Race, poverty, and education

I just came across a really disturbing article about race and the education gap.  Of course there’s a huge correlation between race and poverty in this country– and that explains away a lot of the racial gaps we see.  It’s comforting to think that if we can just do more about poverty we can also solve our racial gaps.  Alas, it is not so simple:

Only 12 percent of black fourth-grade boys are proficient in reading, compared with 38 percent of white boys, and only 12 percent of black eighth-grade boys are proficient in math, compared with 44 percent of white boys.

Okay,  problem, of course.  But we can just explain that away by poverty and associated poor schools–right?  Alas, not so:

Poverty alone does not seem to explain the differences: poor white boys do just as well as African-American boys who do not live in poverty, measured by whether they qualify for subsidized school lunches.

So, what exactly is the problem then?  As the article points out, this makes for some difficult public conversations about race that our country does not like to have:

“There’s accumulating evidence that there are racial differences in what kids experience before the first day of kindergarten,” said Ronald Ferguson, director of the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard. “They have to do with a lot of sociological and historical forces. In order to address those, we have to be able to have conversations that people are unwilling to have.”

Those include “conversations about early childhood parenting practices,” Dr. Ferguson said. “The activities that parents conduct with their 2-, 3- and 4-year-olds. How much we talk to them, the ways we talk to them, the ways we enforce discipline, the ways we encourage them to think and develop a sense of autonomy.”

Whatever is going on here, we as a society need to do our best to figure it out and address it.  There’s the obvious issues of equality, but even more so, it is just a huge waste of the potential of so many of our citizens when their racial/ethnic group seems to have such a bearing on their ultimate achievement.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

2 Responses to Race, poverty, and education

  1. MIke Barr says:

    This isn’t really new or surprising. But ask Bill Cosby what happens if you call attention to the impact that individual behavior and life choices have on outcomes. The problem is, this discussion too easily turns into competing all-or-nothing positions: the “see, it’s the person, not society” argument and the opposing “you’re blaming the victim and racist too boot” argument. Sadly, the truth is messier and makes people on both sides squirm because they have to acknowledge that it’s the person and the environment (i.e., social, historical, cultural, economic).

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