One of the thorniest and most enduring problems for public schools is the so-called “achievement gap.” No matter what new teaching techniques or new technologies are applied, minority children from low-income families lag behind in tests that measure what they’ve learned in school.
There are many reasons for the gap. Families with above-average incomes tend to provide homes that encourage learning through access to books, travel and broader cultural experiences. And minority students from low-income areas too often encounter low expectations from their parents and teachers and, eventually, from themselves.
But a joint investigation conducted by The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer has found that there may be another major reason why children from low-income families are poorly represented in the ranks of top-performing students – they never get a chance to be part of classes that challenge and strengthen the best students.
A promising start fades
Results of the investigation were published in a three-part series “Counted Out.” The stories show in vivid detail how low-income students who show a spark of exceptional ability in early end-of-grade testing are routinely overlooked and allowed to fade back into classes that don’t challenge them. In particular, they tend to be diverted out of the advanced math classes that can be springboards not only to college, but to the best colleges.
The N&O/Observer investigation analyzed seven years of state records covering the roughly 1.2 million children in North Carolina’s 115 public school districts. The numbers show that across the state, students from low-income families are placed in math classes for gifted students less often than students from higher income families even when their end-of-grade test scores are the same or better than their better-off peers. In 2015, one-third of the low-income students with superior math scores were labeled gifted while one-half of those from higher-income families received that special designation.
One especially troubling aspect of the headwinds low-income student face in making it into the higher academic ranks is that they’re also more vulnerable to being tagged as learning or behaviorally impaired. While the gifted ranks are disproportionately reflective of higher incomes, the ranks of students diverted into special education classes or suspended are disproportionately reflective of lower incomes. If educators could eliminate the cultural and traditional barriers that block low-income students from getting to the top, the changes may also eliminate the patterns that so often shunt children into dead-end academic paths or cast them out of school and off any academic track.
Bringing out the best
The series identified five ways to boost bright, low-income students. Educators and parents should give close attention to these solutions:
▪ Hire more school counselors. Republicans who control the General Assembly dismiss education support personnel as part of a padded education bureaucracy and their meager education funding has led to a loss of many support positions at the local level. This only compounds the problem of student achievement being sorted by income. All students need support, but those from low-income families especially benefit from someone to counsel them about academics, challenge them to aim higher and ensure that their gifts do not go undeveloped.
▪ Use gifted classes fully. Some schools limit enrollment in gifted classes end up under-enrolled. If there are not enough top students to fill, bring in the next level of students who are willing to be challenged.
▪ Hire more teachers of color. When students of color see a teacher of color it’s a lesson in itself. The General Assembly should support teaching fellows programs that concentrate on producing more minority teachers. Paying all teachers more would help, too.
▪ Pay for extra help and opportunities. Affluent families can afford to pay for evaluations of a child’s academic potential that help them gain access to gifted programs. They also can afford summer camps that provide enriching academic experiences. State funding could provide these same opportunities to students whose families cannot afford them.
▪ Make better use of data. Numbers are powerful tools in education and North Carolina, fortunately, keeps close track of academic numbers, from funding to student performance. The need to make the data easily accessible to all partners in education to get a sharp picture of how districts, schools and students are performing. In a situation where too many low-income but high-performing students are being overlooked, more light will surely help.