Mind the Gap

Image courtesy of Stanford Social Innovation Review

Today I received an email from a good friend who is not an educator asking about the latest Deep Dive in Axios, “1 big thing: The failed promise of education.” This piece posits that the American dream is founded on falsehood, that the promise of education as the ticket to that dream simply doesn’t work. It goes on to explain that, “Family income is perhaps the strongest determinant of student success, and low income becomes an even higher barrier when it intersects with race” [https://www.axios.com/newsletters/axios-am-hard-truths].

Axios offers compelling support for this claim:

  • “Even when Black students from poor families start kindergarten with above-median test scores, 63% test below the median by the time they’re in the eighth grade, a recent Georgetown University study found.
  • Among kindergartners in the same high-achieving, but lower-income category, nearly 2 in 5 Latino students, nearly 2 in 5 white students and 1 in 5 Asian students also saw lower scores over time.
  • High-achieving students of color are too often overlooked by teachers and administrators: The odds of Black and Latino children being referred to gifted programs are 66% and 47% lower than white students, respectively, per the Fordham Institute.”

Further proof:

  • Black students represent a disproportionate number of students punished and expelled.
  • While affluent school districts offer significantly more resources, impoverished districts have a higher percentage of poor students and students of color who need more resources. And that funding gap continues to grow.
  • Implicit bias among educators hampers the growth of students of color.

“The idea that this is about who’s smart and who’s not is just not true,” says Anthony Carnevale, founder and director of Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce. “In the end, the system pretty much places you where you were as a child. Education is the problem. It is not the solution.”

All the research I’ve read says that socioeconomic status is the number one predictor of school success. Other factors like race and implicit bias only increase the gap. Some schools are tackling it head on. The high school in Illinois where I spent most of my career has long had a support program for these students to help them catch up, but I don’t know how successful it is. And if you look at how we fund schools, that further exacerbates this problem: districts with more resources [because their homeowners pay more property taxes to generate those resources] increase that gap, and they are more likely to have fewer BIPOC [Black Indigenous People of Color] students. 

In the early 70s, when I was President of my chapter of the League of Women Voters in Connecticut, we looked at school funding and saw the inequities of funding and of educational outcomes. At that time the national LWV pushed for significant school funding reform. I remember my resistance, based on fear that we would reduce everyone to a lowest common denominator when I was willing to pay more in property taxes to ensure that my children could receive a good education in a public-school system. That concern, understandable though it may be, is part of the problem.

And those long-standing gaps have been exacerbated by the pandemic. According to the Economic Policy Institute, “The pandemic has exacerbated well-documented opportunity gaps that put low-income students at a disadvantage relative to their better-off peers. Opportunity gaps are gaps in access to the conditions and resources that enhance learning and development, and include access to food and nutrition, housing, health insurance and care, and financial relief measures” [https://www.epi.org/publication/the-consequences-of-the-covid-19-pandemic-for-education-performance-and-equity-in-the-united-states-what-can-we-learn-from-pre-pandemic-research-to-inform-relief-recovery-and-rebuilding/]. “Thirty percent of all K-12 public school students, about 15 million to 16 million children, live in homes that don’t have an internet connection or an adequate device for distant learning at home, a study by Common Sense Media and the Boston Consulting Group found. That lack of access, coupled with inadequate help at home and a quiet place to learn, means lower-income, Black and Hispanic children may struggle, a June report from McKinsey & Company found” [https://www.cnbc.com/2020/08/12/impact-of-covid-19-on-schools-will-worsen-racial-inequity-experts-say.html]. Clearly, we need to commit resources to reduce these dangerous inequities.

There are programs that make a difference in normal times.  “The Posse” program [https://www.possefoundation.org/] identifies talented BIPOC students and provides scholarships and helps them get into the same college, where they remain connected with each other and a mentor. One of my most revered education professors/mentors is very involved in this. But we need that kind of support from the beginning. Recent studies of the long-term effect of Project Head Start, which provides support to these children and their families starting very early in life, suggests that that kind of intervention matters, which makes sense given that we know that the first five years or so of life are critical for brain development and learning.

We could do a lot more to close the gap if we cared to…

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