Achievement gap is America's problem
By Peter T. Tomaras
Cheryl Brown Henderson, keynoter at this year's MLK Jr., Celebration said: "The achievement gap is real ... students don't get the message that education is important ... families need to be sure they are raising teachable children ... there are social issues that need to be addressed first."
Nothing about our struggling nation concerns me more than this gap, which virtually condemns far too many economically disadvantaged young people — primarily African-American — to poverty and prison. High school dropouts become our lost generations. A diploma can be the ticket out of the bottom fifth of society — the window to career training, employment or higher education. Everyone preaches this, yet too many black youths abandon school, rejecting self-improvement.
Is it our schools? Our families? Yes, and yes. Dysfunctional families that fail to raise Ms. Henderson's "teachable children" are the first disaster. A 2012 Heritage Foundation study found that 72 percent of African-American children and 53 percent of Latino children are born to single-parent homes, where absent fathers are inadequately replaced by welfare benefits.
These children are far less likely to become educated and self-supporting, and three times more likely to be jailed.
The study suggests that America is becoming a two-caste society, with marriage and education the dividing line — a huge social issue to be addressed. One prudent step would be for government to curtail the disincentives to marriage that permeate the welfare system. Government should be the safety net for the disabled and the destitute, not the enabler of unwarranted dependency.
Economics and sociology are inextricably entwined. As an economist, I know that income redistribution fails: despite $20+ trillion spent on welfare over the past half-century, the poverty rate for non-married African-American families is five times that of married black families.
Not being a sociologist, I struggle to explain why the adults in too many disadvantaged families lack the commitment to impose the foundational behaviors and discipline at home that reinforce K-12 education as the path to opportunity.
The failure to instill in their children, as innately capable as any, the attitude and desire to be teachable, results in the undisciplined behavior and desultory effort that lead to suspensions, failing grades, and dropouts.
I honor teachers, nearly all of whom are caring and devoted to teaching. But when parents fail to engender appreciation for books and learning, disrespectful kids hamper the earnest endeavors of teachers.
An Oregon teacher wrote New York Times correspondent Tom Friedman that she used to have one or two kids in each class who wouldn't do anything. Today she has 10-15. Few kids today could pass her exams from the 1980s.
"We are dumbing down our classes," she wrote; "... one day all a kid will need to pass is a blood pressure."
What becomes of young men who resist learning, lest their peers sneer at them? Dropouts have zero prospects for legitimate employment enabling them to support families and become contributors to society. Gangs become their aspiration groups, crime their only income source. Many accept incarcerations as life's norm and — I am told — do not expect to live past 30, anyway. How tragic is this?
So, do we throw up our hands and blame this negativity on slavery, 150 years after Lincoln's Proclamation and a half-century after King urged Black Americans to envision a future of equality?
Sadly, too many disadvantaged kids, unable to see escape from their circumstances, stop trying. Smart phones and iPods cannot replace study skills and effort. Somehow, men and women of nonpoliticized vision must lead parents and children out of today's cultural morass of dependency, hopelessness, and victimhood.
Children are creatures of their environment, and will think, speak and act as they learn at home. If we cannot rebuild traditional families in low-income communities, can we persuade single parents to arm their children with positive goals? Single or not, educated or not, parents must engender selfesteem by demonstrating belief in their children's abilities.
Too many students arrive at Parkland with no sense of worth; that empowering seed must be sown by parents, then nurtured by teachers. Parents must stay involved, must set expectations, praise improvements, and never tolerate negative behaviors.
Now, our schools: government's stubborn opposition to charter schools and promotion of useless pre-K programs are counter-productive. Too many curriculum cooks have spoiled the broth, because kids are not learning crucial language skills.
Math and science are great for those with aptitude, but reading and English are paramount.
At Parkland, most of my students — black or white — could not write at 10th-grade level. Only half of high school graduates in 2005 could read to ACT benchmarks. Capable reading teaches good writing, opens minds to literature and history, even improves elocution — the verbal English essential to getting hired. Nothing builds confidence and lifts grades like competent reading comprehension and able writing.
Illinois is one of 45 states that will adopt Common Core State Standards, promulgated by the National Governors Association. These fix universal standards for both achievement and assessment, and set requirements for English language arts, literacy in history, social studies and science. For students who cannot meet requirements, most districts have alternatives for credit recovery like Champaign's Novak Academy.
Still, the diploma or GED alone may fall short. More emphasis must be placed on preparing students for career paths, less on increasingly unaffordable baccalaureate degrees. Community colleges like Parkland offer superb associate degree programs that meet employer needs. More corporations should launch the internships featured on "60 Minutes" (Jan. 26) to train young people for their unfilled jobs. Meanwhile, this community has countless programs to help youngsters with socialization, education and job skills: from the government-sponsored like Urbana and Parkland Adult Education and the Champaign Consortium, to organizations like the Don Moyer Boys & Girls Club, the Champaign Library Foundation's "Ready Set Read!" initiative, and The Reading Group, as well as numerous mentoring and churchbased initiatives. Few excuses are valid.
The poor will indeed be always with us, but 20 percent do emerge from poverty. Cannot this nation — with parents coaching hard work and personal initiative — boost that to 40, someday 60 percent?
Not your problem? Sorry, it's America's problem, and if we truly want to stop wasting so much youthful potential, Americans of all social strata must proactively encourage intact families and improved schools, especially in our metropolitan inner cities. Otherwise, America's inexorable decline will continue.
Peter T. Tomaras is a Champaign-based hotel consultant and writer.