Grambling graduate Angel Harris has change the way people think about the academic achievement gap across racial and ethnic groups in the United States — an issue that he understands intimately, having struggled to make it through high school himself. Now an assistant professor of sociology and African American studies at Princeton, Harris is seeking to debunk current theories about the achievement gap that he has found to be implausible.
“It’s a huge national issue,” Harris said, noting that the gap in academic skills and success between black and white students has a significant impact on their earning potential as adults. The disparity remains large, pervasive and persistent, with many black 12th-graders typically performing on a level equivalent to many white eighth-graders, according to Harris.
Even using the most optimistic predictions, the gap in reading abilities is expected to remain for at least six decades and in terms of mathematics achievement is likely to last even longer, perhaps a century, he said.
For Harris, the issue of why many black youths tend to lag in school is personal as well. Once an underperforming high school student, he had to be pushed into college by a friend’s family, which ultimately awakened his passion for education.
“Angel Harris has a high-quality and energetic research agenda in the area of sociology of education, with a specific interest in the urgent question of the achievement gap in primary and secondary education,” said Valerie Smith, director of the Center for African American Studies. “He is deeply committed to mentoring graduate and undergraduate students alike, and he is dedicated to working on one of the most pressing social policy issues we face as a nation.”
In the past, explanations for the genesis of the gap have included genetic differences in intelligence among racial groups, differences in socioeconomic resources, biases in standardized testing and the idea of “bad” culture.
But the genetic hypothesis — the subject of the controversial 1994 bestseller “The Bell Curve” — has been largely dismissed as without merit, Harris noted. Resource differentials account for only one-third of the gap and the difference in academic achievement exists on many measures beyond standardized tests, he added.
This leaves the idea of “bad” culture, or “oppositional culture theory,” which was first proposed by anthropologist John Uzo Ogbu in 1978. The theory, which is widely accepted in many academic circles, purports that the markedly lower academic success of blacks, in comparison to whites, is a result of black students’ resistance to schooling and intentionally sabotaging their educations in fear of “acting white.”
Using rigorous quantitative analyses of national data sets, Harris is poking and prodding the theory from all sides, painstakingly teasing apart a multitude of variables.
Despite the pervasiveness of oppositional culture theory in academic and mainstream discourse, he has found no evidence for many of its predictions.
For example, he has sought to disprove the theory’s suggestions that whites have better preschool attitudes (he asserts the opposite is actually true) or that misbehavior in school is the primary cause of black students’ lower academic achievement.
Harris has published a number of articles on the subject, including forthcoming papers in the journals Social Science Quarterly and Sociology of Education.
“I am surprised by how overwhelming the evidence is against this framework,” he said. “The dominant factor used to explain the achievement gap is oppositional culture. It is time to look at other explanations and not just focus on one thesis. In order to have more fruitful discourse and policy ideas, we have to focus on explanations that have widespread empirical support.”
Raised by his grandparents, Harris grew up in the projects of Brooklyn, N.Y. He attended a local Catholic school from kindergarten through eighth grade and entered the public system for his high school years at the Manhattan Center for Science and Mathematics in Harlem. At the time, he was ranked in the bottom 20 percent of his class, and college was nowhere on his radar screen.
“I was actually going to be a mortician,” he said. “I figured it was a way to be financially secure — you’d never run out of business.