For years, education reform efforts at the federal, state and local levels have focused on decreasing the achievement gap between white and minority children, which has often translated to "rich and poor" children. While the gap between these kids has gone under the radar, it continues to grow. Researchers and people working with poor families believe that it is not race that defines the achievement gap; it is socioeconomic status (SES).
Shifting Paradigm of the Achievement Gap
In 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. launched the Poor People's Campaign, which garnered multiracial participation. It began after King realized that even though African-Americans had gained civil rights, those gains did not improve their material conditions because they remained impoverished. School systems have been integrated since the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court decision. Yet, the achievement gap has persisted. Perhaps Dr. King was on to something. A 2012 study by Stanford University professor Sean Reardon revealed that the rich-poor achievement gap is now much larger than the white-black achievement gap. This is a reversal from the pattern 50 years ago, when the white-black gap overshadowed the socioeconomic one. In fact, children born in 2001 saw a 40 percent larger achievement gap between rich and poor students than those born in 1974.
Early Childhood Education
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), children from low-SES environments develop academic skills more slowly, acquire language skills more slowly and are at risk for reading difficulties. President Obama affirmed this notion in his 2013 State of the Union Address where he stated, “Study after study shows that the sooner a child begins learning, the better he or she does down the road.” Noting the link between academic achievement and poverty, he expressed, “[for] poor kids who need help the most, this lack of access to preschool education can shadow them for the rest of their lives.”
Another link between poverty and the achievement gap is the lack of true school choice. Jenai Hayes, Coordinator of School Choice in the urban Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) knows this quite well. “There is a national push for school choice, but many of our families have problems with transportation,” Hayes says. In several school districts across the country, including MNPS, school options are available, but transportation to those options is not. She adds, “Many poor parents would love to send their kids to better schools within the district, but they can’t get them there because they don’t have a way.” Without system polices that address access barriers, true school choice won’t be achieved.
Campaign to Close the Gap
As income disparities have grown sharply since the 1970s, it seems that the ideology of Dr. King was correct. If we do not address the impact that poverty has on academic achievement, we will not close the gap. Professor Reardon suggests that standardized testing may be the answer. According to his report, “as these scores become more important, families may be increasingly likely to invest in improving their children’s scores.” Perhaps the investment will mean a campaign for a system that breaks the access barrier to earlier and accessible high-quality education.
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