What Would MLK Say About Today’s Achievement Gap in American Education?

I am flipping my days; I cooked yesterday and will write about education today!

Martin Luther King Jr. fought for the civil rights of all Americans in his day. In his day, African Americans were treated like second class citizen in their own country. In his day, African Americans suffered segregation in schools, restaurants, and at water fountains. Today, things are getting better. We have our first President of African American decent. We have our first openly gay mayor of a major city. Overt racism is frowned upon in most communities. However, civil rights for all have not been reached. I believe MLK would be very sad to see the state of education. I believe MLK would be crestfallen to see that today, in 2010, that the color of your skin (for the majority) STILL determines the quality of education you will receive.

The “achievement gap” is a buzz-word in the world of education. Essentially, the achievement gap refers to the gap in performance between students. Most commonly this gap is between those of a low-income socioeconomic status and those who would fall into the status of middle class or higher. Translation: minorities (low) and non-hispanic whites (middle and above). Certainly there are low-income white people and middle/upper class minorities. However, the overwhelming majority of people at the dumping end of the achievement gap are people of color. What would MLK think of that? Shouldn’t we be seeing progress? Shouldn’t all children, regardless of their economic background and color of their skin, have a right to receive an excellent education? It’s not happening.

I live in a state that has a minority-majority. The majority of student in New Mexico are Hispanic. Our state’s public school graduation rate is roughly 60%. In 2010, 60% of students in New Mexico graduate from HIGH SCHOOL! In a world where college graduates struggle to find jobs and often need more training, 60% of New Mexico high schoolers graduate! It’s a shame. The easy response is to blame the parents. They are not doing enough to help their kids. The easy response is to blame the schools. Teachers are not doing a good enough job in the classroom. Responses are easy, CHANGE is not quite so easy.

We can assume that parents who fall into a low-income status did not receive an adequate education themselves. Parents who are non-readers, lacking the fundamental skills to help their children with schoolwork, working hard to get an education for themselves to provide better for their families, working long hours to provide what they can to their families, or who do not simply see the value of a good education. It’s not fair to blame victims of the achievement gap for perpetuating that gap. We as a society need to help them, involve them, inspire them, just as we need to do with their children in school. Educators, politicians, community organizers, and families need to work together to stop the achievement gap.

I hear a lot of teachers blame the students for their failures. The reality of teaching is that sometimes we, the teachers, have to inspire the students to learn. We have to teach them to learn. We have to force them to learn. Children who grow up in a working class family at the age of 3 will have HALF the vocabulary of a child of a “professional” (I assume that means college-educated) parents. For children on Welfare, the numbers are even more staggering.

Here are some more facts about the achievement gap from Columbia\’s Teacher College

The Academic Achievement Gap: Facts & Figures

Published: 6/9/2005

The educational achievement gap in the United States exists in and out of the classroom, and extends from the earliest years  of childhood across the lifespan. The wealth of information documenting the gap is vast, but the following are some of the more telling statistics:

  • By age three, children of professionals have vocabularies that are nearly 50 percent greater than those of working class children, and twice as large as those of children whose families are on welfare.
  • By the end of fourth grade, African American, Latino, and poor students of all races are two years behind behind their wealthier, predominantly white peers in reading and math. By eighth grade, they have slipped three years behind, and by twelfth grade, four years behind.
  • Only one in 50 Hispanic and black 17-year-olds can read and gain information from specialized text (such as the science section of a newspaper) compared to about one in 12 white students
  • By the end of high school, black and Hispanic students’ reading and mathematics skills are roughly the same as those of white students in the eighth grade
  • African American students are three times more likely than white students to be placed in special education programs, and are half as likely to be in gifted programs in elementary and secondary schools.
  • Among 18- to 24-year olds, about 90 percent of whites have either completed high school or earned a GED.  Among blacks, the rate is 81 percent; among Hispanics, 63 percent. However, a much larger share of blacks earn GEDs than whites, and only about 50 percent of  black students earn regular diplomas, compared with about 75 percent of whites.
  • Black students are only about half as likely (and Hispanics about one-third as likely) as white students to earn a bachelor’s degree by age 29.
  • One in three African American males will be incarcerated in state or federal prison at some point during their lives, and the rate is significantly higher for black men who do not finish high school. For Hispanic males, the rate is one in six; for white males, one in 17
  • Homicide has been leading cause of death among African Americans aged 15 to 34 since 1978. The lifetime risk of violent death for young black males is one in 27, and for black females, one in 17. By contrast, one in 205 young white males and one in 496 young white females are murdered.

In addition, the following are some of the health-related disparities that contribute to – and reflect — the educational achievement gap:

  • Vision: A poor child’s difficulty in learning to read is often caused by vision problems.   Poor children have severe vision impairment at twice the normal rate.  One cause is watching excessive television, which can retard development of hand-eye coordination and depth perception. Forty-two percent of black fourth graders watch six or more hours of television a day, compared to 13 percent of whites.Fifty percent or more of minority and low-income children have vision problems that interfere with their academic work.
  • Medical care: Black pre-schoolers are one-third less likely than whites to get standard vaccinations – probably one reason why poor children lose 30 percent more days from school than non-poor children.One in every four children in Harlem suffers from asthma, a rate six times as great as that for all children.
  • Nutrition: Poor children have higher rates of anemia and more frequently fall below national averages in height and weight due to inferior nutrition.Low-income kindergartners whose height and weight are below normal for children their age tend to have lower test scores. Anemia affects cognitive ability; 8 percent of all children suffer from anemia, but 20 percent of black children do so.
  • Lead exposure: Low-income children have dangerously high blood levels at five times the rate of middle-class children. Lead dust exposure harms cognitive functioning.  High lead levels also contribute to hearing loss.

What would MLK think of education today? Are civil rights being met?


3 responses

  1. Hi,

    I clicked over to your blog via Jen Loves Kev to check out your Marc Jacobs “default outfit” dress, and then I realized that we live in the same city, and started to look around. I’m sure you were at work this morning and therefore didn’t hear it, but the KUNM Call-In show was about early childhood education this morning, in regards to the current state legislative session and its anticipated budget cuts. It was interesting. They don’t seem to have posted it online yet, but when they do you can find a podcast here: feed://kunm.org/podcast/subscribe/callin_show/

    Check out my blog if you’d like, I post about cooking, decorating and occasionally clothes.

  2. Oh, and in response to your question– I don’t know. I think Martin Luther King was pretty community oriented and would probably feel that children’s rights are being met by the school system, but not necessarily by their communities.

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