Achievement Gaps Not Just An Urban Problem

The Gadfly recently rounded up a couple of stories pointing out that it's not just urban districts that have achievement gaps:  "An alarming number of middle-class African-American
students in suburban schools are having a difficult time passing the
state's high school exit exams in algebra, English, biology, and

"Blacks in suburbs failing Md. exams," Baltimore Sun
"Area Schools' Success Obscures Lingering Racial SAT Gap," Washington Post

It's not a secret to anyone in the Chicago area, given Evanston's long-running struggles with this, as well as persistent gaps in some higher-performing CPS schools.  But folks sometimes forget, or don't know.

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  • The test they're talking about is the SAT. Hardly a secret test, as most everyone who has gone to college has taken either it or it's step-cousin, the ACT. When I took it, prior to the writing part, it mainly consisted of vocabulary knowledge and logic. It may have changed since then, but I can't imagine such a well-known and frequently used test having large amounts of cultural biases. I could see maybe 100 pts of cultural bias, but not the 300-400 pt spreads they're seeing. These tests, at the time I took them, didn't measure knowledge per se (how many miles in a km, who was the 7th president of the US, what was Geronimo known for, who was Chief Joseph...), it measured vocabulary, logic and knowledge of mathematics and how to solve problems in the math section.

  • The thing is, poverty is not really part of this article. From what I read, it was a fairly affluent neighborhood, so these children hadn't likely suffered any of the sometimes truly horrendous effects of poverty. So why did they score lower? That is the question the article was asking.

    Measuring the effects of poverty is hard because you have different pockets of poverty, urban poverty, suburban poverty, rural poverty and these impact whether the child also suffers from the effects of economic segregation. Children living in poverty in rural areas tend to go to school with children from other social strata. Children living in urban poverty tend to go to school with children only from their social strata. Suburban poverty is all over the map depending on which suburb is referenced.

  • Underachievement among the poor absolutely is frequently all about what the parents aren't doing. A famous study by Profs Hart and Risley showed that poor parents used a lot less words when they talked to their children than did wealthier parents. I believe Farkas and Beron have done further studies as well. This lack of vocabulary means that the children start out behind the other children and stay there because their lack of vocabulary means they don't learn as quickly either. Add to that that poorer parents frequently aren't as interested in their children's school work or even in the progress their children are making. Now granted, the poorer parent may have other concerns such as keeping a roof over the head of the family etc. but it doesn't serve to pretend as though families of poverty are just like middle class families but without resources. Frequently they are poor because of bad choices made by the parents, such as not finishing school, having children they can't afford emotionally or economically, lack of planning, poor financial management, etc. Nor does it pay to decide that because the parents are poor there is no expectation on them as parents.

    Not all poor parents are incompetent, and not all financially successful parents are competent. I have known several poorer parents who were all about their children and had a hope that an education would lead their children out of poverty.

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