Bridging the Educational Divide


An Interview with Dr. Pedro Noguera

By Evangelia Biddy

Many school reformers rejoiced when the federal No Child Left Behind Act was passed in 2002. Finally, there was a piece of legislation which aimed to narrow academic performance gaps between white students and students of color. The act, however, has come under widespread criticism. Dr. Pedro Noguera and Jean Yonemura Wing, authors of Unfinished Business: Closing the Racial Achievement Gap in Our Schools, report that while the act mandates schools to produce evidence that they can effectively serve all students, little has been done to provide schools with a roadmap for addressing the achievement gap. The acclaimed authors conducted a six-year research effort called The Diversity Project, designed to identify factors that contribute to the achievement gap and to the racial separation of students. The site of the project was Berkeley High School in California. It involved a cross section of students, parents, community groups, teachers and administrators.

“If you really want to create integrated schools it takes more than just changing a law. You have to look at how to create a sense of community in the schools. You have to look at how the adults work with children from other backgrounds.” -Dr. Pedro Noguera

The authors highlight three forms of capital that play a role in perpetuating the achievement gap and fostering separation of races within schools, when they interact with seemingly neutral structures operating within schools and society. The forms of capital are: economic capital, the wealth and income of parents; social capital, the benefits derived from connections to networks and individuals with power and influence; and cultural capital, the tastes, styles, habits, language, behaviors, appearance and customs that serve as indicators of status and privilege. Economic capital allows affluent parents to better position their children for college via expensive academic tutors, SAT test advisors and college placement consultants. Social capital facilitates informal information sharing networks from which children of affluent parents may access details on how to enroll in challenging classes, honors classes and/or advanced placement classes – though sometimes at the expense of choosing satisfying electives like dance or ethnic studies. Meanwhile cultural capital carries with it an assumption of intelligence and high motivation for affluent students that garners the respect of teachers, even if such a student is not a high achiever. Bridging the achievement gap that exists between America’s diverse student populations is more complicated than providing equal access to the nation’s best teachers.

EB: In the introduction of Unfinished Business you and Jean Yonemura Wing state that the “No Child Left Behind” mandate has placed a spotlight on racial disparities in academic outcomes, but has offered little regarding what should be done to rectify the problem. What steps would you suggest?

Pedro Noguera: In addressing the achievement gap you have to recognize that there are three areas where you have to focus; the out-of-school factors, the in-school factors and individual factors. The out-of-school factors are issues like poverty, a lack of healthcare and a lack of support for children. The whole society must address these factors. No one family can solve them. You also have family influences, neighborhood influences, media influences and peer influences; all affecting school performance. In- school factors include teacher expectations, access to technology, rigorous coursework and whether students are exposed to an enriched curriculum of art and music. Lastly, you must affect student motivation, the belief system of the individual and their own sense of resilience in overcoming obstacles. You have to have a strategy to affect the individual student’s will.


EB: What are your thoughts on compensating students for positive academic performances?

PN: Many middle-class parents do this; give their children rewards for good grades. The argument now is why not do this for poor kids? Why doesn’t the government or some other agency pay for good grades and attendance? I see many problems; one is that it’s not a sustainable plan. I don’t see anyone planning to pay lots of kids for very long. It’s not a plan that’s going to solve a problem. No one is talking about paying poor kids in the country for the rest of their lives. Even if we had a little bit of money to pay a few kids, why not invest that money in things we know work, like smaller class sizes, incentive pay for effective teachers and technology.

We have a number of schools that do an effective job with students that do not get paid, so we know that it’s not about the pay. If you want high performance, it’s about the conditions of the schools and that’s what we should focus our attention on.  This payment phenomenon also is based on the notion that kids are lazy – if they got a little bit of money then they would work harder. This is a very simplistic idea, there’s so much else going on. Another worry is, when you pay someone to do something and you run out of money to pay them, they stop doing it.


EB: The landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision outlawed racial discrimination in public schooling. Why do discriminatory conditions continue to exist?

PD: If you really want to create integrated schools it takes more than just changing a law. You have to look at how to create a sense of community in the schools. You have to look at how the adults work with children of other backgrounds. These issues have not been given enough attention.


EB: The Supreme Court has rejected lawsuits seeking equity of academic outcomes.  Are there persons or entities that benefit from maintaining the achievement gap?

PD: Throughout the country we have an allocation gap. We allocate more money to educate affluent children than poor children and that corresponds to race. The Brown decision did not change this. There has been a successful lawsuit in New York (Campaign for Fiscal Equity, Inc. v. State); however, mandating that funding among students has to be equal. There is a movement addressing equity. The forces against equity; however, are very powerful. These forces include affluent parents who want to see their kids get the best. They want to keep their tax dollars in their communities. You, therefore, see communities pitted against each other, the wealthy against the poor. The forces of inequity are much more powerful than the forces of equity, they have more resources.


EB: Was that the Catch-22 situation in the liberal Berkeley community?

PD: That’s right! The affluent parents were getting what they wanted out of the school, often ignoring the fact that the school was serving the needs of only half the children. Parents definitely can be selfish when it comes to their children.


EB: Please speak about the impetus behind the selection of Berkeley High School to determine the extent of an achievement gap between white students and students of color.

PD: Berkeley was one of the first districts to voluntarily integrate their schools. If you can’t make a change for racial justice and greater equity in a place like Berkeley you’re probably going to have a harder time doing so in most other places. There’s been a long commitment to try to advance social justice in Berkeley; however, racial disparities were deeply entrenched at Berkeley High School. What’s important about that is it’s not about racism and prejudice in a traditional sense. These barriers are not about people not liking black children. It’s deeper than that. It’s about conditioned attitudes, lowered expectations, the way power works within schools and why certain kids always end up with more than other kids. What we tried to do was use our study to expose these dynamics operating within the schools.


EB: What steps can be taken to better equip students of color with the tools to better navigate school structures?

PD: First you have to work on the parents. Parents need more information to understand how the system operates. They must understand if they want their kids to go to college they must start planning, not in twelfth grade, but much earlier. It’s about which courses their children take and preparing them for the SAT, etc. You have to get kids to challenge themselves. Berkeley High School allowed kids who wanted to take honors courses or advanced placement courses to take them. Many students of color had been socialized to view themselves as lesser students and not work as hard and avoid the more rigorous courses. The kids were holding themselves back. You must have strategies to push the children to challenge themselves.


EB: Do significant differences in economic capital ensure the permanence of an achievement gap?

PN: To a large degree it does. People with money can do so much more for their kids. They can pay for private tutors. They enroll them in enriched summer camps. They take trips abroad. There are so many advantages when parents have money. You can provide so much for your children with financial resources. You can’t if you’re poor. The challenge for our country is whether we can do things within schools to reduce the effects of inequity in homes of poorer students.


Please speak about the achievement gap in relation to the United States’ competitiveness on the world stage.

Addressing the achievement gap is in the national interest. The simple fact is that if we don’t educate persons within this country we’ll end up importing labor to do skilled work that Americans won’t be prepared to do. We’re doing this now, particularly in engineering and the high-tech fields.


Evangelia Biddy, Editor-in-Chief of Junior, The Magazine about Bringing up Successful Boys, is also a contributor to Raising Boys World, an expert for,  and an educational consultant. She can be reached at




Pedro A. Noguera is a professor in the Steinhardt School of Education at New York University and the co-director of the Institute for the Study of Globalization and Education in Metropolitan Settings.


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