While I do not for one second believe we are done addressing the racial achievement gap, a new report linked and discussed in this recent New York Times article suggests that we clearly have a serious challenge ahead in removing the socioeconomically driven gap in student achievement.
The article starts off stating that education has historically been considered the great equalizer, that education can overcome the classic disadvantages of class or power or privilege that conspire against an equal education and a prosperous future. I believe education is still the great equalizer, and that a meritocracy, harsh at times, brought and still brings the right strengths to our economy.
But I also believe that each child has an equal right to the best education that we can collectively provide, that we have no way to know where the next great artist or scientist will come from, and that it is thus self-evident that those of us who have prospered have a deep obligation to lend a helping hand to those less fortunate.
In reading this article, I was reminded that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., had begun to take up the flag of poverty following the still-tenuous success of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Based on the report above, even in the ’60s it was becoming clear that poverty was the next horizon of inequity to be pursued and challenged. What appears clear now is that we have not just one gap to abolish, but two. And that of the two challenges, poverty is the greater.
I believe we are all familiar enough with the causes of economic disadvantage, though I will be the first to plead guilty to a lack of understanding of the depths of this challenge. I grew up in a middle-class family in a suburban bedroom community, attended relatively new suburban schools, and attended middle-class universities. I have never been rich, but I was never poor, either. At least, I never thought I was. I have done enough volunteer work through my life to know that there are children who live and grow up in circumstances that most of us cannot imagine and that I could probably never fully appreciate.
Nevertheless, I believe that a child who grows up in a single-parent home where time is precious, or without books or access to many of the materials and media we take for granted, or where the household income is barely if at all sufficient to provide for basic needs, grows up with a built-in disadvantage in education that accumulates throughout the child’s life. This is a disadvantage that, like race or ethnicity, was not of that child’s choosing. It is a disadvantage that, also like race or ethnicity, can be imposed insidiously unless we identify it honestly, call it by name, point out each way that it affects us, and work to find ways by which it can be eliminated.
My concern today is that there are those who, for their own reasons, believe that they are not responsible for bringing equity to this situation of an economic achievement gap. They got to where they are, gosh darn it, through the accumulated benefits of their posterity or by other fortunate means, and by golly, let others find their own way. The most surprising thing to me is that these folks adhere to some of the most deeply held religious or philosophical beliefs that insist that we are, together, responsible for all of our children and the future of our nation and her economic prosperity.
Times, tough though they are, are not so hard that we cannot find ways to share our strengths and seek out opportunities to change the plight of a child.
An earlier version of this essay was previously published at www.jimbutt.com.
Jim Butt, an engineer, lives in Cheltenham where he serves on the school board, blogs on education, and can be seen umpiring local baseball and softball games.