The Canary in the Mine: The Achievement Gap Between Black and White Students by Mano Singham

Here is another published article of mine that I am making freely available by posting here. It was published in the education journal Phi Delta Kappan in September 1998

The background to this article in that in 1992 I was selected to be part of an initiative funded by the National Science Foundation to improve science and mathematics education for middle school students in the state of Ohio. I was involved in it for a decade or so and during my work, I was not only struck by the difference in achievement between Black and white students (something that is well known) but more by how people viewed the problem and suggested solutions.

I felt that the repeated failures to significantly close the gap suggested that we need to look at the problem in a new way. My main problem with the way that the achievement gaps was portrayed was that the educational achievement level of white students was taken as the norm, as if they were doing just fine. The achievement of Black students was seen as the problem and the gap measured the size of the problem. Hence people tried to find ways to improve the educational performance of Black students to bring them up to the level of white students.

My perspective was that both Black and white students were both severely underperforming but that Black students were underperforming more than white students and hence the gap. I said that this general underperformance was due to the way that we taught all students, focusing more on extrinsic motivations such as rewards and punishments to induce students to learn. But due to various historical factors, those carrots and sticks had less salience for Black students than for whites. I said that teaching methods that focused on activating the intrinsic motivations for learning had the promise to close the gap by increasing white student performance but increasing Black student performance even more.

So why was the underperformance of white students not noticed or a matter of concern? I argued that. this was because the educational system was never designed to provide an excellent education to all students. In fact, if it did so, it would cause problems because the capitalist system requires a large number of people who are resigned to work in low-paying, difficult, but routine jobs. If you inspired most students to aim for more meaningful work, you would create a crisis for capitalism because people would revolt. The ideal was to have around 25% or so of the student population who were able to overcome the deadening teaching they received and achieve the levels required to work in the upper levels of work. That was sufficient. The rest had to be persuaded that they were just not good enough and should not aim high. That subgroup of students who went on to achieve educational success despite the poor teaching they received tended to be from those sectors of society that had the resources to help their children advance, and were mostly white.

I should add that the poor teaching was not due to ill-intentioned teachers. Teachers do the best they can with what they have, But they are placed in a structure that is designed to have most of them fail. But as long as a few of them manage to break through and produce sufficient students to fill the needs for the upper levels of employment, the system is working as designed.

This article marshaled the evidence for my point of view and presented my ideas for how to do this and served as the basis for a much more comprehensive analysis that I published as a book in 2005 titled The Achievement Gap in U.S. Education: Canaries in the Mine.

You can read the article here.


  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    The gap between white & black students is a perennial problem in my area too. Though not a parent, I’ve had some serious talks about this with local activists, including members of the school board, and come away with the impression that blacks and whites here live in different worlds.

    The blacks focus on the regularly-demonstrated differential in test results, grades, dropouts, etc. The whites emphasize the reparative programs, the budget emphasis on east-side (black, mostly) schools -- in short, the efforts made.

    They not only don’t connect, they only give passing attention to the hard reality that they’re fighting over a shrinking pie, in a state where governors and legislatures alike (under exclusively Republican control for about a quarter-century) have attacked public schools and diverted resources to private and church schools at every opportunity.

  2. moarscienceplz says

    Good article, Mano.
    That hypothesis of the “involuntary minorities” is very intriguing. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything quite like it, but I would like to hear the opinions of it from several experts in the field who are of the minorities in question before I jump on the bandwagon.

  3. seachange says

    I personally have seen members of involuntary minorities refuse to engage in project-based cooperative learning in my own education, and I have personally seen teams of sporty blond fellow european americans fail at the exact same thing. I found it impossible to induce a generic yeah we’re not all white hope in my teams, but instead was only able to induce “good enough” even with all of my rhetoric. And even only that because I was a child of workers and they actually were not: they wanted to prove better than me.

  4. billseymour says

    I’ve already copied and pasted into a page of quotes I intend to remember:

    … black people are not as impressed with the virtues of whites as whites are and see no need to emulate them.  Given the behavior of whites during the time of slavery, to ask blacks to regard whites as role models for virtuousness seems presumptuous, to put it mildly.Mano Singham, “The Canary In the Mine:  The Achievement Gap Between Black and White Students,” Phi Delta Kappan, Vol. 80, No. 1, September 1998

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