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(The Root) — In an effort to improve educational offerings, some school districts across the country have taken up President Obama on his recent efforts to spur academic achievement. His Race to the Top initiative seems like a positive push that a lot of states could use. But when winners of the educational competition were announced in November, New York City — an obvious contender — was not among the victors.

In fact, in the nationwide initiative, which awarded $40 million to 16 school districts that proposed the most effective goals for academic achievement, New York City ranked 43rd out of 371 competitors. According to a NY1 report, the Big Apple almost made the cut, but two key details were missing in the application: a schedule implementing the possible changes and a description of who would lead these new programs. In addition, one Race to the Top reviewer charged that the educational goals the city's schools chancellor, Dennis Walcott, had proposed were too limited in scope.

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A major part of Walcott's plan was that city educators would aim to decrease the graduation-rate disparity between whites and blacks by 2 percent over the next six years. In New York City public schools, the graduation rate for white students is 21 percent higher than for black students. "We continue to set an ambitious agenda, as far as not just the achievement gap but giving all of our students high-quality schools," Walcott told NY1.

Shrinking the graduation gap was just a part of the plan, though. Other objectives (pdf) included coordinating high school- and college-readiness efforts, incentivizing teachers to encourage mentorship and dismissing ineffective instructors. 

The New York proposal speaks to a larger national issue — closing the achievement disparity between white students and their black and Latino peers. Education experts that The Root interviewed have explained that there are a few root causes for the difference in academic success. In some cases, blacks and Latino youths don't have the proper means to access top public or private schools. In addition, they often face apathetic teachers and are more often subjected to harsher disciplinary actions.

Access-Reform Efforts

In 2012 the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund attempted to address the access issue by filing a complaint (pdf) with the U.S. Department of Education that targeted racial inequalities in New York City's top eight schools. The claim was that the admissions process for New York City's elite public high schools — which uses scores from a specialized entrance exam as the sole basis for admission — violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That part of the act prohibits racial discrimination in programs and activities that operate with public funds — e.g., the public school system. The group argued that such specialized testing is discriminatory because it effectively excludes minorities.

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According to a Daily News report in November, black and Latino kids made up 70 percent of the city's school population but only 17 percent of the population at elite schools like Brooklyn's Mark Twain I.S. 29 for the Gifted & Talented. And while some programs like the city's Young Men's Initiative are aiming to close the achievement gap, they're in the minority.

Howard University professor and The Root contributor Ivory A. Toldson added that there are underlying financial factors that also affect academic achievement.

"There's a stark wealth gap in New York between black and brown families versus white families. This is reflected in the school system, where property taxes are used to fund schools, which translates to higher salaries for teachers who can instruct advanced courses and facilitate expanded college-counseling services," Toldson told The Root. "I'm surprised that Walcott only projected a half-a-percent increase per year, because I consult in New York with Mayor Bloomberg's Young Men's Initiative, which, along with George Soros' foundation, [has] given millions to schools showing potential to graduate African-American and Latino males at a higher rate, and they are making early strides."

On the other hand, the New York Times reported that while the number of minorities attending private schools in New York City sits at 29.8 percent, it is an increase from 21.4 percent a decade ago. But Steve Perry, founder of Capital Preparatory Magnet School in Hartford, Conn., said that this discussion is really about creating an environment for learning.

"It's not an achievement gap; it's an access gap. If you put black and Latino kids in great schools, like anyone else they'll be great students," Perry told The Root. "I've yet to go to any ZIP code in America and find dumb kids, but I can find some raggedy schools."

Who's Accountable?

Perry identified New York City teachers as part of the problem. "New York public schools are suffering because the teachers union has a financial stranglehold on the city," he said. "New York City has some of the poorest-performing schools in the country, yet the teachers are some of the highest paid. There are over 50,000 children on a wait list to get into a charter school. Those parents have voted with their feet that they don't want the raggedy school at the end of their street."

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According to the Department of Education, the salary for a New York City teacher starts at $45,530 but can rise to $100,049 annually. In addition, the New York City Charter School Center reported in May that 67,500 students applied for 14,600 open seats in charter schools for the 2012 school year. The Mass Insight Education and Research Institute looked at New York schools as part of an examination (pdf) of how to combat America's lowest-performing schools.

To ensure accountability, United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew and Chancellor Walcott are negotiating the addition of teacher evaluations and wage increases. The opposing sides are currently at a standstill, and without a collective agreement soon, the threat of a teachers strike looms.

From Toldson's perspective, apathetic teachers as well as overzealous disciplinary action are key reasons behind the city's achievement gap. And while New York may not institute the now-infamous school-to-prison pipeline of Mississippi, the way in which black and Latino children are suspended is unbalanced and reflects educational inequity across the country.

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According to the Civil Rights Data Collection 2009-10 report (pdf), which culled statistics from 72,000 schools in 7,000 districts across the country from pre-K to high school, African-American students are three-and-a-half times more likely to be suspended or expelled than their white peers. One in five African-American boys and more than one in 10 African-American girls received an out-of-school suspension. Although black students account for 18 percent of the schools' populations, they represented 35 percent of pupils suspended once, 46 percent of those suspended more than once and 39 percent of all expulsions.

Toldson added that safety measures, like metal detectors and security guards, implemented to protect children from threats that were prevalent in the mid-1990s come at the expense of postsecondary advisers, gifted instructors and even certain courses of study.

"The systematic omission of rigorous courses in high schools that have black and Latino kids is a problem," Toldson explained. "You have schools that don't offer physics or calculus, yet New York has competitive state universities that require those classes for admission. The two public entities aren't aligned."

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Less than a third of high schools with mostly African-American and Hispanic students offer calculus, and only 40 percent offer physics, according to the Civil Rights Data Collection report.

Ultimately, the achievement gap boils down to whether schools and families like those in New York City are willing to break the status quo and fight for the prioritization of competitive education for black and brown children — but at the moment, there doesn't seem to be a deadline for that.

Chancellor Dennis Walcott was contacted for comment but did not respond at press time.

Hillary Crosley is the New York bureau chief at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.