By Clarence Hightower, Ph.D.
The Anti-Poverty Soldier
ST. PAUL, Minn. (Sept. 29, 2016) — In a pair of Anti-Poverty Soldier columns dating back more than a year, I explored the issue of early childhood education and its relationship to poverty, particularly generational poverty. One of these columns focused on what educators now call the “word gap.” Longitudinal studies from both the University of Kansas and Stanford University demonstrate that by the time a child living in poverty reaches the age of three they have on average heard approximately 30 million fewer words that children not living in poverty.
Additional research further supports the notion that the so-called “word gap” presents a substantial obstacle to poor children and their opportunities for success in school, work and life. Sam Hillestad of The Borgen Project, a Seattle-based anti-poverty group writes that “The lack of a proper education makes up a major part of the poverty trap – a phenomenon in which people living in poverty cannot rise up due to scarce resources, depression, lack of opportunity and other issues. The poverty trap can start before the child ever enters the classroom, and it has long-term psychological consequences.”
Although a great deal of scholarship centers on poverty and access to early childhood education, there are a several studies that focus on the disparities in primary, middle and secondary education as well. Dr. Howard Steven Friedman states “The link between poverty and education can be seen at all educational levels.”
Friedman, a statistician and health economist for the United Nations and adjunct Associate Professor at Columbia University also notes in The Huffington Post that “The educational disadvantage of those poorer students continues as they grow older. Less than 10 percent of school revenue comes from the federal government while about 90 percent comes from state and local governments. As a result, school funding varies from state to state, and funding within a state also tends to be unequal.”
These inequities no doubt contribute to America’s recent trend toward low social mobility. In fact, among developed countries America’s social mobility is among the lowest prompting the Tampa Bay Times Politifact Project to ask “Is it easier to obtain the American dream in Europe?” On the local level, such data on the link between education and poverty should easily resonate when you consider the extreme racial disparities that exist in the Twin Cities including one of the worst academic achievement gaps in the nation.
In early 2016, the Minnesota Department of Education published a report indicating that the majority of Minnesota School districts are failing to meet the standards set forth in a 2013 bill, a state law which is called the “World’s Best Workforce.” According to the report the districts that are struggling the most to close the achievement gap are the Minneapolis Public Schools and St. Paul Public Schools. A story in the Minneapolis Star Tribune reveals that schools that don’t meet the standards in reading, mathematics, and graduation rates, while also reducing their achievement gap by 2018, stand to lose a portion of their state funding.
While that may seem counterintuitive, it also begs the question whether we are spending enough on education to begin with? The data suggests that Minnesota spends more money educating its students than most states. In spite of this, a St. Paul Pioneer Press article reveals that in the last few years a significant number of Twin Cities school districts have been forced to eliminate staff, programming, and other educational initiatives, including Minneapolis and St. Paul. Other Twin Cities districts were forced to borrow from their cash reserves in order to stave off budget cuts.
Many have suggested that funding alone is not the only issue at hand when it comes to providing quality education to our young people. I certainly believe that to be true. Nevertheless, I am infinitely frustrated by the deep and persistent inequities that plague the public schools in both Minneapolis and Saint Paul, which are vastly segregated. For example, 66% of those attending the Minneapolis Public Schools are students of color and 63% received free or reduced price lunch. In the St. Paul Public Schools, students of color make up 78% of the total enrollment and 72% of students receive free or reduced price lunch.
In a New York Times editorial, authors Helen F. Ladd and Edward B. Fiske remarked that it is hardly a surprise that poor and disadvantaged students don’t perform as well academically as their wealthier counterparts. The question they pose is “So what can be done” about it? They cite research that champions early childhood education, proper health and nutrition, enrichment programs, intense exposure to language and other cognitive activities. All of these are critical components to surmounting the link between education and poverty. Ladd and Fiske hint at one more component as well, one which I have mentioned before in the life of this column. That is our collective “will” or lack thereof to make a difference.
I was stuck by a comment I heard when watching a football game on television recently. One of the commentators mentioned that sometimes success is not based on the play that is called, but the rather the ability and the desire of the athlete to make the play. In applying this notion here, it is clear that we need innovative ideas, sound strategies, and best practices. But we also need people with the want to or the “will” to say “no more.” That includes the efforts of dedicated families, committed educators, community organizations, key stakeholders, and others including those who can help provide the critical resources necessary to give all our kids access to quality education. Something that I believe should be their right. We just have to both want it and “will” it for them.
Howard Steven Friedman writes that: “Given the tight link between poverty and education, America needs to focus on how to enable everyone to have access to quality education at all levels, from pre-primary to college. These opportunities need to exist so that all children can go to high-quality schools, taught by qualified teachers with appropriate facilities. America, the richest county that the world has ever seen, cannot afford to turn its back on young people just because they didn’t start with a silver spoon in their mouth.”
I think that this statement just about says everything that needs to be said.
Clarence Hightower is the executive director of Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties. Dr. Hightower holds a Ph.D. in urban higher education from Jackson State University. He welcomes reader responses to 450 Syndicate Street North, St. Paul, MN 55104.