"Black children are the proxy for what ails American education in general," the late Congressman Augustus Hawkins (D-Calif.) said, "and so, as we fashion solutions which help black children, we fashion solutions which help all children."
It is hard to overlook the simple and sad reality that a disproportionate number of black and Latino children are being left behind educationally.
Poverty is the root of this first "achievement gap," and it begins to take hold well before kindergarten, greatly diminishing what families and their children can accomplish.
The poverty rates for black and Latino children greatly exceed those for whites. About 38 percent of black children are living in poverty, and 35 percent of Latino children do. Meanwhile, 12.4 percent of white children are living in poverty, according to the National Poverty Center.
That poverty, in turn, can affect what children achieve in the classroom. Social science tells us that children of poverty can start school with as much as a 30 million-word vocabulary "gap," compared with peers from families with greater economic and educational resources. Poverty shrinks hope for all too many young Americans, resulting in diminished lives and poorer health than those who are better off.
Unfortunately, our nation's schools don't do enough to level the playing field. The U.S. Department of Education reports that more than half of all black children in industrial states attend underfunded schools, where more than 90 percent of the students are of color. This is our reality -- 57 years after the U.S. Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision was supposed to end racial segregation in schools and provide equal access to educational opportunities.
But is money the only answer? More than $1 trillion has been spent to reduce the "opportunity gap" between white, black and Latino students in the United States. In his book The Social Animal, David Brooks writes "the United States spends enough on antipoverty programs to hand every person in poverty a check for $15,000 a year."
If money were the solution, then poverty should have ended long ago. But it's not just dollars and cents, as my colleague Yvette Jackson, chief executive officer of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, and I wrote in an essay, "The Fierce Urgency of Now: It's Time to Close the Gap," about the thousands of children we have worked with in hundreds of classrooms across the country:
Today, far too many students of color sit in classrooms waiting for opportunities that will elicit and nurture their attention, creativity, and intellectual potential. They long to excel beyond the potential and actual achievement that their schools, teachers and others adults see in them. But while they wait, many will see their skills atrophy, perpetuating the serious issues of underachievement by students of color.
Belief in human potential continues to be a huge challenge and obstacle to change in society. We don't spend enough time identifying student strengths or capitalizing on student skills. We remediate, to address what we consider "deficiencies," when we should celebrate the unique potential of all children. For when educators view the student culture as a strength rather than as a weakness or deficit to overcome, student achievement is often accelerated.
This is neither theoretical nor a dream. It is fact.
When districts implement culturally "respectful" and responsive instruction, student achievement significantly exceeds expectations.
In Eden Prairie, Minn., for example, the gap between potential and actual achievement of students of color and white students has narrowed by 60 percent districtwide. And for white students, their achievement gains went up 5 percent. Similar successes have been reported on statewide assessments, in the range of six times the standard gains considered appropriate yearly achievement, in elementary, middle and high schools from Bridgeport, Connecticut in the East to San Francisco in the West.
These student strengths can appear in the arts, athleticism, personality, initiative, focus, peer engagement, effort, character and linguistic experiences students bring to the classroom.
Recently, 26 of the nation's leading philanthropic organizations met in Chicago to explore the issues and challenges facing boys and men of color -- a problem that has been stubbornly difficult to solve. A call to action later sounded in a press release:
"We believe that investments in creating structures and pathways to opportunity and inclusion for these boys and young men will improve the economic and civic well-being of the whole nation."
This statement is both laudable and, I believe, correct in its basic premise. Yet it also underscores the need to confront the impact that not only poverty, but also racism, continue to have on the lives of Americans.
Racism in America has gone underground. It is hidden among the human interactions between educators and their students; sustained by well-intended institutionalized educational practices that may crush ambition; apparent in the language we use to describe individuals and societal groupings ("minorities, "low-performers," "aliens," "ex-cons").
Students on "low" educational tracks are placed in group "three and four;" students with high test scores are "gifted and talented," and in some school districts labeled as group "zero." Stereotypes are easily and often internalized by children of color, illustrated by research suggesting that black children continue to view white children as "prettier, nicer and smarter." Later, adults embed these stereotypes in housing developments and jobs.
Yet schools remain our greatest hope -- the central function of any community. When working effectively, schools enable and empower the branches, mechanisms and policies of social networks to extend opportunity, simple justice and basic fairness. May the solutions forged there be solutions for all of us.
Eric J. Cooper is the founder and president of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, a nonprofit professional development organization that provides student-focused professional development, advocacy and organizational guidance to accelerate student achievement. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.