Maryland's Education Execs Tackle Achievement Gaps

By ROB TRICCHINELLI, Capital News Service

BALTIMORE (November 15, 2007)—It takes a big problem—in this case a big divide—to bring out the big shots.

Pronounced achievement gaps in the state's higher education system lured some of Maryland education's most powerful and influential people to a conference here Wednesday.

These gulfs exist in both access to and performance in higher education—and they are significant across racial and economic lines.

Closing the gaps is "one of the most important things that we can work on," said Orlan M. Johnson, a member of the University System of Maryland's Board of Regents.

White students attend college in larger proportions and achieve greater success than minority students. Students from high-income backgrounds have a similar distinction compared to students from low-income families.

Roughly 70 percent of white students who have entered the University System of Maryland since 1989 graduated within six years. Black students during the same time graduated in six years between 40 and 50 percent of the time.

There is a "depth and urgency of education gaps in our state," said William E. "Brit" Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland.

The problem is only aggravated by Maryland's "huge demographic shift," he said. "The groups most underrepresented ... are the very groups with the fastest-growing representation in the high schools."

White students are expected to be in the minority within a few years.

Among people under 24, 20 percent of white students have college degrees, but only 9.7 percent of black students and 5.7 percent of Hispanic students do.

The statistics reflect a "tragedy and nightmare," said Andres A. Alonso, chief executive officer of Baltimore City Schools.

"This is not a Baltimore City problem," he said. "It's happening all over the country."

The University System of Maryland is one of 19 nationwide to sign on to the "Access to Success" plan, designed by the National Association of System Heads to close these gaps and boost the nation's educational success.

Maryland education policymakers will create a more concrete plan to close these gaps, and the Board of Regents is expected to endorse it by the spring.

To do it, Johnson said, the university system must figure out what impediments are at work and identify ways to counteract them in order to bolster attendance and achievement.

Changes must come in all parts of the college experience: from admissions to attendance, said Patricia J. Florestano, chairwoman of the regents' Education Policy Committee.

Better secondary curricula and more active interventions to help struggling students would have to play a big role, she said.

Pre-college students also need positive reinforcement to realize they can succeed and be comfortable in a college environment, Florestano said.

Too often, negative attitudes and other preconceived notions of higher education can be a significant barrier.

"You wouldn't imagine you'd have to get involved in that type of a discussion," Johnson said, adding, "In some communities, just walking around with books can be a problem."

Charles Pridgen, a student and resident assistant at Salisbury University, has seen freshmen students come in unprepared and wind up leaving because of it.

"As early as possible, you need to incorporate the idea that college is possible," Pridgen said, adding, "To know there are resources out there would definitely allow you to achieve your goal."

A stronger relationship with the state's community colleges would ease the problem, too, said Charlene Nunley, former president of Montgomery College.

It's important "not to leave the adult student population out of the achievement gap conversation," she said.

The effect on Maryland's economy would be significant if the gaps aren't closed, officials said.

BRAC proceedings, for example, are expected to bring 15,000 "highly educated" citizens into Maryland, Kirwan said.

And while BRAC is being hailed as a boon to the state's economy, he added, closing these achievement gaps would have the effect of "two and a half BRACs" from 2020-2025.

Bringing all students to the same achievement level would make the United States "as competitive as possible as a nation," said Mickey Burnim, president of Bowie State University. It would create "a rising economic tide" that would "lift all boats."

Worldwide, the United States ranks first among the percentage of people ages 55-64 with college degrees, but 10th among people 25-34.

"For the first time ... we're achieving less" from one generation to the next, said Sara Martinez Tucker, U.S. undersecretary of education.

"As a nation," Kirwan said, "we are moving in the wrong direction when it comes to education of our citizens."

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