Apr 20, 2011

Let's Talk About, And Tackle, The Achievement Gap

Courter Shimeall is currently pursuing a dual degree in law and public policy at Ohio State. Prior to being a student, he taught middle school English for two years in Watts, California, and then worked for Teach For America in recruiting for several years. Courter stays active in issues regarding educational inequality. He is an alumnus of the College of Wooster (B.A.) and Loyola Marymount University (M.A. Ed.). He currently lives in Columbus, Ohio with his wife, Angela, who is a public school teacher.
I'm always struck by the way those debating the state of public education lump together communities across the socio-economic spectrum as if they're all the same. "Public education" becomes an un-diverse, monolithic term that encompasses every American school student. But those who have taught in a low-income community -- or have experience in both low-income and higher-income areas -- know this is not the case.
In truth, the communities are far different, particularly in educational prospects. The statistics for students in low-income communities bear this out. Roughly 14 million school-age children live in low-income communities in America, and their high school graduation rate is about 50 percent. African American males, who often come from low-income backgrounds, are more likely to go to prison than to graduate from college in this country.
Spend a few minutes researching or paying attention and the truth becomes increasingly clear: the state of education in low-income communities is far worse than in other communities.
The distinction is especially relevant in light of some of the recent national debates over issues such as "last in, first out," the role of teachers' unions and teacher tenure. Because the communities are indeed so different, these policies have different effects.
Not surprisingly, the policies disproportionately hurt students in low-income communities. In particular, "last in, first out" and a system of teacher tenure without any means of objective criteria to discern job-performance both serve to deflect accountability. They also perpetuate the status quo.
The status quo might work for students who come from higher-income communities, have broader safety nets, and enjoy a stronger financial background. But, given the educational prospects and achievement rates of students in low-income communities, the status quo is definitely not working for everyone.
For the vast majority of Americans who believe that education is a basic civil right, this is not acceptable.
So, what can we do about it? For starters, we can have an honest debate and talk about the unique problems facing students in low-income communities. And, in recognizing the problems, we can talk about the solutions in a way that's not one-size-fits-all. The more we lump together communities that face different issues, and that need different educational policies, the more we perpetuate a status quo that isn't working for kids in low-income communities.
Students in these communities cannot afford to wait for adults to re-frame the debate and realize the difference. If we fail to act, the ones who will suffer the most are those who rarely have a voice in these debates: the students.

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