There are a number of indicators to suggest that race warrants the majority of our attention as we try to target a factor that is consistently shown to have a direct relationship with poor student achievement. Fact… all across this great nation, children of color are scoring persistently lower on all student achievement measures (standardized tests, graduation rates, advance placement course completion, etc…) as compared to their Caucasian and Asian peers. When we speak of “children of color” as we analyze such data points, while many non-Caucasian ethnicities exist, we are often referring to one segment of the non-Caucasian community—African-Americans.
Within the historical context of public education in America, African-American students have been seen as the group most affected by the ineffectiveness of public education. Today’s data are as reflective of these disparities as any other time in history, especially for African-American males. When compiling educational statistics in most schools, school districts, or states, African-American males are much more likely to have the lowest grade point averages. They are most likely to be retained in a grade. They are most likely to be removed from class/school for disobedience. They are most likely to be labeled as emotionally handicapped and/or learning disabled. The coincidental nature of these educational facts is not without accusatory feelings from the research community. In his 1974 book, The One Best System: A History of American Urban Education, David Tyack stated, “To have been born black was normally to have been labeled a failure—an inferiority all too often justified by a bogus science—as millions of Negro children learned in school systems which were consciously or unwittingly racist.”
Recently compiled statistical data suggest that race, particularly the African-American race, is a more reliable factor to hold constant when looking at school reform efforts meant to target underperforming students. I have seen pedagogical experts profess a “new and innovative” way of teaching subject-matter to African-American children. I have also seen school leadership experts boldly recommend “new and innovative” ways to lead schools with very large African-American student populations. These “new and innovative” pedagogical and/or leadership programs promise beyond-normal results, with hefty price tags. These types of reform efforts focus solely on overcoming “blackness” in order to increase student performance. This is to suggest that being black is the equivalent to a social disorder. This has been a huge mistake in thinking, not to mention the millions of dollars wasted on such programs and the continuation of the achievement gap between African-Americans and other races.
As a society, we are “missing the boat” in a big way. If one looks deeper, you will find that African-American students, males in particular, fall behind in school because they are: least likely to live in a home with two college-educated, biological parents; least likely to have been enrolled in a rigorous pre-school program; least likely to have a computer and/or high speed internet access at home; least likely to have a parent/guardian participate in school activities; least likely to receive adequate healthcare; least likely to regularly travel out of state or country; and least likely to own the home they live in.
African-Americans are more likely to live at, or around, the poverty line; and therefore are suffering from aspects that derive from their socio-cultural condition. This is an important fact for us to all understand. It is their economical “poorness” that creates the obstacles to attaining a quality education, not their “blackness.” Statistically speaking, and comparative to other races, there is a disproportionate number of African-American people who are living in poverty. Subsequently, African-American children disproportionately suffer from the social ills that make learning how to read, write, compute, and think critically, so remarkably difficult.
Now that we know the problem, poverty, what is the solution? I’m glad you asked (smile). If, as an American people, we are going to have any chance at all to increase the number of children who receive a quality education and eliminate the educational disparities that exist among sub-groups of our society, we must, with all of our combined efforts, improve the economic condition of our brothers and sisters living in poverty. We must pour all of our efforts into eradicating poverty in this great country. We must ensure healthcare for all; we must ensure housing for all; we must ensure employment for all; we must ensure guardianship for all; and we must ensure all people live in a safe/clean community; just to name a few. And… Yes, we must require those of us who “have” to provide for the “have-nots.” I know this last miniature “rant” has caused many conservative eyebrows to raise, but it makes philosophical sense and it makes economical sense.
Without quoting the exact numbers, we all know that it costs thousands of dollars more to incarcerate an adult than it does to provide social and educational interventions for a toddler. Over time, we will use far fewer tax dollars to economically supplement the life of a child living in poverty than we will spend to make accommodations for this child in our judicial and penal systems. In essence, you can either take your hard-earned, well-deserved resources and give a portion to a poverty-stricken child to teach him out to read; or you can show up to your burglarized BMW in the parking lot of a local mall to find your valuables missing. You will have to replace what was stolen; you will have to pay an increased insurance premium; you will have to pay for the criminal investigation; you will have to pay for the trial; you will have to pay for the incarceration; and, it all may happen again. Ignoring poverty is socially and educationally very costly.
If we fix poverty in America, we will see student achievement in our schools increase significantly. We will see the performance gap that exists between sub-groups of our culture, especially along lines of ethnicity, erased. As an American people, we will never realize the best in us until we ensure prosperity for the least of us.
Dr. Desmond K. Blackburn has served one of the largest school districts in the nation as a Math Teacher, Assistant Principal, Principal, Director of School Improvement, District Trainer, and Area Superintendent; all in addition to being an Adjunct Professor in Educational Leadership. His book, Socio-Cultural Leadership, provides principals and aspiring principals with specific strategies to lead school improvement efforts, especially for children living in poverty. Visit www.dgleadership.com for more information.