Ron Ferguson

For the past few years, public policy lecturer Ronald Ferguson of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government has researched racial achievement gaps. In a 2002 report on racial disparities in high-achieving suburban high schools, Ferguson uses survey data from thousands of middle and high school students of all races and ethnic backgrounds to examine why students of color often underperform, and what schools can do about it. Ferguson also helped launch the Tripod Project, which helps schools strengthen curriculum, teaching and teacher-student relationships. He spoke with Catalyst Associate Editor Maureen Kelleher.

What were the key survey findings?

We did not find [racial] differences in student’s attitudes about how much they want to achieve, in peer support or the amount of time they report spending on homework. But there were differences. The black students went home to fewer resources [such as books and computers].

The second difference was the way students answered the question, “When you work really hard in school, what are the most important reasons?” There were 14 [choices]. On 12 there wasn’t much racial difference. But on two of them, there was. About 45 percent of the black students, but only about 30 percent of white students [checked], “When I work hard, it’s because my teacher encourages me.” And only about 15 percent of the black students but about 30 percent of the white students [checked] “Because my teacher demands students work hard.”

Third, about half the black students reported understanding half or less of their lessons, compared to about 30 percent of white students.

We also did find differences in self-reported homework completion rates and behaviors, with black students not behaving quite as well on average. If teachers look at that and assume kids just don’t want to learn, you end up preaching to them about the importance of working hard. But the data shows they already believe that. What they really need is help with managing their peer relations, themselves and their time, being organized and resisting the impulse to joke around in class.

What issues might affect black students’ understanding of lessons?

Skill gaps. There are gaps present at the very beginning of kindergarten and those seem to have something to do with parenting. Then the question is whether schools identify the disparities and take measures to remediate. It’s not only school. It’s not only parents. It’s a combination.

You talked about encouragement. What behaviors from teachers appear to encourage students?

First, the teacher assures them that they can do it. Second, the teacher lets them know that they’re available to help. Third, the teacher lets them know that their achievement really matters.

How do demands differ from encouragement?

If a teacher is demanding, pushing students to do their best and that same teacher is encouraging in the ways that I just described, that’s the best combination. But if a teacher is pushing kids to work hard but doesn’t seem available to help, that doesn’t work very well. You need both.

What does research say about teacher expectations and whether they play a role in the achievement gap?

Teachers generally have lower expectations for black kids. If we think certain kids don’t have the potential to do much better, then we’re not going to spend a lot of time and effort trying to find a better way to teach them. Teachers might expect these same students could do better (with) a more effective teacher, but they don’t have enough confidence in themselves to believe that searching for ways to do better is going to pay off very much. So they don’t bother.

Do you have any evidence the Tripod Project is having a impact?

Anecdotally, yeah. The Tripod Project is built around a set of ideas about what promotes strong social and intellectual engagement in the classroom, and we ask schools to send in reports and tell us what they [accomplished]. One school in Ohio asked each teacher to go back and take something they were going to teach and then redesign the lesson to be sure that it meets three conditions: the lesson is feasible, that there is a reason for the students to learn it and that it is enjoyable. The teachers did it and reported positive reactions. Students were writing more, remembering longer what they had learned and asking to do the assignment again.

How is the project going to work on teaching the hard stuff?

We’re going to ask each teacher to chose one task that their students have struggled with and think about why. Is it that they lack prerequisite skills? Don’t know key concepts [or] strategies? Then, review how they prepare students—basically, teach it differently. Then share what it was that you worked on and what you did differently. Ultimately, some of the better teaching ideas that come out of this we’ll test to see which ways are effective.

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