Our New Education Landscape Needs New Solutions
The landscape of American education has changed. Since 2011, more minority children than white, non-Hispanic children are being born in U.S. households. As a result of this growing trend, we must look at the disparities within the education system that have implications for schools across the country. Once thriving communities are seeing population shifts, with students coming from inner-city, urban areas as well as students from impoverished backgrounds.
Many of these students have received an education equivalent to that of a third world country, and thus present academic and financial challenges in the classroom (PDF). According to the Children's Defense Fund, "thirty percent of poor children score very low on early reading skills, compared to only seven percent of children from moderate- or high-income families." These deficits begin early on due to lack of literacy development in the home, which results in a lack of readiness when a child begins school, which then results in a child consistently lagging grade levels behind, which eventually results in young adults ill-prepared for the 21st century workforce.
"Our education system, legally desegregated more than a half century ago, is ever more segregated by wealth and income, and often again by race. Ten million students in America's poorest communities—and millions more African American, Latino, Asian American, Pacific Islander, American Indian and Alaska Native students who are not poor—are having their lives unjustly and irredeemably blighted by a system that consigns them to the lowest-performing teachers, the most run-down facilities, and academic expectations and opportunities considerably lower than what we expect of other students. These vestiges of segregation, discrimination, and inequality are unfinished business for our nation."
—The Equity and Excellence Commission, U.S. Department of Education, in For Each and Every Child—A Strategy for Education Equity and Excellence (PDF), p. 14.
The achievement gap is having economic ramifications in communities across the country. We find ourselves in a crisis of economic insecurity and downward mobility. According to the McKinsey report on the economic impact of the achievement in America's schools, the educational gap will "impose on the U.S. the economic equivalent of a permanent recession." Instead of being a leader in educational attainment, we are producing ill-prepared students for a demanding 21st century workforce. According to ACT's Reading Between the Lines (PDF), the shortage of basic literacy skills cost businesses and universities as much as $16 billion (p. 13). The impact of the racial and income achievement gap is not only affecting communities, it is beginning to have a global impact as well.
School systems are experiencing a decline in standardized test scores and are seeking additional resources to address the needs of struggling learners. They are in need of literacy coaches and reading and math interventionists. Schools also need more professional development and training to respond to the needs of diverse populations such as English language learners, struggling readers, and others.
There are solutions to these challenges.
- School systems must close the achievement gap. Early literacy intervention and monitoring have a direct effect. These interventions should be provided to children in high-poverty areas. Presently, preK and head start programs are only offered to 65 percent of the lowest-income children. This number should be 100 percent.
- We need to increase funding in high-poverty districts. Distribution of education resources should be based on need. The quality of education that a child receives should not be defined by his or her ZIP code. Presently, some states have "flat-line" funding where all students get equal funding whether they live in a high-poverty or wealthy area.
- Highly qualified teacher leaders should be in all classrooms. Data suggests quality teachers such as National Board Certified Teachers, for example, provide best practices and intensive interventions to students in differentiated (diverse) classrooms.
Overall, we need to produce students who are critical thinkers and problem solvers for the 21st century. Failing to do so will continue to create an education-to-employment crisis and an economic and social divide. Education needs to be merged with practical skills and hands-on learning—skills needed in a market-driven economy. A strong education system is essential for a strong democracy.
Dianna Minor is a former classroom teacher. She currently works as a curriculum and instruction specialist in Alabama and as a consultant with American College Testing (ACT). She is an active member of the National Council of Teachers of English, International Reading Association, and National Education Association. Connect with Minor by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @diminordan.