Sunday, March 25, 2007


Income Inequality = Educational Failure

This is a post I've wanted to write for quite some time, but haven't been able to put into a cohesive form. Up to now it's consisted of a variety of disjointed thoughts and observations. However, after reading teacherken's excellent diary from this morning discussing the Democratic presidential candidates and their respective positions on education (all of teacherken's diaries are excellent by the way), I felt like this was as good a time as any to try and connect these thoughts and ideas. What you are about to read is based on ten-plus years of first-hand observations and some cold, hard data. Basically, the entire diary can be summed up as follows:
We will never solve our education problems until we address the increasing problems of income inequality in America.

For years, the CW has been that money is at the heart of the education problems we face in America. From teacher pay to school funding, there never seems to be enough money to do what we would like to see done. While I agree that funding for public education is woefully inadequate, I believe that the true money problem facing public schools here in America lies in a different area - the families. In short, income inequality is the true culprit in today's schools.

Here in Illinois, we recently received our school report cards for 2006. Based on my experience, the data contained in the report card was not surprising. Economically disadvantaged students consistently perform at a lower level than all other subgroups with the exception of students with disabilities and students with limited English proficiency.

Just looking at the state of Illinois' report card (PDF) for now, we see that Economically Disadvantaged (ED) students have a lower graduation rate (76.5) than all but two of the twelve subgroups: Migrant and Limited English Proficiency (LEP).

And by high school, ED students are performing at a rate far below that of most others with only 35.1% meeting or exceeding standards in Reading, 27.5% meting or exceeding in Math, and 23% meeting or exceeding in Science.

Looking at this particular report card, one may notice that when the scores are broken down by race, Africa-Americans scored lower than ED. But according to the US Census Bureau (PDF) nearly one quarter of blacks in America live in poverty. In addition, the numbers aren't much better for Hispanics and are actually worse for American Indians and Alaskan Natives. Unfortunately, it's impossible to look at ED numbers and not realize that many of the students that fall under that category are minorities.

Looking at other schools' report cards, I've found similar results when it comes to ED students. In Iowa (PDF) for example, only 60.1% of ED students tested proficient over all at the high school level. In South Dakota, only 49% of high school ED students were proficient in Math and 60% we proficient in Reading. In Arizona (PDF), less than 50% of high school ED students were proficient in Math and just slightly more than 50% are proficient in Reading. Moving on to New Jersey (PDF) we see that only 65.2% of high school ED students tested proficient in Language Arts while a mere 54.1% were proficient in Mathematics. And in North Carolina only 45.1% of ED students passed both parts of their end of year tests.

While reading teacherken's aforementioned diary, the thing that struck me most is that this issue isn't even addressed by most of the candidates. With the exception of John Edwards and, in a roundabout way, Dennis Kucinich, nobody even mentions poverty as an issue. This, to me, is sad. The data clearly shows that poverty is a problem when it comes to education in America but none of the candidates will address it.

Of course the Republican argument is that our kids need to "pull themselves up by their bootstraps" and "buckle down." That all sounds well and good and probably looks nice on paper, but in reality that's not an option for most. You see, poor families don't have the same options others do. When Mom is sick or has to work or otherwise has an appointment, the family can't afford daycare and the older kids have to stay home to babysit the younger ones thereby missing out on a day's worth of school. When the weather's bad, students from poor families who live too close to school to ride the bus but don't have a working vehicle will stay home rather than brave the weather. Oftentimes, poor families suffer from what's called generational poverty where the family has lived in poverty for years and they don't see the value of an education and their children aren't encouraged to attain an education. So to say that students need to "pull themselves up by the bootstraps" really doesn't work because many times the families in poverty don't have the bootstraps to pull themselves up by.

So what can be done? Well, again it comes back to money. For years the CW has been to put more money and funding into schools to fund after school programs, increase per student expenditures, and raise teacher pay to attract better teachers, but to an ED student it really doesn't matter how much money is being spent to educate him or her and it sure as hell doesn't matter how much the teacher's making. In the end, the student is still ED and the family is still in poverty. That's why I believe that to truly address the problems with our public education system we need to honestly address the problem of income inequality. Until we find a way to keep the poor from getting poorer while the rich get richer, we will never be able to truly address the real problem with our public schools.

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