Friday, April 4, 2008

Mind the Gaps

The notion of the achievement gap in education has become a pretty ingrained part of our understanding about education in America. It's widely known and indisputable that white children in America do better in school and receive a better education than black children. This is the ground from which we get No Child Left Behind and all sorts of other good and bad reform ideas.

Now, as I've written earlier, I'm not sure if the gap is a racial one. I don't think that there is something that makes white kids do better than black kids. I do think that the gap is one of classes. Kids who are well off do better in school than those who are poor, regardless of race. That poverty overlaps so much with race makes it hard to separate. What seems beyond question, though, is that there is an achievement gap in the country. About 30 seconds of looking at the data shows that.

So then imagine my surprise when I got an e-mail from the Educator Roundtable saying that they were exposing the "bogus" achievement gap. They even sent me a link to a video that you can check out here (it's only 45 seconds long).

If I can sum up the video, it's that there's a lot of things that happen outside of school that affect what goes on inside the school. With poverty, unemployment, homelessness, and murder rates relatively sky high in black communities, it's no wonder that the kids aren't doing well in school, the video holds. This makes perfect sense to me. However, this obviously doesn't mean the achievement gap is bogus. It just provides context for it.

For the sake of argument, if nothing else, I'm going to accept that all the statistics in the video are accurate. I also agree that all of the statistics cited certainly come to bear on children as they enter the school. You can't leave abuse or homelessness or dangerous communities outside the school house gate. People just don't work that way. Every kid comes into school carrying a combination of all the things that happened outside of school. And yeah, trying to get a kid to learn algebra when his dad is in jail and he didn't have breakfast is hard. So in a sense, the Educator Roundtable is right that the problems don't lie squarely on the backs of schools and teachers.

So then what's the answer?

Emphatically, it's not to say that the achievement gap is bogus and that educators might as well throw their hands up in the air until society is fixed. That will never happen. Education is one of the keys to helping close all those other gaps the video highlights. The fact is that people with good educations are less likely to be homeless, unemployed, or incarcerated. Education is where that cycle can be broken and so as much attention as possible needs to be focused there.

But attention also needs to be focused on programs and policies that affect children outside of school. There needs to be better health care, nutrition, social services, parenting classes, and a host of other policies that make it so that when children come to school they are ready to learn.

The various gaps described in the video are chicken and egg. One causes the other, which causes the first. You can't end that vicious cycle by attacking only one side. You need both. That's the point that the Educator Roundtable seems to miss. And any real educator should know better.

1 comment:

Delano said...

It's no surprise that inner city schools contend with neighborhood ills of the communities from which our inner city students emerge, but it is surprising that the author of the referenced Educator Roundtable article a. hadn't always considered those forces as contributing factors to the achievement gap b. seems to promote a shift of responsibility from educators to some other unidentified entity and c. supposes that race and class are mutually exclusive.

I agree with the author that class is a factor. Comparisons of African-American achievement and Caucasian achievement often involve poor African-Americans being compared to middle class Caucasian counter-parts, and this practice flys in the face of best business practices where companies of similar size, service, industry, etc. are used for fair comparisons, and I would assume fans anti-minority sentiment among some populations of poor Caucasians who effectively become non-factors in normal calculations.

I don't doubt that the achievement disparity would be reduced, eradicated or reversed (for various reasons) if the comparisons involved poor African- Americans and poor Caucasians. Nonetheless, whether along racial, ethnic or class lines, a gap is a gap, and it doesn't afford me any greater satisfaction to know that poor Caucasian brothers and sisters underachieve and have limited access to quality living at a rate close or equal to that of poor African-American and Hispanic brothers and sisters.

I also digress from the author's line of reasoning when he concludes that an achievement gap defined along racial lines is bogus. In supporting an expanded conversation surrounding class, the author concedes that African-Americans and Hispanics do not have a monopoly on poverty. That fact being established, what then can we attribute the preponderance of African-Americans and Hispanics in America's prisons? Is there something that inspires some poor African-Americans and Hispanics to respond to poverty in a matter that results in their minority-majority of the prison population? Is media coverage of those arrests biased? Is it unfair policing practices? Or societal neglect? Is it poor urban planning with projects like super-projects where minority families who flocked to cities for factory jobs lost their livelihoods (but not the projects) when the factory jobs flocked to the suburbs, much like industry today demands(?) relocation overseas? Is it the legacy of banks Red-lining in urban neighborhoods? Is it something inherently and uniquely African-American and Hispanic or some other unknow factor?

Whatever the confluence of causes for our enhanced representation of the prison population, it is safe to conclude that those elements add increased downward pressure on the ability of African-Americans and Hispanics to achieve, and that is why an achievement gap defined by class is not an adequate substitute for an anchievement gap defined by race. The prevalence of minorities in prison is a proxy for issues of race, class and underachievement in our society.