Wednesday, July 8, 2020
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College readiness fair at Neuqua Valley HS

The DuPage County (Ill.) NAACP Youth Works Program hosted its second annual college readiness fair at Neuqua Valley High School in Naperville Saturday, entitled “Building Leaders That Build Communities,” the Naperville Sun reported. More than 500 people attended the event from several high schools in the county.

“We’re trying to get as much information as we can about scholarships, and applications, and everything else we need to know,” the Sun quoted one high school junior’s mom as saying, adding that she hopes to see her son studying at USC two years from now.

From the descriptions, it was one big pep talk, especially directed at African-American and Hispanic students, encouraging them to work hard in a field of study that interests them, despite the high level attention schools have to pay to math, science, and English right now: Dream big, and do whatever they have to do in order to empower those dreams, the message seemed to be.

Tomi Johnson, one of the presenters, advised students who wanted to go to college to organize early, bring as “dynamic” a list of interests and accomplishments to the application process as they can, and think carefully about where their interests, talents and passions lie, the article said.

Since the NAACP sponsored the fair and the turnout was spectacular, at least compared to last year, school administrators in attendance took home a message of their own.

Kathy Birkett, the superintendent for Indian Prairie Community Unit School District 204, which includes Neuqua Valley, said one of six overall goals in the district is to close the achievement gap that has existed for several years between students who are white or Asian and those who are African-American or Hispanic.

“A big piece of it is taking a look at the systems that are getting in the way,” the paper quoted her as saying.

Valley View School District 365U Superintendent James Mitchem (pictured), who is African-American, said, “I think sometimes people are blinded by their privilege, and they don’t really see how they are marginalizing other people. Our kids enter the system as kindergartners, and they find out very quickly that we’re not valued.”

Life’s important lessons are learned in kindergarten

I believe Dr Mitchem hits this nail on the head. The achievement gap, which is real, between races in terms of academic achievement is not a function of race itself; it’s a function of our attitudes about race.

If any kindergartner, of any race, got the message from peers or, especially, from adults at a school that he wasn’t valued, that kid would become discouraged, which would bog down any attempt to educate him. But encourage him from an early age and tell him that what he’s interested in is important in terms of helping him grow into a valued member of society, and the sky’s the limit—or maybe the White House.

The achievement gap, in this way, fuels itself: kids get discouraged and don’t put in a good effort to learn when they’re young, they fall behind and receive further messages from the system and their more accomplished peers that say they have a propensity to fail, which discourages them some more, which leads to further failures, and so on, and so on.

A few studies, released in the last year, say the poor-affluent achievement gap is more significant than the black-white achievement gap. It’s bigger and more important for us to deal with.

“We have moved from a society in the 1950s and 1960s, in which race was more consequential than family income, to one today in which family income appears more determinative of educational success than race,” said Sean Reardon of Stanford University, quoted in the New York Times. He found the gap in standardized test scores between affluent and low-income students had grown by about 40 percent since the 1960s and is now double the testing gap between races.

The gap between the rich and poor in America is also widening with respect to college completion rates. The gap increased by 4 percent for low-income cohorts born around 1980 relative to those born in the early 1960s but by 18 percent for corresponding cohorts who grew up in high-income families, Martha J Bailey and Susan M Dynarski found in a December 2011 study for the National Bureau for Economic Research.

Well, first of all, the black-white achievement gap still exists in general, and second, it is often closely related to the poor-affluent achievement gap, at least in several regions of the US. We know, for example, that in a 2002 study out of the University of Michigan, 34 percent of black children and 29 percent of Hispanic children were in the lowest quintile of socioeconomic status, compared with only 9 percent of white children. However, cognitive skills are much less closely related to race or ethnicity after accounting for socioeconomic status.

As we reported earlier this month, though, we need to be careful not to let our personal biases, on either side of the school improvement debate, cause us to send messages to kids of color that they will most assuredly fail or that not putting forth effort is acceptable given their circumstances. That is, we can’t tell them, as Michelle Rhee and other corporate reformers would say, that their poverty and other problems aren’t real. And, we can’t excuse bad behavior, lack of trying, and so on, because of our compassion for their circumstances.

Kids come into the world color blind. They only know the world they inhabit, yet they eventually have to succeed in the same world that belongs to all of us adults. In order to do that, they have to be positive about who they are and about their relationship to others, and they have to look on their own circumstances with a positive attitude and an interest in understanding the world and helping themselves and others.

Some other factors* associated with race from the 2002 study, besides socioeconomic status:

  • Family structure: Although 15% of white children live with only one parent, 27% of Hispanic and 54% of black children live in single-parent homes. Similarly, 48% of families in the lowest SES quintile are headed by a single parent, compared to only 10% of families in the highest quintile.
  • Family educational expectations, access to quality child care, security of having food available, home reading, computer use, and television habits, although these factors don’t seem to have as large an effect on academic achievement as socioeconomic status does.
  • School quality, such as higher-achieving peers, more school resources, more qualified teachers, more positive teacher attitudes, and better neighborhood or school conditions.

The Naperville Sun quoted Dan Bridges, newly appointed superintendent in Naperville Unit District 203, as acknowledging the school system was more diverse than it had ever been. He said the system needs “to understand who we are,” which involves paying less attention to past achievements and focusing on future objectives instead, the Sun reported.

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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  1. * Please note that the trends I reported are accurate, but there is some discrepancy about the exact numbers for 2002.

    Updates that came during the 2010 Census … In the US, 24% of white children live with one parent (21% in Illinois), 41% of Hispanic children live with one parent (36% in Illinois), and 66% of African-American children live with one parent (74% in Illinois). As you can see, these numbers are increasing.

    Also, we note a discrepancy with the 2002 study cited above. The Annie E Casey Foundation says that for 2002, the percent of children living in single-parent homes was higher in all cases nationally, although no data are reported for Illinois: 22% white, 35% Hispanic, and 64% African-American. The numbers are still increasing, just not at quite the same rate.

    Children living in poverty (PDF) … 13% white, 32% Hispanic, 38% African-American.

    Also, from the US Department of Agriculture, regarding the second bullet, specifically about hungry kids, the number of food-insecure households increased by over 4 million nationally from 2007 to 2008 (think “recession”) to reach 17.1 million. In 2008, 10.7% of white households were food insecure, but 25.7% of black households were in this condition.

    Hunger is a problem in itself, but we know children growing up in food-insecure households, where access to sufficient food is not reliable, are more likely to be in poor physical and psychological health, have more behavioral problems, and do worse in school.

  2. Some data from the PISA given internationally in 2009:

    Average score, reading literacy (US scores disaggregated):

    [United States, Asian students 541]
    Korea 539
    Finland 536
    [United States, white students 525]
    Canada 524
    New Zealand 521
    Japan 520
    Australia 515
    Netherlands 508
    Belgium 506
    Norway 503
    Estonia 501
    Switzerland 501
    Poland 500
    Iceland 500
    United States (overall) 500
    Sweden 497
    Germany 497
    Ireland 496
    France 496
    Denmark 495
    United Kingdom 494
    Hungary 494
    OECD average 493
    Portugal 489
    Italy 486
    Slovenia 483
    Greece 483
    Spain 481
    Czech Republic 478
    Slovak Republic 477
    Israel 474
    Luxembourg 472
    Austria 470
    [United States, Hispanic students 466]
    Turkey 464
    Chile 449
    [United States, black students 441]
    Mexico 425

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