There is no more pressing topic in education today than closing the achievement gap, and there is no one in America who knows more about the gap than Ronald Ferguson.
Although he is a Harvard professor based in Cambridge, Mass., Dr. Ferguson, 60, spends lots of time flying around the country visiting racially mixed public high schools. Part of what he does is academic, measuring the causes of the gap by annually surveying the performance, behaviors and attitudes of up to 100,000 students. And part is serving as a de facto educational social worker, meeting with students, faculty members and parents to explain what steps their schools can take to narrow the gap.
The gap is about race, of course, and it inevitably inflames passions. But there is something about Dr. Ferguson’s bearing — he is both big (6-foot-3) and soft-spoken — that gets people to listen.
Morton Sherman, the Alexandria school superintendent, watched him defuse the anger at a meeting of 300 people. “He talks about these things in a professorial way, a kind way,” Dr. Sherman said. “It’s not about him. He doesn’t try to be a rock star, although he is a rock star in this field.”