6 factors that contribute to the black achievement gap at Dayton schools

Black students in Dayton Public Schools – especially black boys – lag behind other students in kindergarten readiness, reading and math. Only 26 percent of black third-grade boys are found by state tests to be reading proficiently at grade level, for example.

The academic achievement gap between black and white students is not unique to Dayton. It’s a phenomenon across the country.

But it hits particularly hard in Dayton Public Schools, where 65 percent of the student body is black – the highest percentage of Ohio’s eight large urban districts. Bridging that achievement gap is a crucial element of finding a path forward to improving the performance of Dayton schools.

THE PATH FORWARD: The region must rally to fix the Dayton Public Schools

It’s worth noting that within Dayton Public Schools, while black males have the lowest test scores, white males actually have a higher rate of absenteeism, and lower rate of graduation and college enrollment.

This may be because of the difference between the cultures of black and white poverty, in which white, so-called Appalachian culture sometimes places a lower value on education, according to Tom Lasley, executive director of Learn to Earn Dayton, which released a report titled "Know the Gap. Close the Gap." 

The majority of Dayton’s students are black, and they are compared to students of all races across the state, not just in their city. So I spoke to Lasley and other education experts about the black-white achievement gap and how to address it.

They identified six factors that contribute to the troublesome gap. All of them have solutions. We will analyze these issues – and possible ways to address them -- in depth as part of our coverage of The Path Forward: Dayton Schools. 

1. Poverty 

Poverty cuts across races, but because of our nation's history it is much higher in the black population. Furthermore, public policy decisions such as redlining have left black poverty concentrated in parts of west Dayton.

This was illustrated in a 2015 report from Public Health – Dayton and Montgomery County titled "The Geography of Opportunity." 

That report analyzed 18 factors that contribute to someone’s ability to succeed in life, such as income and unemployment, crime and health issues, and educational attainment. They mapped the areas where these factors were the highest and lowest.

Here’s how that looked. The blue shading shows areas of high and low opportunity based on these factors. The dots show racial concentration, with green being census areas more than 54.6 percent black and red showing areas less than 19 percent black:

"A life characterized by unreliable housing, food insecurity, inadequate health care, inconsistent childcare, and stressed caregivers leaves a child ill-prepared for school and for life," says the National Education Association, a teacher's union group. "Such an environment increases the likelihood for physical, socioemotional, cognitive and academic problems. Dilapidated housing increases exposure to lead poisoning; everyday stressors impact parenting and negatively affect a child's socioemotional and cognitive development; food insecurity harms brain development; and, unstable housing negatively impacts school attendance."

“As a result, poor children begin school behind their peers, have higher rates of absenteeism, have lower reading and math skills, are more likely to have developmental delays, are more likely to drop out of high school, and more likely to be poor in adulthood.”

Of course these problems, and their solutions, extend far beyond the role of the schools.

RELATED: MAP: How do charter, private schools compare to Dayton Public Schools?

"There are many neighborhoods here in Dayton where if you go down the street, you think you're in a war-torn country," said Jo'el Thomas-Jones with the group Neighborhood Over Politics. "People talk about creating a balanced child, a smart child. How do we create a child who understands communities when there are no neighbors to the left and no neighbors to the right?"

Her group is working to come up with a block-by-block plan to address these low-opportunity areas, largely with efforts aimed at workforce development.

Some say there is a role for the school district, however, in creating “neighborhood schools” with wrap-around services including community health resources and after-school programming.

The education policy group Groundwork Ohio, led by Republican Warren County Commissioner Shannon Jones, released a report this month calling for more investment in pre-school programs. The report says that most brain development happens before age 5, and poor kids – 53.9 percent of Ohio's black children live in poverty – tend to enter kindergarten years behind their peers and simply never catch up.

Here’s a video overview:

Achievement gap issues extend beyond poverty, however, according to the Learn to Earn report, "Know the Gap. Close the Gap." 

“One of the most disturbing things in the report is that if you look at some of those charts one of the charts will show that the African-American males from more affluent homes perform about the same or a little lower than the poorest white students,” Lasley said.

“That means there’s something else going on.”

2. Culturally irrelevant materials and test questions 

Montgomery County Educational Service Center Assistant Superintendent Shannon Cox was a fourth-grade teacher when the state first started requiring standardized tests. She remembers a child timidly walking up to the front of the class in the middle of the test, which she said was “nerve wracking.”

“You are warned you cannot give students help. You can lose your license for this,” she said.

“I’ll never forget her face,” Cox said of the little black girl. “She said, ‘I’m sorry Ms. Cox, but I just don’t see any of these answers to be right.”

The question was about science. But it was couched in a question about where food comes from, referring to farm fields and grocery stores.

“The food pantry wasn’t an option. And she literally did not have the experience in her whole life at age 9 to know that food actually didn’t come from the church basement,” Cox said.

RELATED: 5 kids who represent the best of Dayton Public Schools

This is an example of the implicit bias in standardized tests, she said. Books and tests are written for the mainstream culture, not using the vocabulary and frames of reference of many minority students.

Cultural bias extends beyond that, said Lasley.

“It’s incredibly important for the books in the school to have characters that look like them (minority students) It’s also important for the curriculum to be reflective of some of the experiences that they’ve had.”

“I’ve talked to a number of teachers who say they’re amazed when African-American boys, when they find books that have a lot of characters that look like them, how much more engaged they seem to be.”

Gloria Ladson-Billings, a professor of education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has pioneered the field of culturally-relevant teaching that Lasley said schools should embrace. Here is a video of her talking about her approach:


The teaching field also has too few black teachers, especially black male teachers, experts said. This provides role models to the kids.

