Student Achievement Opinion

The Preparation Gap

By Hugh B. Price — November 28, 2001 6 min read
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Eliminate the preparation gap first, then the achievement gap.

Education is the great equalizer in American society. Of course, it isn’t a surefire guarantee of success in life. But statistics show that the better educated you are, the better off you’ll be economically. And the more educated you are, the less likely you are to be unemployed.

Getting a good education has always given young people a leg up in life. That was true generations ago, and it’s truer today than ever before. The main reason for that is the way the U.S. labor market has changed over the years. Fifty years ago, about 80 percent of all the jobs in the American economy were semiskilled or unskilled. Most workers back then didn’t require much formal education. Even if they never finished high school, they could earn enough as, for instance, factory workers to purchase a home and a new car, take an occasional vacation, and send their kids to college.

The exact opposite is true today. Eighty-five percent of all jobs these days are skilled or professional. The bottom line is that you definitely need a solid education in order to succeed in the Information Age economy of the 21st century.

Yet, the sad fact is that most African American, Latino, and Native American children today aren’t up to speed academically. They lag way behind where they should be—and where they could be—in terms of what they must know and be able to do in order to succeed in school and in life. Nor are they performing even close to “on par” with their white and Asian American peers.

Results of the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress in reading show how far behind the eight ball these youngsters are. According to NAEP, in 2000, 63 percent of black youngsters read “below basic” in the 4th grade. That dreadful percentage has barely budged in the past decade. Latino and Native American 4th graders fare slightly better, but even their performance is nothing to brag about. The picture for white and Asian-American youngsters was vastly brighter.

Youngsters who can barely read as of the 4th grade face a steep uphill climb the rest of the way through school and later in life. They will struggle with the reading assignments in social studies, the writing assignments in English class, and the word problems in algebra. They probably won’t pass the tough exams that states are imposing for moving from grade to grade and for graduating from high school. Forget about solid scores on the SAT and the ACT. Higher education will be off-limits. And the good jobs that provide for the good life in today’s economy will be out of reach for young people who aren’t well-prepared academically.

Not surprisingly, these disparities fuel all the anxious talk about closing the so-called achievement gap. I’ve certainly done my fair share of bemoaning the problem and advocating ever more aggressive measures to reform public schools.

When you think about it, there actually are several achievement gaps.

But I believe it’s time to pause for problem identification and adjust our sights. When you think about it, there actually are several achievement gaps. Beyond the stark racial disparities revealed by NAEP, there’s a gap between how American children in general and low-performing minority students in particular stack up against children in the rest of the world. There’s the unsettling claim by some experts that a pupil who earns an A in an inner-city school knows about as much in a given subject as a suburbanite who earns a C. Nor is the achievement gap confined to inner-city and rural schools. Middle-class black students in integrated suburban schools generally lag behind their white and Asian-American classmates.

So any way you measure it, and however you explain it, the achievement gaps along ethnic and socioeconomic lines are distressing. Society should summon the will and allocate the resources to close these gaps. It’s a moral and economic imperative, in my opinion.

But there’s another way of looking at gaps in academic performance that doesn’t garner nearly as much attention. I happen to think that closing this gap is far more urgent for parents, communities, and society at large.

It’s what I call the preparation gap. That’s the gap between what poor and minority children actually know and can do vs. what they must know and be able to do in order to meet state academic standards, move from one grade to the next, and eventually graduate from high school.

This gap surfaces as early as elementary school, when youngsters consistently perform below grade level in reading. By the time NAEP is administered in the 4th grade, roughly two-thirds of all black children and almost as many Latino and Native American youngsters already score two notches below grade level in reading.

The preparation gap persists into middle school. Pupils who barely read won’t be able to handle the word problems in algebra or read the instructions for science experiments, much less complete the reading assignments in social studies. If they cannot read, writing probably will be a struggle as well. So English class will be a severe challenge for weak students.

Nor does the gap that surfaced in elementary school evaporate in high school. In fact, as youngsters approach the end of adolescence, the stakes associated with the preparation gap get much higher. In the crackdown on social promotions, lagging students will more than likely be held back in grade and sent grudgingly to summer school. They probably will fail the tougher exams imposed by states and districts and won’t graduate from high school or go on to trade schools. They do miserably on college-entrance exams and cannot qualify for admission. They score poorly on tests required by employers and cannot land those good-paying, skilled and professional positions that make up 85 percent of all the jobs available. That frustrates job applicants and employers alike.

The cumulative effect of the preparation gap is the economic apartheid that produces unemployment rates and household incomes for blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans that are far worse than the national averages.

This is the proximate, real-world gap that must be closed as quickly as possible. If it isn’t, then poor and minority children won’t have the knowledge and skills they need to become self-reliant adults and informed citizens. They won’t be qualified for those skilled and professional positions that dominate the labor market today.

If the preparation gap isn't closed quickly, then poor and minority children won't be able to read ballots, much less ballot initiatives or candidates' position statements.

They won’t be able to read ballots, much less ballot initiatives or candidates’ position statements, and thus cast informed votes.

As President Richard M. Nixon was fond of saying, let me make one thing perfectly clear: I’m as determined as anyone to close those achievement gaps that separate children along ethnic and socioeconomic lines. But the vastly more urgent task is to eliminate the preparation gap.

To borrow a phrase from the Ford Motor Co., “job one” for every adult who is raising a child, for every school system, for every principal and teacher, and every politician and corporate CEO who professes to care about education is to make certain all children read at greade level or better by the 4th grade or earlier.

If America cannot muster the will and the wherewithal to eradicate the preparation gap, so that every child is equipped for self-reliance and citizenship in the 21st century, then talk of ever closing the achievement gap is illusory.

Hugh B. Price is the president of the National Urban League in New York City.

A version of this article appeared in the November 28, 2001 edition of Education Week as The Preparation Gap


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