Skip to content

St. Louis Fed Conference Explores Achievement Gap and Community Leadership


ST. LOUIS – The nation’s achievement gap can be best described as an achievement “gulf,” according to Dr. Donna Ford, a professor of Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. It is critical to start thinking innovatively on how to close this divide due to its tremendous social and economic costs across all social spectrums in this country, she said.

Ford, who researches gifted and multicultural and urban education, gave remarks Aug. 26 at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis’ “Addressing the Achievement Gap and Fostering Community Leadership” conference, which was held at the Bank’s St. Louis headquarters and videocast live to its three branches in Little Rock, Louisville and Memphis, as well as four additional site locations. (Please note:  A video of the conference, as well as summaries of the local follow-up discussions that were held at each location, will be available soon on the St. Louis Fed’s Exploring Innovation site at

Other keynote speakers at the Aug. 26 conference included Jean Horstman, president and CEO of Boston-based Interise, who addressed the importance of strengthening community involvement and leadership in addressing the gap, and Douglas Scarboro, the director of the Office of Talent and Human Capital and educational liaison for the City of Memphis, who outlined the costs of the achievement gap on Memphis and the steps the city is taking to ameliorate the situation.

Ford noted that research has shown that the educational achievement gap begins before children even enter grade school.  By kindergarten, there is already one-year gap between white and black students, with black students trailing.  By the time the students are 17, this gaps has grown to a national average of four years.  She noted that these statistics vary, with some cities reporting a gap as wide as seven years.

“So many children enter school as question marks or excited as exclamation points, but they leave as periods—disengaged,” Ford said.  “They become disconnected from the educational system.” 

Solutions include the allocation of appropriate resources , particularly to improve access to gifted education and health care and adequate nutrition for all students and engaging the entire society spectrum—from parents to teachers to citizens—in acknowledging and fixing a problem that affects everyone…not just “those children.”

Adapting a familiar phrase, she concluded that “a mind is a terrible thing to erase.”

Turning to the achievement gap and how civic engagement can help diffuse the situation, Interise’s Jean Horstman said that it is primarily relationship-based change that has the most impact for transforming our society.  Interise is a non-profit organization that works to stimulate economic revitalization in lower-income urban communities.

She noted that an Interise survey of entrepreneurial women- or minority-owned businesses in her group indicated that 87 percent reported little-to-no respect from larger businesses lenders, despite the fact they are often the largest local employers in their communities.  They are the businesses that create the jobs in these low-income communities and help improve society, she noted. 

Interise works to help these small business owners make the crucial community connections needed for ongoing success.  This is accomplished through CEO mentoring groups, private-sector networks and encouraging volunteer work throughout their own communities, which results in reducing the sense of isolation and exclusion that can hinder further business growth.

“In seeking to keep themselves and their businesses viable, these business owners look also to strategies that benefit their communities,” Horstman said.  “The health of one was intimately linked to the health of the other.” 

Horstman said devoting more time to engaging with others in communities traditionally seen as “other,” is crucial to mending the achievement “gulf.”

She further noted, “As our government works to improve the landscape of possibilities and opportunities for all of our children and all of neighbors,” relationship building that reduces estrangement also needs to occur for a successful and long-lasting change.  This is particularly important in today’s economy that demands longer working hours, she added.

“As job time takes more of our working hours, it leaves less time for the commonweal,” she said, noting that “commonweal” is a word once commonly used to mean “the public good or welfare.” “It means less time for engaging and learning with strangers who are also our fellow citizens” 

While she noted that volunteering time in itself cannot solve the achievement gap, “Through creating time for voluntary engagement, we can build a framework for attitudinal change that make it more likely that we will grow into a people who recognize the need for legislation that promotes equity, equality and opportunity for all of us.”

In Memphis, Scarboro said that his office has developed a program called “One Memphis” that is focused on addressing the achievement gap through Memphis’ leadership and educational needs.

“If we’re going to solve this achievement gap, we’re going to have to have leaders that are focused on it; leaders who understand how to provide access; how to provide attention; and last, but most important, how we’re going to provide attention around these issues,” he said.

He gave an example of how closing the academic achievement gap can pay dividends for the regional economy.  Memphis’ current percentage of college-educated individuals is 23.7 percent.  If that percentage increased just 1 percent, to 24.7 percent, the economic boost to the economy would be $1 billion, he said.

“It’s extremely important for governments to be interested in the achievement gap,” Scarboro said. “If kids are behind in fourth grade and we’re looking at $1 billion here, then there are more milestones that kids will need to get through.  We have to be focused all along the path, but especially early on, at the beginning of the pipeline.”

One-third of the Memphis population lives at or below the poverty level, and 70 percent are women-led households.    Considering the percentages of small businesses that are led by women and minorities, this is a significant competitive advantage for Memphis.  He noted that cities need to acknowledge and respond to changing workforce needs. 

“In this new knowledge economy, no longer are corporations only looking for placement. They are looking for the human capital.  They are looking for where you can go to find individuals focused on the area where they can gain the competitive advantage,” he said.  “The cities that will lag behind -- the cities that are not going to be able to move to the forefront of the economy -- are ones that don’t have that human capital in place.  They are the ones that will suffer largely from the achievement gap.”

Explaining that in this knowledge economy, people make deliberate choices of where they want to live, his office’s programs are designed around building Memphis as a “city of choice.”

The August 26 meeting was the second of a three-part series on the theme of Exploring Innovation, hosted by the Community Development department of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.  The next dialogue, “Tapping New Sources and Exploring New Models for Community Development Finance” is scheduled for Nov. 10, 2010.