“Otherwise kids have a hard time seeing themselves in the future. And they have to have a hope and a vision for themselves in the future,” Cox said.

3. Teachers (quality and quantity) 

Minority students benefit from minority teachers providing role models, Cox and Lasley said. But even more than that, they need teachers who are engaged and have training and experience in dealing with other cultures.

"I remember when we didn't have teachers. You all remember that, a couple years ago, we had no teachers," said Meadowdale High School valedictorian Andrew Caldwell Jr. at the school commencement speech in May, going on to say they had, "No supervision. No leadership. No guidance. And in essence, we basically did what we wanted."

Dayton officials have struggled in recent years to staff Dayton’s predominantly black west-side schools – like Meadowdale -- with permanent, high-quality teachers.

“We know from lots of education research that the No. 1 impact that a student has in their classroom is a classroom teacher,” said Cox.

Cox said universities have long-struggled to train an encourage prospective teachers to take jobs in urban districts that can be seen as more challenging. Lasley said programs like the University of Dayton’s Urban Teaching Academy have shown success at getting qualified teachers into areas where they’re needed.

“Doing this well is so hard, because we need lots of teachers,” Lasley said.

4. Unequal discipline 

There is a wealth of research showing black students disproportionally face discipline over their white peers, including being removed from the classroom for periods of time in out-of-school suspensions.

The out-of-school suspension rate in DPS shows a stark disparity. There were 3,695 out-of-school suspensions of black students last year compared to 476 of white students. The vast majority of the suspensions of black students are for actions deemed “disobedient” or “disruptive.”

Dayton Public Schools suspended a higher percentage of black students – 83 percent – than any of Ohio’s large urban schools except for Cincinnati schools. Cincinnati schools, however, has programs to limit suspension and only issued 538 out-of-school suspensions district-wide despite having more than twice as many students as Dayton.

RELATED: Listen to the Path Forward: Dayton Schools podcast

"I think looking at the data there's something wrong," said Robyn Traywick, an attorney for Advocates for Basic Legal Equality, who said much of her caseload is spent helping parents whose kids were unfairly disciplined.

“In my experience the majority that come in as disciplinary issues it turns out being the child has a disability that’s not been dealt with,” she said.

Research has shown that how teachers handle discipline can be biased against black students. At a Learn to Earn Dayton summit in March 2017, Yale University child development expert Walter Gilliam explained how studies have found such racial bias.

In this video from the event, he goes into that around the 38 minute mark:

5. Absenteeism 

If a child isn’t in school, he or she isn’t learning.

In Dayton, more than 30 percent of white males had missed more than 15 days of school in the 2013-2014 school year, according to Learn to Earn. But this is roughly twice the rate for white males across the county. In general, black males have a higher absenteeism rate, which hinders their academic performance.

Statewide, the chronic absenteeism rate for black students is 27.4 percent, the highest of any racial group. For white students it’s 13.6 percent.

The Montgomery County Educational Service Center in 2016 studied what drives absenteeism in Dayton Public Schools.

The study found that for younger students, health issues were the major reason for missing school. Chronic absenteeism is 66 percent more likely for students with diabetes and 39 percent higher for students with ADHD.

In high school, students involved in at least one extracurricular activity – such as band, math club or sports – have 36 percent fewer lost instructional days than those not involved in such activities.

This suggests that public health initiatives and offering extracurricular activities are important to addressing absenteeism.

Here is that report:


6. Segregation 

The Dayton region is among the nation’s most segregated large metropolitan areas, and that extends to the area’s schools.

In 2016, the education reform group EdBuild listed Dayton as one of the nation's most "extreme" examples of segregated school district borders. Dayton Public Schools served a population with a school-age poverty rate of 47.2 percent, and borders Beavercreek with its 6.6 percent poverty rate and Oakwood with a 7 percent school-age poverty rate.

The report said this means students at Eastmont Park in Dayton cannot opt to enroll at Parkwood Elementary in Beavercreek, which is only a mile away and received the highest possible grade in helping students close gaps based on race, disability and income.

"Dayton falls into sort of a general national trend where most segregation is happening between school districts rather than within them," said Kimberly Quick, an education policy expert with The Century Foundation, a progressive think tank.

“When you see situations like that, generally what accompanies that is both financial and also cultural disinvestment from a school district that is overwhelmingly populated by students with the most need.”

RELATED: Dayton area’s segregation problem in school districts

Integrating students along racial and socio-economic lines has been shown to improve grades, she said.

“One of the powerful hopes of integration is that you have parents and families with more power, more influence, louder voices and more resources that are in the school buildings with the people who have weaker voices and fewer resources,” Quick said.

“Often times the teachers feel more engaged and more energized in integrated classrooms (and) white teachers hold white students to higher standards than they do black and brown students, and the elevation of standards on the classroom level are very helpful.”

Dayton Public Schools was under a federal desegregation order for decades ending in 2002. A Dayton Daily News review of “busing” in 1986 found it correlated with a period of decreased black-white achievement gap, but also with increased “white flight.”

Here is that report:


Methods to integrate students across district lines could include adjusting school district boundaries, creating open-enrollment magnet schools in the city to attract students from the suburbs, and increasing open enrollment across the region with diversity as a goal.

Currently Ohio law allows school districts to accept students from other districts through open enrollment, though neither Oakwood nor Beavercreek participate.

Research has shown that students in districts like Oakwood – which is 1 percent black – suffer from a lack of diversity. Students raised in diverse setting have a greater satisfaction with school, better leadership skills, and perform better in America’s increasingly diverse workplaces.

“These are things employers ask for as people grow into adults and enter the workforce,” Quick said.

JOIN THE CONVERSATION: What do you think should be done. Share your opinion on our Facebook group The Path Forward: Dayton Schools

About the Author