More time, money, customization can narrow the opportunity gap in education

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I have spent more than 35 years working to help public education fulfill the promise of equal opportunity, but two recent New York Times articles illustrate how far we are from achieving that moral and societal imperative.

David Brooks, in a recent column entitled “The Opportunity Gap,” reviews the research on the gap between the haves and have-nots and concludes, “The children of the more affluent and less affluent are raised in starkly different ways and have different opportunities.” Brooks further reports this gap is growing: “Over the last 40 years upper-income parents have increased the amount they spend on their kids’ enrichment activities, like tutoring and extracurriculars, by $5,300 a year. The financially stressed lower classes have only been able to increase their investment by $480, adjusted for inflation.”

I see this opportunity gap daily in our racially and economically diverse neighborhood in south St. Petersburg. The affluent kids in my neighborhood are attending a variety of enrichment camps this summer. Meanwhile, the low-income kids are sleeping till noon and then wandering the streets in the afternoon trying to avoid boredom and arrest – and generally failing on both counts. Many of the low-income black teenagers I know are going to get picked up and questioned by the police this summer, and occasionally get arrested. Whether or not they’ve committed crime is irrelevant. They’ll all plead out, go into a diversion program that is a well-intentioned waste of time and money, and the whole cycle will start again.

In a second Times article, “Two Classes, Divided by ‘I Do,’” Jason DeParle chronicles how the differences between one- and two-parent families help explain this growing cultural dichotomy. DeParle writes that, “Changes in marriage patterns – as opposed to changes in individual earnings – may account for as much as 40 percent of the growth in certain measures of inequality … About 41 percent of births in the United States occur outside marriage, up sharply from 17 percent three decades ago … Less than 10 percent of the births to college-educated women occur outside marriage, while for women with high school degrees or less the figure is nearly 60 percent.” While many children raised by single parents do well as adults, DeParle concludes that overall, children raised by single parents are significantly disadvantaged:  “They are more likely than similar children with married parents to experience childhood poverty, act up in class, become teenage parents and drop out of school.”

None of this is news in my neighborhood. The vast majority of low-income children wandering our streets this summer are being raised by a single mom or grandmother. They have no fathers in their lives.

The traditional neighborhood district school has little or no chance of overcoming these obstacles, which is why new models of publicly-funded education are emerging.

As we’ve discussed repeatedly on this blog, we need to customize our instruction to the specific needs of each child, and for most low-income children this means more direct instruction in highly structured classrooms. It also means addressing the huge disparity in out-of-school learning opportunities by extending the school day and school year. This will be expensive, but recycling these kids through the criminal justice system is also expensive and destructive on many levels.

The cultural divide Brooks and DeParle write about, and the opportunity gap imbedded in this divide, is a huge threat to our country’s short and long-term economic and political health. Unfortunately, we seem unwilling to seriously confront this threat. As Brooks concluded, “Equal opportunity, once core to the nation’s identity, is now a tertiary concern. If America really wants to change that, if the country wants to take advantage of all its human capital rather than just the most privileged two-thirds of it, then people are going to have to make some pretty uncomfortable decisions.”

On a personal note, I don’t have 35 more years to work on this. I’d like to see some progress before my time is up.

(Image from averageyouthministry.com)