In the current education reform wars, poverty is often used as a rationale for poor student performance. Indeed, as discussed in the NY Times:
Data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress show that more than 40 percent of the variation in average reading scores and 46 percent of the variation in average math scores across states is associated with variation in child poverty rates.
But the conversation simply cannot end there and serve as an excuse not to provide an appropriate education to children who are impoverished. Excuses based on poverty are easily translated into excuses for failing to properly educate racial minorities given the much higher rates of poverty which African-Americans and Latinos suffer from as compared to whites.
A quick look at the data reveals shocking disparities between state level achievement and the achievement of minority groups, especially those concentrated in urban districts. In Milwaukee, for example, the 10th grade reading performance data shows that only 8.8% of African-American students in Milwaukee were reading beyond the basic level, as compared to 44.1 % of white students who read at that level statewide. Other large districts in Wisconsin, with high minority populations, reveal academic achievement disparities as well.
In addition to academic achievement disparities, there are also discipline disparities. Indeed, the disparities are so bad in Seattle that the US Dept. of Justice launched an investigation of the suspension and expulsion rates there, which are 3 times higher for African-American students compared to white students.
Graduation rates are similarly disturbing. While Milwaukee has shown some improvement, its latest data shows only 66.2% of its high school students graduating, compared to an 87.5% statewide graduation rate.
This racism of low expectations revealed itself during the class action trial in Jamie S. v. Milwaukee Public Schools, which helped to create some of the recent progress in MPS. Among the methods the school district used to try to defend itself was to try to show that the students we claimed were harmed, MPS suggested had succeeded. Indeed, one of the plaintiffs graduated and MPS trumpeted that fact.
On cross examination, however, my co-counsel, Monica Murphy, pressed the point with his educators that he graduated with only an 6th grade reading level. The educators simply did not understand her concern. In fact, what became crystal clear was that the mere fact that this student had graduated made him a success in his educators’ minds, regardless of his inability to read sufficiently well to succeed in his adult life. When Monica finished her cross examination, I whispered to her,
You have just elicited testimony on the racism of low expectations.
As long as educators and policy makers believe that graduating an African-American student with an 8th grade reading level is a success, then we will never get beyond the current achievement gap between the races in this country. Regardless of which side of the education reform debate one supports, everyone should agree that while poverty, and therefore race, may impact on a child’s performance, the answer is not to accept those horrible results. The answer is to work harder to change them, as has been done in Union City, New Jersey.