The Haves and Haves-Not of Education - Part 1

Classroom 1.jpg

There are problems.  There are causes.  And there are solutions.  And there are 'true and false' answers to all three of these.  When it comes to education in the United States, do we have problems?  I think this is probably where there is a near universal consensus that would say, 'True'.  With that said, it would be good for us to recognize, as John Tures of LeGrange College points out in an excellent OpEd piece in the Observer, that the issue of education has often been politicized.  And the name of the game when it comes to politicization is exaggeration.  So we need to make sure we have done our due diligence in identifying the problems accurately lest we fall prey to partisan rhetoric for the purpose of scoring political points.  Still, in regards to performance or 'achievement' in the world of educational assessment, there are clearly serious challenges.  This is particularly true when it comes to racial and ethnic minorities.

The tale of 'Two Americas'

Disparity of many kinds between predominantly white and non-immigrant Americans and their black, brown, and immigrant peers, has led many to the conclusion that there are 'two Americas'.  Stanford's Center on Poverty and Inequality produces an annual “State of the Union” report on this reality.  The statistics for 2017 are sobering:

In terms of housing, "Less than half of black families (41 percent) and Hispanic families (45 percent) live in owner-occupied housing, as of 2014. For white families, that figure is 71 percent."  The report goes on to note:

Home ownership helps families accumulate wealth and take advantage of sizable tax savings. By contrast, being forced into the rental market can set off a domino effect of events that then make it more difficult to exit from poverty...Roughly 1 in 6 black and Hispanic households spend more than 50 percent of their income on housing, leaving them with fewer resources to devote to their children’s education, health care and other basic needs.

The report then highlights three additional areas where a chasm of inequality exists:

  • When it comes to work, "The employment rate for African American men has been 11 to 15 percentage points lower than that for whites in every month since January 2000."
  • Looking at health, "blacks are two to three times more likely than whites to suffer from hypertension and diabetes, leading in turn to higher rates of cardiovascular disease."
  • The result to overall wealth is that, “for every dollar of wealth held by the median white family, the median African American family had less than 8 cents in wealth, and the median Hispanic family had less than 10 cents.

These jarring contrasts can also be seen in the educational life of America's emerging generations.  Consider these facts as reported in the National Center for Education Statistic's 2017 Status and Trends in the Education of Racial and Ethnic Groups report (iv)...

  • At grade 4, the White-Black gap in reading narrowed from 32 points in 1992 to 26 points in 2015; the White-Hispanic gap in 2015 (24 points) was not measurably different from the gap in 1992. At grade 8, the White-Hispanic gap narrowed from 26 points in 1992 to 21 points in 2015; the White-Black gap in 2015 (26 points) was not measurably different from the gap in 1992. 
  • At grade 12, the White-Black achievement gap in reading was larger in 2015 (30 points) than in 1992 (24 points), while the White-Hispanic reading achievement gap in 2015 (20 points) was not measurably different from the gap in 1992.
  • At grade 4, the White-Black achievement gap in mathematics narrowed from 32 points in 1990 to 24 points in 2015; the White-Hispanic gap in 2015 (18 points) was not measurably different from the gap in 1990. At grade 8, there was no measurable difference in the White-Black achievement gap in 2015 (32 points) and 1990. Similarly, the White-Hispanic achievement gap at grade 8 in 2015 (22 points) was not measurably different from the gap in 1990.

Now it's obvious from looking at these stats that, with the exception of a few modest gains, a lack of progress and in some cases regress continues to persist.  Furthermore, we know that this perpetuates the cycle of poverty among minorities in America.  As is widely known, the more one advances academically, the more one tends to make professionally over the course of his or her working years.  Consequently, when educational advancement suffers, so does lifetime income and overall upward mobility.

next steps

So what's next?  Well, there is consensus that there is a problem.  This is typically where people want to rush to solutions.  But it would be wise for us to first explore the causes of educational disparity.  Not doing so would be equivalent to a medical doctor performing a surgery before doing a thorough set of tests.  He or she would risk doing greater harm to the patient without a clear picture of what's causing the symptoms.  Likewise, we risk doing substantial socio-economic harm to one of our nation's most precious resources, our children, if we do not know the history and nature of the challenges they face.  These, along with proposed solutions, are what we will explore in Part 2.