Opinion
Education Opinion

Economic Inequality = Educational Inequity

By Walt Gardner — July 16, 2010 2 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

The role that poverty plays in learning is so well documented by now that it seems superfluous to raise the issue once again. But the cover story in the latest edition of The Nation serves as a powerful reminder that the worst is yet to come (“Inequality In America And What To Do About It”). Six essayists lay out the dire consequences for the country of the Great Recession and of the failure to take steps to address its fundamental causes.

The implications for schools stand out because narrowing the academic achievement gap between racial groups has become a top priority of reformers. In fact, on July 14, Education Secretary Arne Duncan called education “the civil rights issue of our generation” in a speech in Kansas City to NAACP delegates (“U.S. education secretary calls on NAACP to focus on schools”). But he has things in the wrong order when he said: “The only way to achieve equality in society is to achieve it in the classroom.”

Unfortunately, as wealth reconcentrates at the very top in a way not seen since 1928, the effects will be unavoidably felt in public schools, regardless of what Duncan maintains. As Orlando Patterson wrote: “What for white-Americans is a Great Recession amounts to a virtual depression for a substantial number of African-Americans.” That’s because unemployment rates for the latter stood at 15.5 percent in May, compared with the overall national rate of 9.7 percent.

This disparity between white and black wealth not surprisingly is reflected in the disparity between the performance of white and black students. The Institute on Assets and Social Policy reported that black median family wealth barely grew over the past 25 years, hovering at $5,000 in 2007. In sharp contrast, white median family wealth in 2007 was $100,000 - twenty times that of black families. It is unimaginable that this enormous difference does not have a direct effect on academic achievement.

At the same time, black and Latino students (except from elite families)) are more segregated from whites than at any time since the 1960s. According to a report issued by the Civil Rights Project of the University of California, about 40 percent of black and Latino students attend schools that are almost totally composed of their own races. The segregation is not limited to schools. It is also seen in neighborhoods, churches, clubs and other associations. As a result, whatever harm takes place in school by segregation is exacerbated by what takes place outside of school.

What is not widely known is that even before the Great Recession, the U.S. had the highest rate of childhood poverty in the industrialized world, according to UNICEF. This rate has not budged significantly over a decade. The U.S. also has the highest rate of the permanently poor of all other industrialized nations. These appalling conditions are tolerated by no other advanced democracy. Yet with the exception of sporadic populist outrage, business goes on as usual. In fact, when it comes to education, pressure is building to deregulate and privatize schools, as if doing so will somehow mitigate inequities.

Those advocating this strategy are the same people who argue for fewer controls on corporations. The rationale in both cases is that an unencumbered marketplace is the solution to both the economic and educational ills of the country. We know by now where this approach led in the case of the former. Why would the outcome be different in the case of the latter? But by the time America wakes up to reality, it will be too late to undo the damage done by this warped thinking.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Data Webinar
Education Insights with Actionable Data to Create More Personalized Engagement
The world has changed during this time of pandemic learning, and there is a new challenge faced in education regarding how we effectively utilize the data now available to educators and leaders. In this session
Content provided by Microsoft
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
Accelerate Learning with Project-Based Learning
Earlier this year, the George Lucas Educational Foundation released four new studies highlighting how project-based learning (PBL) helps accelerate student learning—across age groups, multiple disciplines, and different socio-economic statuses. With this year’s emphasis on unfinished
Content provided by SmartLab Learning
School & District Management Live Online Discussion Principal Overload: How to Manage Anxiety, Stress, and Tough Decisions
According to recent surveys, more than 40 percent of principals are considering leaving their jobs. With the pandemic, running a school building has become even more complicated, and principals' workloads continue to grow. If we

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education California Makes Ethnic Studies a High School Requirement
California is among the first in the nation to require students to take a course in ethnic studies to get a diploma starting in 2029-30.
4 min read
FILE - In this Jan. 22, 2020, file photo, Democratic Assembly members, from left, James Ramos, Chris Holden Jose Medina, and Rudy Salas, Jr., right, huddle during an Assembly session in Sacramento, Calif. Medina's bill to make ethnic studies a high school requirement was signed into law by California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday, Oct. 8, 2021. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)
Education California Requires Free Menstrual Products in Public Schools
The move comes as women’s rights advocates push nationwide for affordable access to pads, tampons, and other items.
1 min read
Tammy Compton restocks tampons at Compton's Market, in Sacramento, Calif., on June 22, 2016. California public schools and colleges must stock their restrooms with free menstrual products under a new law signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, Friday, Oct. 8, 2021.
Tammy Compton restocks tampons at Compton's Market, in Sacramento, Calif., on June 22, 2016. California public schools and colleges must stock their restrooms with free menstrual products under a new law signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, Friday, Oct. 8, 2021.
Rich Pedroncelli/AP
Education Florida to Dock School District Salaries for Requiring Masks
Florida is set to dock salaries and withhold funding from local school districts that defied Gov. Ron DeSantis' ban on mask mandates.
2 min read
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks, Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021, at the Doral Academy Preparatory School in Doral, Fla.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks, Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021, at the Doral Academy Preparatory School in Doral, Fla.
Wilfredo Lee/AP
Education More Than 120,000 U.S. Kids Had Caregivers Die During Pandemic
The toll has been far greater among Black and Hispanic Americans, a new study suggests.
3 min read
FILE - In this Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021 file photo, a funeral director arranges flowers on a casket before a service in Tampa, Fla. According to a study published Thursday, Oct. 7, 2021, by the medical journal Pediatrics, the number of U.S. children orphaned during the COVID-19 pandemic may be larger than previously estimated, and the toll has been far greater among Black and Hispanic Americans. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara, File)