Race + Poverty = How You're Treated in American Education

by Kelly Amis

These days, it has become totally acceptable for education leaders to blame poverty for our nation's achievement gap; to in effect say that all those kids can't learn in school because they're hungry, their families are dysfunctional, they are so far behind when they start Kindergarten that there's just no catching up, etc. These sweeping generalizations are very effective in removing all blame from the school system and preventing education reform efforts that could ensure that EVERY child receives the same quality of schools and teachers that wealthy students enjoy.

One way to understand this shameful but currently effective tactic is to consider it in light of our nation's race-based achievement gap. Poverty is proven to be a predictor of how students will fare in school,* but so is race. Even If we take family income out of the equation, there remains an achievement gap between black and white students in America. You don't hear "public education supporters" blaming race on the achievement gap, however. They wouldn't get away with it because it is so blatantly wrong and, well, racist. We only have to look at history to understand how long African-Americans in particular have had to fight to be educated (at all) in our country, and you only have to look at schools that have successfully educated black students (including low-income black students) to know that it's, of course, possible.

Schools are not the only places where black Americans are treated with various biases, but they are one of them. How do we know this? Well, we know that when given access to great schools that believe in them, black students soar. Of course. All students, given great schools, do better than in schools that allow, accept and perpetuate failure, which sadly still characterizes way too many American schools especially those serving urban, minority youth. Until we have ensured that EVERY school and classroom is staffed by effective, caring and capable people, we do not have any right to use poverty as an excuse for the achievement gap (in essence blaming the students for their low achievement). Again, those who pound their fists about poverty being the culprit would not dare to do the same about race. But both are predictors of student achievement today in America.

I've heard pundits say that "education reformers don't want to talk about poverty" (Diane Ravitch said this recently on NPR. I almost drove off the road). I'd say that everyone I know who is passionate about education reform is motivated by the desire to eradicate poverty. I'll talk about it, that's for sure. If education can't break cycles of poverty, what can? The difference I see is using poverty as an excuse to do nothing to improve schools vs. a motivator to transform the system so that someday, any kid can walk into any school and receive a great education.

My thoughts today were sparked by this great article by Charles Blow, Defining Moments and Crystal Stairs, which is not about education but about anti-black bias. As a nation, we have not rid ourselves of anti-black bias; this "history" is still happening today. And it is reflected in education, in my opinion, on the way we allow schools and classrooms serving black students to fail year after year but then blame their lower achievement on poverty (but..shhhhh.....not their race. Just ignore that).

Comments welcome.

*This is not a surprise; in America, your family income level effectively determines where you will go to school. This could be changed and we could arrive at new era in which poverty does NOT predict how a student will perform in school.