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Poverty Rate and the Achievement Gap

The data released by the Census Department on Sept. 16 are grim. The percentage of Americans living in poverty is the highest in 15 years, with children feeling the rise most acutely. The news has direct implications for reformers intent on narrowing the academic achievement gap and for states competing for the Race to the Top funds.

With one in five children affected - more than 15 million - and with little relief in sight, teachers will find their best efforts unlikely to be enough to turn around the worst schools. That's because most failing schools are disproportionately populated by blacks and Hispanics, the two racial groups most devastated by poverty. Yet the latest report should come as no surprise. According to UNICEF, the U.S. has long had the highest rate of childhood poverty in the industriaiized world. (Only Mexico scored worse, but I don't consider Mexico to be a rich country.)

The connection between childhood poverty and school performance is well documented. However, this link should not be taken to mean that poverty is destiny. The results of high-flying schools are evidence that in some cases the effects can be mitigated. The Harlem Children's Zone is the best example. By providing wraparound services for children from some of the most disadvantaged backgrounds, Geoffrey Canada has been able to post impressive results.

The question, however, is whether the Harlem Children's Zone and its variants are scalable and sustainable. What works in a few cases for a short time does not necessarily work in a country as large and diverse as the U.S. over a protracted period. There are 5,000 public schools that Education Secretary Arne Duncan has identified as failing. What is the likelihood that all of them can be turned around? Don't forget that advantaged children are not standing still in the interim. They continue to benefit from travel and other enriching learning experiences. As a result, the gap will persist.

Not to put too fine a point on this view, wealth in the U.S. is being increasingly concentrated in the upper 1 percent of the population. Between 1979 and 2007, for example, income for the bottom fifth of the country rose by only 16 percent. During the same period, however, for the top 1 percent income skyrocketed 281 percent. It's not just the poor who are hurting. The middle class is feeling the pain as well. This situation is a prescription for the creation of a Third World country. And we all know what that means for education.

Critics will maintain that this outlook is alarmist. But history has shown that ignoring or minimizing threats to equity is dangerous. No other advanced democracy in the world tolerates the disparities that the U.S. does. We can continue to persist in the delusion that competition and other market-based strategies are the ultimate solution for educational quality. By the time we wake up to reality, however, it will be too late to do much to remedy matters. Resentment eventually leads to outrage, which creates an ideal environment for demagogues.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.
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