The educational achievement gap in America is not a new phenomenon. Rather, it is a social cornerstone that is essential to maintaining the historical class structure and hierarchies of American society. The promise of access to fair and equitable education is theoretically guaranteed to all, but in practice, it’s granted to the wealthy “owning” class, possible for the shrinking middle class, almost entirely unrealistic for low-income populations, and completely inadequate for every other socially marginalized group, including migrant, immigrant and non-English speaking children.
Fair & equitable education, understandably, is a loaded and subjective term. What does it look like? How does it differ across populations? Who decides how children are educated and what they are educated on? What culture does the educational system subscribe to? Who is left out of this?
The education system in America was originally established to serve white owning-class males. An emphasis was placed on mathematics and science, two traditionally academic fields which also have highly practical applications in the Western business world.
As a greater variety of people entered into the education system, the expectations of how and what was taught was not altered; rather, the expectation was that the individual student alter their values and culture to accommodate the existing system. This model, of requiring the student to fit the mold, continues today. Indeed, it is one of the pillars holding the educational achievement gap in place.
In the past, when the community has challenged the system to change, the system meets this request with great resistance and deflection of responsibility and accountability. This can be illustrated through the labor movement when, in order to achieve the goals of standardizing minimum wage and applying an eight-hour limit on the workday, workers were punished for their demands, forced to go on strike without pay, and replaced by strikebreakers who were strategically recruited by the owning class in an effort to thwart the effectiveness of the working class’s unity and organization. Through much effort, struggle, failure, and persistence, the workers won, and unions were formed to protect them from being taken advantage of by the system.
With the passing of time, contemporary generations have minimized the struggle of past generations, and now take for granted the commonly accepted decencies that most Americans are afforded.
Similarly, we may look to Brown v. the Board of Education, pat ourselves on the back, and say, “my, how far we’ve come.” But in reality, equality in the educational system is still a long ways off. When looking at the educational achievement gap and the drop-out rate in terms of racial categorization, the writing is on the wall; children of color fail at far greater rates than white children, both in terms of sheer number and population percentages.
Examining causes for the mass failure of our children of color, some, like Dr. Ruby Payne, a leading theorist in cultural competency trainings for school districts across America, may say, “well the home life doesn’t support the education of the children; it’s the parent’s fault.” Still, others say, “there is something intrinsically different… something less than… with those poor children and children of color.”
To this I say assuredly that it is not these children that are failing the education system, but the education system that is failing them. When entire populations don’t meet the standards for success, when they are brushed aside and told to assume blame, when funding for schools is based on the success of student’s scores on standardized test that are constructed with cultural bias, when struggle is met with a clenched fist, the problem is not in the children or families; the problem lies in the system’s response to these children, and in the unwillingness for the system to modify its culture and take initiative to be accountable to the success of all children and all families.