By Julianne Malveaux
Thousands of pages have been written about the achievement gap – the fact that White kids score higher than either Black or Latino kids who sometimes sit right next to them in classrooms. And despite hundreds of millions of dollars spent to close the achievement gap, the National Assessment of Educational Progress reported last year that the gap was unchanged in both reading and math between 2009 and 2013.
African American students are as capable for learning as Caucasian students are, if they have the same quality of teachers, schools, and learning material. But many researchers have documented the differences in school quality between inner cities and elsewhere. Some researchers will explain the achievement gap by focusing on poverty, challenging family backgrounds, or other factors.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that often, teacher attitudes determine the ways some students are treated, and some of the ways that they learn. Often large classroom sizes and, yes, unruly students, contribute to teacher burnout for which there is little relief.
Multiple and complex factors go into explaining the achievement gap. But in the very shortest of runs, while we wait for public policy to shift and for legislators to put more money in our schools, some of us can help close the achievement gap. Too many of us seem too challenged to help our own kids, yet parental involvement is needed to keep close touch with teacher and administrators and to provide our children with challenging educational experiences.
Some of us, retired and with adult children, could make a difference by giving a few hours a week to a child who needs supplementary education. I’m all for a shift in public policy. K-12 education has been neglected, from a policy perspective, by too many cities and states. Too often when there are budget cuts, education takes a big hit. Schools are closed, classrooms are overcrowded, and necessary classes in the sciences, in civics or physical education, are eliminated. In most schools across the country, the arts (music, theater etc.) have been removed entirely.
Reading facility may be the foundation of the achievement gap. Some researchers say that African American children enter high school with a word gap as high as 30 million (which means they have heard 30 million fewer words than their Caucasian counterparts). Some allege that children are not the only ones to have a word gap –Valerie Strauss, writing in the Washington Post earlier this year, wrote that as many as a million “state licensed and nationally credentialed” early childhood educators are at risk for functional illiteracy. Many of these workers earn such low wages that the best educated and most qualified teachers are not interested in early child education. Thus, while President Obama has called for universal kindergarten, where are the teachers who will take kindergarten to the next level?
Until policy is changed and we put our money where our mouths are, closing the achievement gap is a short run parental and community challenge. I know some parents who start reading to their child in the womb, who allow toddlers to turn pages and look at pictures (and words) to get them ready for reading, who talk to their children even when they know their offspring can’t understand a word they are saying. Other parents may sing and occasionally sit toddlers at the dinner table, even though they know a child might holler or make a mess.
Children are headed to school this month and next, and many of them need parents, or involved community contributors, to help them get there without being burdened by the achievement gap. The gap that starts early – in preschool or kindergarten – grows over time. Caucasians graduate from high school at a rate of 86 percent, compared to 73 percent for Hispanics and 69 percent for African Americans. Yet, we say that a well-educated workforce is a key to our nation’s future prosperity. We need to change the spending policy that supports the achievement gap, and until that happens, we need to reach out, a child at a time, to make a difference.
Julianne Malveaux is an author and economist. She can be reached via www.juliannemalveaux.com.