Why closing the achievement gap is more important then ever

[As delivered to the Portland Pearl Rotary Club (6/28/11) with some minor changes]

There’s an achievement gap in this country, and we’re at a stalemate with it. In Portland Public Schools, 80% of white students are on track to graduate, but only 42% of black students in Portland are. While efforts have been proposed, and talked about on how to close the achievement gap, not too many public school districts are executing them because of the ensuing budget cuts that plague every state one way or another due to the debt this country has gotten itself in. Oregon, is a little over 1 billion dollars short in funding education at the level that it should be, and no doubt other states are facing similar budget shortfalls. But how does the achievement gap in education between minorities (Hispanic + African Americans) and white students, which in my city come into play with our economic “downturn”?

Well let’s first take a look at the economic gap that exists in my county, which houses Portland Public Schools, Multnomah County in Portland, Oregon. According to a Portland State University study on the economic gap between white and communities of color, the average white household in Multnomah earns $53,149 dollars, while the average community of color household earns $37,516. That’s a $15,633 difference. For married couple families, that gap is even bigger–The white statistic being $81,636, and the communities of color $53,464. $28,172 difference. For individuals, the average white person in Multnomah makes $33,095 and the average minority makes $16,635. Basically the difference is one makes minimum wage while the other makes a livable one.

Do you think the achievement gap in education correlates with these statistics?

I have to disagree with Republicans on refusing to rise the debt ceiling; and instead insisting that we cut, cut, and cut more social services to supposedly help the economy. In fact, when we’ve done that in the past it’s had adverse effects; cutting daycare for single, low-income moms means they have to either stay at home and live off welfare, or find a job and pay for daycare, which can cost as much as $500 a month in some states. For some, that’s half their salary, and they have little to spend on anything else. This means that she’ll probably have to live in a low-income neighborhood where cheap rent is available, which is more likely to be gang-ridden. And if she’s an African American woman, the chances of her mobilizing upwards, getting promoted in her job, is less than if she was a white man. If she wants to increase those chances, she could go to college and get a degree, but she’ll have to deal with student loans which could put her in debt (more than she probably already is in).

If we haven’t always looked at cutting spending in times of economic downturns, and instead of looked at increasing revenue by investing more in secotrs where we’re sure to get gains, then maybe this single mom’s kids have a chance of leaving this cycle of poverty. Imagine if we invested in education, and more specifically, toward closing the achievement gap between white, Latino and African American students, we could help our minority population mobilize up the economic ladder. According to one study, if we had focused on closing the gap 20 years ago, our GDP would be upwards of 10% higher than it is today, because that would mean less spending on social services, and higher incomes for minorities (thus more demand for goods). So when our state, and the country talks about relieving the budget crisis by making spending cuts, they’re wrong.

But why isn’t closing the achievement gap a priority in this country? Two problems. One, under 10% of our representatives in Congress are black, and under 5% Hispanic, which doesn’t reflect the national average. Nonetheless, our schools and our cities are extremely segregated (Look at Portland and Chicago) so it’s an issue most people can simply ignore. I don’t believe it’s an issue we can ignore any longer. The money we invest in our prisons is beyond what we spend on our schools, and this is the result of the decision not to invest more in our education 20 years ago. The crime rate in Chicago has risen, with tens of Chicago youth dying every year due to gang violence, and racism more exposed now with an open outcry against our first African American President. Because, he’s black.

One reason why I talk about the achievement gap in relation to the economy is because I believe we have the answers to closing the gap. But we’re not willing to invest in those answers. There are schools out there that have reversed the “destinies” of thousands of inner city students, and have put them on a pathway of success. Those schools include KIPP Charter in Los Angeles, Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone, and Self Enhancement Incorporated here in Portland. SEI is a program that starts with students in Elementary and follows them through high school, making sure their parents are involved with their extra social, academic, and economic obstacles they face. What they’re doing works. Only 49% of African American students in Portland graduate from high school. But in SEI, that number is 100%. Tony Hopson, the President of SEI emailed the school board a few months ago to remind us of SEI’s success, and that he wants to expand SEI to the entire Jefferson High School, which is predominantly low-income and black. But he can’t do that without the school district’s financial help–which they politely rejected because “they couldn’t afford to”. Well, if we know that if we addressed the issue of the achievement gap years ago, that our GDP could potentially have been $1-2 trillion dollars higher, then can we really afford not to invest in closing the gap?

The achievement gap exists today, and because of that many students cannot share in the American Dream. For a good reason: our society has done everything to insure these minorities stay locked up in their cycle of poverty. Ever since NO Child Left Behind, low-income schools teach these students on how to become workers, and laborers, not leaders. Little creativity. No discussions. Teaching to the test so they aren’t labelled as a “failing” school under NCLB. Schools that have to fight to get rid of the label are uninteresting, and boring. Nonetheless, at a young age these students learn from their parents that they aren’t welcome in society. That’s why they’re less likely to get a promotion. Less likely to get the job. Less likely to get the interview in the first place. They aren’t respected. They’re looked at as if they are criminals when they come into “our” society. We hold tighter onto our purses. Treat them different if they walk into a Nordstrom than a white kid. We don’t rent them apartments or housing because it will “bring down the value”. College is unaffordable. A career out of reach. For many they believe that their best luck of leaving poverty is making it big in the entertainment industry. And you don’t need a high school degree for that.

The schools that have closed the achievement gap have done so because they have instilled hope in these students. They tell them that yes, you are less likely to succeed because of institutional racism. But that makes it even more important that you do. So it’s easier for your little brother, your son, your grandson, to achieve the American Dream, because you will have.

So I ask you to help me close the achievement gap. Make this not just a black issue, or a Hispanic or low-income issue, but everyone’s issue because it’s a social injustice to continue to allow the gap to widen next time your school district is floating around proposals, don’t just ask if it will be beneficial for your child, but for the kid across the river too. Ask your representatives why we’re fighting 2 wars (or was it 3?) in the Middle East when we haven’t finished our war on poverty here at home, which kills more Americans than jihadist have. Let them know that you know a way to increase this country’s GDP by 10%–and it’s as simple as starting by investing in programs like SEI.

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