On August 18, 2011 a panel of experts discussed the state of black education in the U.S. at the Edgartown Whaling Church, in Edgartown, MA. The topic of the evening was Separate But Unequal: Closing the Education Gap. The online publication, the Vineyard Gazette, ran an article written by Mike Seccombe summarizing the discussion entitled Poverty and Failure of Education System Weigh on Black Students. I learned about it from Diane Ravich’s tweet.
Professor Henry Louis (Skip) Gates and the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute convened the panel of experts for African and African American Research. The panel members included Angel Harris, an Associate Professor of Sociology and African America Studies at Princeton; Diane Ravich, Research Professor of Education at New York University and a senior figure in education under both the first President Bush and President Clinton; James Comer, Professor of Child Psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine; Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of the Washington, D.C. public school system; and Lawrence D. Bobo, the W.E.B. Du Bois professor of Social Sciences at Harvard.
Each panel member shared views as to why education is failing black students, and all of them made valid points even though there was disagreement at times. However, there was consensus that poverty plays a major role. In fact, Dr. Bobo stated that there wasn’t a way to fix the schools without fixing that.
Having taught in the Mississippi Delta for several years, I can attest to the role poverty plays in student achievement. Before the federal government implemented the free and reduced breakfast program, I would buy peanut butter and crackers, called nabs in Mississippi, and cartons of milk for my remedial reading students to have when they got to school in the morning. For many of them, the last time they had eaten was at lunch the day before. Knowing that no child can learn when basic needs have not been met, having food for them was critical to their success in learning how to read. The free breakfast and lunch legislation has had far reaching effects and has ensured that America’s school children have at least two good meals a day. I remember lying awake at night, however, wondering what my kids had to eat during the weekends and holidays.
I have attached two scatter plots—one depicting the correlation between poverty and literacy achievement and the other between poverty and math achievement, both from the state of Arkansas. FAR stands for free and reduced meals for students. These charts illustrate that as socio-economic levels of the student population decrease, so do achievement levels. Each state is required to publish these correlations, and I am confident the findings are similar.
Poverty impacts the lives of children in so many other ways. Providing a couple of meals a day does not solve the other problems caused by it. Poverty and its consequences must first be acknowledged before it can be addressed if this country really wants to improve education.
Unfortunately, I see the country moving away from efforts designed to help move people out of poverty. The elections of 2012 are going to set the tone for how this country responds to the basic needs of it citizenry, so now is the time to begin working for legislation that will tackle the issue of poverty, which will impact the effectiveness of our schools and society as a whole.