The Learning Gap...Poverty-Consequence?

An insightful and thought-provoking column regarding the “education gap” by Marty Solomon, former University of Kentucky professor, appeared in the Lexington Herald-Leader, Lexington, Ky., of 29 June. The thrust of his piece had to do with the irreversibleness of the gap in learning among public-school students that exists because of the financial factor, i.e., that students from poor backgrounds achieve at far lower levels than those from more affluent ones and will continue to do so.

Solomon mentions a number of reasons for this circumstance that accrue to the financial aspects affecting the family of the student and consequently the student himself, such as the need for poor parents to work at multiple jobs, thus depriving the child of their time for both encouraging him to study and helping him academically, although many such parents lack the background to be of much help academically. Solomon does not mention that the gap is probably most recognizable as obtaining between African-American students and those of other races, especially those of whites and Asians.

Solomon correctly points out the fact that taking teachers from the best schools in affluent areas and inserting them in the worst schools in the poor areas would not significantly address the problem. He essentially makes his entire case on the basis of rich vis-à-vis poor. There is significant validity to this claim, though it doesn’t go far enough in explaining the problem. In Kentucky, the futility of this approach (placing the entire burden on the educator) was seen a few years ago in the legislature’s law-rescinding deletion of the eight Regional Centers staffed by top educators designed and mandated as part of the Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990 in an effort to provide top-quality help for poor schools throughout the state. Notwithstanding state financial constraints, the centers would have been continued if they had been successful. The act also provided for significant monetary “teacher rewards” when student scores improved. The predictable outcome was that both administrators and teachers in a number of systems simply cheated on the statistics, knowing full well they would never earn the rewards because they were in financially/sociologically-deprived areas. This law was changed…a disgrace and an insult to teachers, in the first place.

Feeding into the rich/poor issue – and actually far more significant as a reason for the gap – is the sociological side of the problem. This actually translates into the diverse approaches to “family” within ethnic groups, the primary premise being that the nuclear family – father, mother, their biological children – is best suited as the vehicle guaranteeing success in education for the children. Seventy percent of births in the black community are illegitimate, i.e., with no documented father, the result being the “single-parent household” from the get-go. This household is most often poor, for obvious reasons, and reeks of the neglect inherent in particularly a father’s abrogation of his natural responsibilities as provider, disciplinarian, encourager, etc. The mother is often promiscuous, bears other illegitimate children, and subsequently neglects her responsibilities, as well, even though she may work hard.

In 1960, the rate of illegitimacy among blacks was 23.6% of births, meaning that more than 75% of black families could be assumed to be headed by a man and wife. Now, that illegitimacy rate is 70%, probably much higher in places like New Orleans, the logical conclusion being that currently only 30% of black families or fewer are headed by both parents. Whites have also gotten into the act, with illegitimacy rates increasing from 3 percent in 1960 to 28.5% in 2002 and probably 30% by now, for a probable increase of 900%. Besides connoting a perverse lifestyle, these figures explain in large part why millions of youngsters are damned educationally and economically. They lack the most important kind of support – that of the family.

Solomon is right in asserting that educators shouldn’t hammer themselves – at least unduly – over the fact that poor youngsters do poorly in school. They can’t undo in six hours on 176 days a year the damage done by parents whose priorities 24/7 on 365 days a year are “self first,” the devil take the hindmost.

A model for thought – Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Born into abject poverty and abandoned by his father at age one and abandoned by his mother at age 7, he was sent to live with his grandfather, who, unlike in most cases, instilled the learning/work ethic into the boy. The rest is history. The big difference in his life had little to do with education/pedagogy per se, but with his support system. Solomon should have at least mentioned the sociological aspect, especially since it contributes directly to financial matters, which he sees as defining.