This piece comes to us from a crew of young OAGeniuses that are currently researching this topic via Our American Generation. Make sure to check out their project, Schools 2 Prisons. This research project is a collaboration between OAG, the League of Education Voters, and their student platform the Soapbox.
When you hear the term “achievement gap,” what does it mean? How come you’re reading about it on a social justice blog right now? Well, for starters, the term “achievement gap” may seem new, but the United States has a long-standing history of disparities in educational performance between students of different socioeconomic status, gender and race. Since the hard fought battles of the Civil Rights Movement spurred the integration of our public school system, sociologists have been assessing society’s different levels of academic achievement.
However, not much national attention was given to these inequalities until a portion of the No Child Left Behind Act (2001) forced states to publicly release data that broke down student-test scores by racial and ethnic categories as well as income level. Fast forward 11 years and many states across the country have realized this gap exists and taken proactive steps to stop and reverse the trend. In fact, 41 states have begun work to transform school systems and make gains closing the gap. These efforts have included a variety of tactics with varying results. Now the stinger—Washington is one of nine states where the achievement gap is still growing.
For many of us, this is enough to declare crisis. As students, brothers and sisters, tax payers and voters we’re watching as our public school systems allow devastating inequalities to perpetuate year after year.
Problem: Washington’s Gaps in High School Graduation Rates
Out of 100 students in Washington State, only 73 will graduate from high school in 4 years. If you’re an African American, Latino or Native American student, your chances are significantly lower.
Problem: Regardless of Income Level—Achievement Gaps Still Persist
As you can see, the gap is staggering when broken down by race and ethnic groups. A national study by McKinsey and Company used test data to find that “while independent racial and income gaps exist, black and Latino students underperform white students at each income level[i]”. This means that when we compare white students’ to black and Latino students’ test scores – even if his or her families make the same amount of money—students of color don’t achieve as high. This is proof that our education system is broken; that it does not serve all students equally.
Consequence: We’re all Hurt by these Inequalities
Although there are individual outliers, huge segments of our population are not getting as good an education as the rest. These deleterious effects can be felt on an individual scale and nationally. Being born into the wrong side of the achievement gap could cause any number of conditions we’d expect: depression, poverty, unemployment and forgone potential.
Consequence: Increased Interaction with Law Enforcement
A study by the Washington State Sheriff’s Department shows that high school dropouts are 3.5 times more likely to be arrested and 8 times more likely to go to jail than their peers who finish the 12th grade[ii].
The Washington State Institute for Public Policy (WSIPP) found that the likelihood of future criminal activity is reduced by 10% if the subject has a high school diploma[iii]. 2006 figures show that 17,788 Washington prisoners are fully funded by taxpayer dollars, at the annual rate of over $25k per bed[iv].
Washington State, on average, only spends $10k a year per student to pay for their public education. [v]
Consequence: Increased Police Activity in Our Public School System
As a direct response to the alarming gaps in reading levels and graduation rates, schools have felt the pressure and are cracking down to raise test scores. In some instances, school administrations are implementing increased disciplinary and security measures in an effort to implement some ‘tough love’ polices with struggling students. Oppositional voices refer to this cultural shift as the emergence of the “school to prison pipeline,” where the emphasis is on “punitive consequences, student exclusion, and justice-system intervention over students’ right to an education[vi].” These heightened disciplinary practices in schools can be directly linked to increased juvenile arrest rates and correctional referrals[vii].
Rumors have spread like wildfire across the country that government officials have used middle school reading levels that are below normal to indicate how the state should plan to increase prison capacities. If this is a true statement, we can all safely agree it’s disgusting. Despite hearing this rumor repeatedly, activists have had a tough time unearthing the administrative documents that explicitly state this reality, although plenty of organizations and individuals are documented saying it out loud.
Consequence: Taxpayers pay in the Long Run
In 2005, a worker with a GED made an average of $16,000 less, annually, then that of a college graduate. Income levels of our uneducated directly affect state taxpayers in the form of more funding for social and health services designed to help low-income families. By 2018, 67% of Washington jobs will require some education beyond high school, and by failing our students and importing talent to perform the highly-skilled jobs that spur our innovative economy, we’re failing to secure the future of our state’s residents.
What can we do?
If you’re feeling this sting, you’re not alone. Students, teachers, parents and policy makers are actively researching and trying new tactics to ease the gap and finding what we’d all expect—that complicated and deep-rooted social issues require multifaceted and well-funded policy approaches. It doesn’t help that there seems to be a proverbial “passing of the torch” when it comes to discussing whose feet we’re going to hold to the fire. if you’re looking for a solution; it depends on who you ask.
If you ask a student how to fix the achievement gap, they will most likely tell you that the single most important factor in their education is their teacher. The culture of a classroom has to be inclusive and respectful of differences while still maintaining high expectations. If a student feels their teacher cares and is invested in their life, it makes all the difference. They would want curriculum that speaks to their personal histories and that represents a variety of perspectives. Think more Howard Zinn and less Founding Fathers.
If you ask a teacher how to fix the achievement gap, they will most likely tell you that it starts at home with the parents and child. Families need to instill a love of learning from an early age and be there to support the student. A teacher would also ask for freedom and flexibility in their curriculum. Think less standardized testing and more project-based learning and assessment.
If you were to ask a parent to fix the achievement gap, they will most likely tell you the schools need more funding. As long as our neighborhoods are segregated by race and class and our schools depend of funding levels that are property and income tax-based, our schools will continue to struggle with unequal funding levels.
If you were to ask a policy maker or politician how to fix the achievement gap, they would most likely blame the stalemate nature of bipartisanship and the inside political games that make statewide legislation tedious, slow and cumbersome to voters. They would point to conflicts between two major camps: teachers’ unions and education reformers who constantly struggle to find policies they can agree to work together on.
However, despite the overwhelming nature of the problem, we know that these problems can be eroded. There are clear examples of students, teachers, schools, districts and states that have turned the tides and begun the work to close gaps. One example of Latino students in Ohio shows that schools have turned it around—Latinos are outperforming white students in 13 other states on reading tests and are 7 points above the national average. In Texas, at least in terms of some measures, the gap has been closed between low-income Black students and low-income White students.
We also know that Washington is amongst the states that have the most work to do. The fact that our income gap is growing at a declining rate is not comforting. A recent report by the Center for Education showed that at the rate Washington State is going, it would take us 105 years to close the gap. As far as State government goes, in 2009 the legislature put a taskforce on the Achievement Gap to work. They are the best-positioned group to start a smart conversation about the Achievement Gap, and are tasked to report to the Superintendant of Public Instruction, the State School Board, and the Professional Educator Standards Board.
We will continue to explore the gears and pulleys of Washington’s “achievement gap”, and report back with a full zine on how this problem is shaping up locally, and what steps can be taken to allow all students, regardless of race and income, to achieve their full potential.
[i] “The Economic Impact of the Achievement Gap in America’s Schools” McKinsey & Company 2009.
[ii] “Schools for the Streets – Crime and Washington’s Dropout Crisis” Washington State Sheriff’s Department. 2009.
[iii] L. Lochner and E. Moretti. “The Effect of Education on Crime: Evidence From Prison Inmates, Arrests, and Self-reports.”American Economic Review 94(1) (2004): 155-189.
[iv] “The punishing price of incarceration.” uwnews.org, 2006.
[v] “Average per-pupil expenditure among global challenge states” National Education Association. 2008-2009.
[vi] ““Federal Policy, ESEA Reauthorization, and the School-to-Prison Pipeline.” Advancement Project et al. 2010.”