Education Opinion

The Income Gap Compounds the Achievement Gap in Schools

By Anthony Cody — August 17, 2009 3 min read

Good news! The productivity of this country has risen by 6.4% in the past quarter, while labor costs have dropped by 5.8%. We seem to be getting even more competitive as a nation. But the news isn’t all so good. New economic data shows that the gap between the rich and poor is wider than ever before – even than the 1920s. Research by UC Berkeley economist Emmanuel Saez shows that in the year 2007, more than 50% of the income went to the top 10 % of the population. Much of that gain was due to tax cuts favoring the wealthy enacted in the past decade.

We often hear that schools are responsible for perpetuating an achievement gap between the academic haves and have-nots. The achievement of African American and Latino students is often significantly lower than the achievement of white and Asian American students. This has been the central focus of the educational reforms of No Child Left Behind. According to this law, as a nation we should be devoted to making the best education available to every child, regardless of their race. But this concern for the well-being of our children seems to run into trouble when actual money is involved.

In California, Governor Schwarzenegger, who has demanded “world class standards” be met by public schools, including Algebra for each and every 8th grader, has just balanced the budget by cutting $1000 per student from state funding for education. Schwarzenegger also cut funding for child welfare and medical aid for the poor. According to some of our leaders, taxes cannot be increased for any reason.

This is going to have a huge impact on schools across the state. California reduced class sizes to 20 or less for grades K to 3 back in 1996, but that will be going out the window in many districts this fall. Some kindergarten classes are starting next week with 34 students. This can only worsen the achievement gap in our schools. Teachers have been laid off, and many districts will cut salaries and even shorten the school year or eliminate summer school, adult school, and after school programs.

We are about to receive a barrage of education-related messages from a variety of sources. Unlikely partners Newt Gingrich and Al Sharpton will be touring the country promoting charter schools and a “no excuses” message for parents. This week President Obama told eleven-year-old journalist Damon Weaver that on September 8, he will be giving a major speech directed at students about the importance of education. That same day, a national campaign will be launched.

The press release states:

Get Schooled: You Have the Right formally kicks off "Get Schooled," a five-year national initiative co-developed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Viacom that creates a platform for corporate and community stakeholders to address the challenges facing America's public schools.”

Spokesperson Kelly Clarkson says:

Lots of young people run into problems beyond their control, like finances, that keep them from pursuing their education. At that point, it's easy to give up. But I believe it's important to continue to work hard and learn from everyone and everything around you."

Who can argue with the idea that young people should not give up? Or that we will all be better off if they pursue their education? However, at a certain point along here, I am starting to connect some dots. If young people are discouraged by a lack of finances, such as the absence of financial aid for education, or the lack of jobs in their communities, perhaps we should be working not just on their attitudes, but on the underlying economic realities that might affect them.

When Proposition 13 was passed in California back in 1978, the motivation was to protect elderly homeowners from annual property tax increases. Prop 13 changed the law so that taxes are only adjusted when a property changes hands – and this applies to all property in the state, including that owned by private corporations. Since property owned by corporations rarely changes hands, this has resulted in a huge multi-billion dollar loophole for corporations, and shifted the tax burden onto private homeowners. Some leaders in California have stepped up to advocate closing the Prop 13 loophole.

I appreciate the support for education our political and corporate leaders are showing. I agree that we should not give up – and we should keep learning. But I am learning we may need some more fundamental changes -- including real financial support for young people and their schools -- if we are going to keep the dreams of all our students alive.

What are the economic realities in your school and community? What do you think about the connection between the income gap and the achievement gap? What are some creative ways to close these gaps?

Graph used by permission.

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue 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.

Let us know what you think!

We’re looking for feedback on our new site to make sure we continue to provide you the best experience.


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.
Future of Work Webinar
Digital Literacy Strategies to Promote Equity
Our new world has only increased our students’ dependence on technology. This makes digital literacy no longer a “nice to have” but a “need to have.” How do we ensure that every student can navigate
Content provided by Learning.com
Mathematics Online Summit Teaching Math in a Pandemic
Attend this online summit to ask questions about how COVID-19 has affected achievement, instruction, assessment, and engagement in math.
School & District Management Webinar Examining the Evidence: Catching Kids Up at a Distance
As districts, schools, and families navigate a new normal following the abrupt end of in-person schooling this spring, students’ learning opportunities vary enormously across the nation. Access to devices and broadband internet and a secure

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Speech Therapists
Lancaster, PA, US
Lancaster Lebanon IU 13
Elementary Teacher
Madison, Wisconsin
One City Schools
Elementary Teacher - Scholars Academy
Madison, Wisconsin
One City Schools

Read Next

Education Obituary In Memory of Michele Molnar, EdWeek Market Brief Writer and Editor
EdWeek Market Brief Associate Editor Michele Molnar, who was instrumental in launching the publication, succumbed to cancer.
5 min read
Education Briefly Stated Briefly Stated: December 9, 2020
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Briefly Stated Briefly Stated: Stories You May Have Missed
A collection of articles from the previous week that you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Briefly Stated Briefly Stated: Stories You May Have Missed
A collection of stories from the previous week that you may have missed.
8 min read