." Brookings Papers on Education Policy 2001. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2001.

S. Fordham and J. Ogbu. "Black Students and School Success: Coping with the Burden of Acting White." Urban Review 18 (1986): 176-206.

Minority Student Achievement Network, 1600 Dodge Ave., Evanston, IL 60204; tel: 847-424-7185; email:

P.A. Noguera. "Joaquín's Dilemma: Understanding the Link Between Racial Identity and School-Related Behaviors." In M. Sadowski, ed., Adolescents at School: Perspectives on Youth, Identity, and Education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2003.

T. Perry, C. Steele, and A. Hilliard III. Young, Gifted, and Black: Promoting High Achievement among African American Students. Boston: Beacon Press, 2003.

K. Tyson, W. Darity Jr., and D. Castellino. "Breeding Animosity: The 'Burden of Acting White' and Other Problems of Status Group Hierarchies in Schools." Publication forthcoming. For information, contact: