Is the debate finally over? Have we at last reached a tipping point of such obvious connection that even the most stalwart critic of the US public education system has to wonder what they have been fussing about all this time? Doubtful at best, though even the most cursory glance at who is achieving and who is failing in public education should be enough to cause the proverbial light to pop on above anybody’s head.
After centuries of examining how people learn, making myriad discoveries along the way, and painstakingly crafting a deep and dynamic pedagogic identity, the US has abdicated its responsibility to provide intellectual advancement to a vast swath of its citizenry by making a single measure of capacity the final arbiter of student and teacher capability. And the nation does this knowing full well that students of limited means have always been at the bottom of the mountain looking up when it comes to building their futures and bridging the gap between themselves and those who began further toward the crest. The students at the bottom are staying at the bottom because the test has become the latest means to judge them, and ensures that this judgment comes with the attendant needle-holed curriculum that concerns itself with the end result, leaving other broad-based educational entry points like art, music, physical education, science, history, geography, world civilization and culture to wither and die on the vine for poor students while their peers up the incline have continued access within their system or from personal resources.
It’s become so simple. When teaching for the test is teaching for your life, you can bet teachers, pushed along at times by administrators, will do what it takes to reach the land of benchmarks for student proficiency. This is where we are. The values of an education and the abilities of students and teachers are increasingly boiled down to a test – a test on two subjects, language and math. Important pieces of knowledge to say the least, yet certainly not the last measures of what humans might need to know to live a full and expansive life, especially if the testing is confined to a moribund multiple choice regurgitation of facts having little to do with examining the intricacies and challenges of the limited days we all have on this earth.
These test results, rather than existing as a rational piece in the educational puzzle of informing administrators, government and the public on the relative identifications of needs to be addressed, and then provided resources to do so, are then used to punish. Our education system has succumbed to the pressures of a mythology, a fantasy creation where the good guys do well, bad guys get punished and if you happen to land in the company of the latter, it’s your own fault. We’ve begun believing that the education system should mirror the criminal justice system and equate the failures of an entire social model with easy finger-pointing, blaming and shaming those students at the lowest end of the economic equation and their teachers, people who work in a profession where almost half walk away before five years because of stress, burnout, ridicule and career prospects tied to the idea that it is they who can fix what an entire society has broken.
The results of testing, perhaps to the chagrin of those who would assess student failure in poor districts and from low-income and poverty-based households as an indication of both personal shortcomings and a massive failure on the part of public school teachers, have provided deep data and now complete insight to the core where we truly see the challenge. The challenge lies squarely in reversing the expansion of poverty and wealth inequality, especially as it stands for children and families of color across the country.
Though educational success is a complex subject, we know that, by and large, poorer children make slower progress and achieve lower academic outcomes than children progressively up the income and asset scale.
With that, we already know what the problems are, both in the US and around the globe. We know that, according to a 2014 Oxfam study, 80 human beings hold the same amount of wealth as the world’s 3.6 billion poorest people. We know that by 2016 the wealthiest 1% in the world will have more wealth than the other 99%.
We know that incomes for people of color in the US have continued to lag behind for decades as the Pew Research Center evidence supports with this median household comparison from the years 1967-2012:
- Asians (1987-2012): $62,309 — $68,636
- Whites (1972-2012): $50,644 — $57,003
- Hispanics (1972-2012): $37,681 — $39,005
- Blacks (1967-2012): $25,996 — $33,321
We know that of the more than 72 million children under age 18 years in the United States:
- 44%, 31.8 million, live in low-income families (Less than 200% of poverty income)
- 22%, 15.8 million, live in poor families (100% or less than poverty income)
- 31% of White children, 11.7 million, live in low-income families
- 31% of Asian children, 1.1 million, live in low-income families
- 65% of Black children, 6.4 million, live in low-income families
- 63% of Hispanic children, 11.0 million, live in low-income families
We know that the National Assessment of Educational Progress reports the White-Black gap and the White-Hispanic gap in 4th and 8th grade math and reading assessments looks like this:
The White-Black Gap
- Mathematics: 26 point difference in 4th grade; 31 point difference in 8th grade.
- Reading: 27 point difference in 4th grade; 26 point difference in 8th grade.
The White-Hispanic Gap
- Mathematics: 21 point difference in 4th grade; 26 point difference in 8th grade.
- Reading: 25 point difference in 4th grade; 24 point difference in 8th grade.
We know that in the international testing arena, the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) is an assessment that measures 15-year-old students’ reading, mathematics, and science literacy every three years and the correlation to lack of poverty and high achievement is unerringly strong. The scores of 2012 from a disaggregation by Daniel Wydo:
- Science literacy score: US schools with less than 10% free/reduced lunch: 556. 1st place.
- Reading literacy score: US schools with less than 10% free/reduced lunch: 559. 1st place.
- Math literacy score: US schools with less than 10% free/reduced lunch: 540. 5th place.
We know that there is discussion about the top students in the US still lagging behind powerhouse OECD nations, yet there remains a huge gap at the bottom end in the US where the scores of low-income Americans are extraordinarily abysmal with many not reaching the lowest levels on the international math examination where we see 18% below Level 1 and only 28% at Level 1 from schools with 75% or more of the students receiving free or reduced lunches.
We know that students of color are disproportionately represented as unprepared for college-level work as illustrated by 2013 ACT results in testing on ability in the subjects of English, reading, math, and science:
- Asian students ready in all four subjects: 43%
- White students ready in all four subjects: 33%
- Hispanic students ready in all four subjects: 14%
- Black students ready in all four subjects: 5%
We know that youth from households in the highest income quartile complete college at a rate of 77% while those from the lowest quartile do so at the astonishingly low rate of 9%.
We know that in 2012, almost 31% of the American population had earned a bachelor degree, including nearly 52% of Asians, but only 14.5% of Hispanics, 21.4% of Blacks, and 34.5% of Whites.
We know that high-achieving lower-income students drop out of high school or do not graduate on time at a rate twice that of their higher-income peers – 8% versus 4%.
We know that median weekly pay rises by educational attainment with people completing less than high school earning $472 per week; with a high school diploma $651 per week; with some college $727 per week; with a bachelor’s degree $1108 per week.
Education is often positioned as the cure for all ailing a society, and there is no disagreement that it serves as a catalyst for human growth. For all the worth it provides, it is not enough to continue viewing education as only a one-way pipeline. As with any system, its outcomes or end results are only as good as what is introduced into its processes. Today, the task is not only creating a better system that has the capability to elevate all students, but also developing a more just surrounding social-economic framework in which more equally-benefited students can enter it in the first place.
We know this is all connected, and we know that this cycle which segregates opportunity and progress, sans intervention, will stagnate and sentence additional generations to further intellectual, educational and economic degradation.
Is the debate finally over? It should be.