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The biggest challenges in education —poverty, racial and ethnic achievement gaps

By Maurice Washington

The achievement gap is the term commonly used to describe the disparities in academic outcomes and variations on measures of academic ability that tend to correspond to the race and class backgrounds of students. Though such disparities are by no means new, in recent years the effort to “close the achievement gap” has become something of a national crusade. Politicians and private foundations have exhorted educators to take urgent steps to close the gap and put an end to this social scourge. Former President George W. Bush went so far as to accuse those who thought the gap couldn’t be closed of practicing “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” Although it’s not clear that the president understood what he meant by this, but it is clear he strongly believed it could be done.

As a result of public pressure applied and the strict accountability that has led districts to fire superintendents and principals when test scores don’t improve, educators across the country have been scrambling to find ways to raise student test scores and show that gaps in performance can be closed. By now it is clear that neither pressure nor a narrowed focus on test preparation has worked in eliminating the achievement gap or in substantially raising achievement levels for all students.

In our State, the S.C. Department of Education (SCDE) and the S.C. Education Oversight Committee (EOC) released the 2022 South Carolina school report cards last October. The reports show 11 CCSD schools (15 percent of the state schools in this category) were rated at the lowest performance level, “Unsatisfactory.” This includes five high schools (Stall, Burke, Baptist Hill, North Charleston, Greg Mathis Charter) and six elementary schools (Chicora, Frierson, Meeting Street Charter, Pinehurst, Mitchell, North Charleston Creative Arts). Of the 11 unsatisfactory schools, two charters (Meeting Street Elementary and Greg Mathis Carter) and one magnet (North Charleston Creative Arts) have the ability to attract and impact students from the entire county should they choose to attend. Worth noting, the two charter schools are awarded twice as much funding as their peer schools in terms of per pupil funding, yet their performance is abysmal.

This cohort of schools all have student poverty indexes above 80 percent and all have minority populations (black and Hispanic) exceeding 70 percent of their individual populations.

It has been well known for some time: Black children, even those from middle class families, consistently perform less well than white children. Many books on the subject have been written, but in most cases, aside from reminding readers of the existence of the gap, relatively little in the way of answers for what should be done to address it have been offered. With little in the way of guidance from researchers, it is hardly surprising that there is so much confusion among policymakers and educators across the country about what should be done to close the gap, or even how race is related to it. As is true on other matters pertaining to race such as crime, voting behavior or immigration, once race is inserted into a policy discussion it often has the effect of distorting how an issue is perceived. Consider the fact that not all white students are high achievers. Yet, because the policy discourse about the achievement gap has framed the issue largely in racial terms, school boards and many educators have overlooked the fact that many students across the country are not receiving an education that would adequately prepare them for college or adulthood.

A recent review of the CCSD dashboard show:

Poverty Among K-12 Students

Blacks 88 percent

Hispanics 65 percent

Whites 20 percent

SC READY MATH Meets and Exceeds

Blacks 17 percent

Hispanics 28 percent

Whites 74 percent

SC Pass Science Performance Meets and Exceeds

Blacks 18 percent

Hispanics 27 percent

Whites 77 percent

Graduation Rate

Blacks 77 percent

Hispanics 74 percent

Whites 91 percent

SC Ready ELA (English, Language Arts, Reading, Writing, Speaking, Spelling and Grammar) Meets and Exceeds Performance

Blacks 23 percent

Hispanics 30 percent

Whites 77 percent

The above data reveals what National Education data show — that minority children from impoverished families typically perform less well than white children. To some extent, this is because gaps in achievement are a reflection of disparities in other opportunities (i.e., income, parental education, healthcare, etc.). There are of course exceptions to these patterns — poor black children who excel, wealthy white children who don’t, Asian students who are not good at math, etc. The exceptions are important because they remind us that there is nothing inherently deficient about students who happen to be low achievers, regardless of their backgrounds.

Still, some argue — when disparities in academic achievement are studied closely, it becomes clear that in many ways the achievement gap is first and foremost an educational manifestation of social inequality. In recent years, policymakers have paid increasing attention to the many ways in which factors beyond school influence a child’s educational outcomes.

Indeed, recent research finds that the “poverty” achievement gap — that is, the difference in academic achievement between poor and non-poor children, has grown faster than the racial achievement gap. However, there is less widespread recognition of the severe traumas that children can face, including homelessness, domestic violence, parental drug abuse, neglect and physical or sexual abuse. Such trauma is consistently linked to a broad variety of negative life circumstances including poverty, juvenile delinquency, adult crime, low academic achievement, substance abuse, mental disorders and poor health. The consequences of early childhood trauma have serious implications for not only the victims, but also families, schools and communities. Additionally, greater than 90 percent of black students enrolled in Title One schools in Charleston County qualify for free/reduced lunch (i.e. poor students), and students living in relatively high-poverty areas are all more likely to be investigated by Child Protective Services for suspected child maltreatment.

Given the data reported on its Dashboard, the CCSD school board should seek answers on the following questions:

1. What is the prevalence of child maltreatment investigations (for abuse or neglect) in our public school population by the time students reach third grade?

2. Does the risk of maltreatment differ by student race, gender, socioeconomic status or geographic location?

3. What is the association between maltreatment and academic performance?

The findings may indicate that child abuse and neglect cannot simply be treated like a secondary issue but must be a central concern of school personnel. If we fail to understand or fail to address the numerous ways in which other inequities in income, health, housing, child maltreatment, etc. interact with learning outcomes, then much of what is done to ameliorate the problem will simply not work.

Wealth inequality and a tattered social safety net make parenting in the face of poverty a Herculean challenge. Regardless of income, every parent has the same innate drive to nurture their children. Speaking from personal experience: Low-income parents want desperately for their kids to have a better future. Surveys show, marginalized families said they were more worried about their children’s learning than even their ability to pay the bills during the pandemic. And parents’ single biggest unmet need is “personalized guidance to support learning at home.”

For decades, education reformers have clung to the belief that school improvement alone can close the achievement gap. But that didn’t work before the pandemic, and it won’t work now. The achievement gap has remained unchanged over the past half-century, despite billions of dollars invested in classroom interventions. When it comes to educating kids, there’s no going around parents. Educators must work with and through them to ensure students learn across the continuum of home and school. Failure to do so will result in low-income learners falling further behind as the wealthy families confer ever-greater privilege on their children.

Winston Churchill famously said, “You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing … after they have tried everything else.” The moment has finally arrived for schools to try something else: a systematic approach to helping families and teachers collaborate in service of student learning.

The CCSD board MUST focus on serving all children. Ensure every deliberation, decision and action reflects the best interests of every student you serve. No child is more important than another. Remember that your identity is with the community, not the staff. It’s easy to identify with staff as you probably will have more discussions with them about issues. However, you must remember that your job is to serve in trust for the community. Represent the community, not a single constituency. You will understand and/or identify with certain constituencies (parents, neighborhoods or communities, activist and political groups etc.) but you MUST remember that being a board member means serving in TRUST for the entire community. There’s no way nine people can provide a spokesperson for every constituency or legitimate interest, so in a moral sense you must stand for them all. You can be from a constituency, but you must not let yourself REPRESENT it. Your role is key in helping bring diverse stakeholders in the room.

Children don’t just need to learn because it’s fun. They deserve to learn because it offers them a chance to live, a chance to literally change the course of their lives.

It takes a village. We want to eliminate barriers to education and fight poverty because we know they are inextricably intertwined.

Maurice Washington is chairman of the Charleston County Republican Party and former Charleston City Council member. He is president CEO of Trust Management, LLC, and is committed to a life of public service.


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