Eliminate Gross Disparities Under Your Control

by Kati Haycock

Ispent a few hours recently with a group of high school juniors in Newark, N.J. I had been invited up to share with them some data from our organization’s recently released report, "Education Watch."

The numbers paint a disturbing portrait of achievement patterns among minority and low-income youth. The data suggest that by the time the students are high school seniors, the average minority or poor student is three to four years behind other students. The data suggest, too, that after more than two decades of progress in narrowing the gap, it actually is growing once again.

As I flew out of Washington to attend the meeting, I confess I was worried about how this mostly African American student group would respond to that data. Would they conclude, as have so many other Americans, that poor and minority youngsters simply don’t have the same abilities as other youngsters? Would they agree with the prominent child advocates who suggest that poverty has left many students too damaged to learn? Would they simply throw in the towel and conclude, as researchers suggest, that high achievement is a "white thing"?

I needn’t have worried. The Newark teen-agers were clear and unequivocal: youngsters like them aren’t achieving at high levels because they are not being taught at high levels. "Sure," they said, "things like poverty and single-parent families matter. But what matters more is that our teachers don’t teach us anything."

Obscene Conditions

Their stories were enough to tear at the soul of even those of us who consider ourselves nearly shock-proof. They told of whole schools without a single computer, entire school buildings with not a single working lavatory, classrooms that have gone without textbooks for five months. But most of all, they told stories of uninterested administrators, poorly prepared teachers, watered-down curriculum and expectations that were obscenely low.

One by one, these students told stories of their own efforts to fill in the voids in their education. One girl, faced with teachers who never assigned books than ran more than 30 pages, related how she went to the library each week in search of the "200+ page" books she believed she needed to read.

While I admired this child for the remarkable effort she was making, I couldn’t help but reflect on how much more she would get out of those books if she were guided through them by the same knowledgeable teachers that guide youngsters in the best suburban classrooms.

I also couldn’t help but think about these youngsters’ counterparts in urban classrooms across the country. My staff and I have been spending a lot of time in such classrooms over the last several years. And we have come away from that experience deeply troubled. Troubled, yes, about the terrible resource disparities chronicled so vividly by Jonathan Kozol. But even more deeply troubled by another set of inequities in our educational system—inequities in what we teach to whom and in who does the teaching. This set of inequities—unlike the resource inequities between rich and poor districts—entirely within our control to correct.

Inequitable Practices

I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t join Kozol and others in fighting harder to eliminate the gross revenue disparities within American education. And I’m not suggesting we abandon Marian Wright Edelman in the fight to eliminate the scourge of child poverty in this very rich nation of ours. Goodness knows that, both in my time at the Children’s Defense Fund and since, I have spoken out on these issues, fought these fights on Capitol Hill, and will continue to do so.

But the absence of equal resources for schools or adequate support for families must not prevent those of us who are educators from eliminating the gross inequities that we bring about by assigning our least-qualified teachers to the neediest students, by tolerating shoddy practice, by steering students to curricular "choices" that we know are inferior, and in a thousand other ways miseducating the children of the poor.

These practices may be most pronounced in underfunded urban school systems, where middle school children seem to get more coloring assignments than mathematics assignments and where high school students almost never are asked to write more than a paragraph or two.

Disparate Opportunities

The inequities are by no means limited to cities. Wherever more than a handful of poor children and children of color live, we somehow manage to group them together—into their own schools, districts, or classrooms—and then invest less in them than we do in other children.

Why is it, for example, that more than two-thirds of children with high socioeconomic status are placed in the college track, while only about one-quarter of low-SES children are so placed? Why is it that 86 percent of the science teachers in mostly white schools are fully certified in science, but only 54 percent of the science teachers in mostly minority schools are? Why do we assign our best-educated teachers to gifted children who will learn no matter what and our least-educated teachers to children who are most dependent on teachers to learn?

When 80 percent of the children in an urban school report they want to attend a four-year college, why do we blame it on them when only 15 percent are programmed into a full college-prep sequence? And why do we assign so damn much coloring? Shouldn’t all of this constitute education malpractice?

For us to allow these inequities to continue is simply immoral. We know that our children would perform at higher levels if they were taught at high levels. We could teach to high levels if we had the will and the courage to do so.

The Only Chance

So what would this child advocate say to every principal and superintendent in the country if she had the chance? I would tell them what a young Southern California girl—a girl who grew up in the most deplorable circumstances imaginable—told me when I asked her what young people like her needed most. "Teach me," she said. "Give me the best possible education you can. I need to learn everything the rich white kids in the suburbs learn and more because I want to be somebody."

What this young girl understood—what the Newark teen-agers understood—is what we educators too often forget. And that is that we are the only chance that youngsters like this have to live their lives any place but on the margins of our society. Social workers can’t do that. Health care workers can’t do that. Child care providers can’t do that.

That is why what educators do is more important to the future of this country than anything else. And why it is never wrong to expect more, to challenge more, to push more of your students to the highest possible levels—no matter how poor, how black, or how linguistically challenged.

Kati Haycock is director, The Education Trust, Washington, D.C.