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Commentary: Save the children, close education gap

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon Oct. 25, 2009 - When the kindergarten teacher instructed her charges to print their name at the top of the page, Eric was stumped. He had difficulty forming the first two letters and no idea of where to put them.

More than a dozen years later, a teacher's aide who was in that Springfield classroom still worries about the African-American youngster who could disrupt in one moment and be endearing in the next. "He could be in prison or even dead," she speculated with sorrow.

Perhaps Eric survived, even thrived. Perhaps he escaped plunging into the academic achievement chasm between whites and minorities. But the odds are ominous. Standardized tests document that too many African-American and Hispanic children in all corners of our state fail before they can succeed.

For instance, the National Assessment of Education Progress recently reported an average math score of 249 among white students in Illinois fourth-grade classes, compared to 216 for African Americans, 227 for Hispanics and a national norm of 239. Among eighth graders, the scores were 294 for whites, 255 for African-Americans and 269 for Hispanics while the U.S. standard stood at 282.

The persistent, pernicious disparity robs children of their potential and denies our state skills and productivity crucial to attracting and keeping businesses. If the vision of lives ruined or ended before puberty does not compel us, consider our wallets and safety. The virtually inevitable inverse of the academic gap is the predominance of minorities in budget-draining prisons, where most inmates test at the eighth-grade level.

No greater cause summons us. This deserves a statewide summit and a comprehensive, implemented strategy. It commands embracement by elected officials, educators, communities and especially parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles.

We must place and retain the best teachers and principals in the most challenging situations. We must secure schools and neighborhoods so youths can focus on books instead of beatings and bullets. We must establish protocols and protections to help assure we do not continue misrouting children with behavior issues but intellectual potential into special education.

As the African proverb prescribes, we need to convert communities into child-nurturing villages. We should expand prenatal intervention initiatives that have lowered infant mortality rates and raised birth weights to help parents-to-be grasp the imperative of educational attainment.

"Children are immensely impacted by their early environments both in the womb and beginning at birth. Thus, parents are critical to the future success of each and every child," says Christopher Koch, Illinois' chief school official."

Educators and community activists have charted pathways.

Studies by Martin Haberman, an urban education expert at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, show minority students from impoverished, single-parent households achieve if the teacher brings caring, content mastery and confidence into the classroom. The teacher must relate in meaningful ways, set ambitious goals, demand discipline without demeaning, understand and prize cultural diversity, engage parents and, above all, firmly believe the kids can trump adversity, Haberman concludes.

The Knowledge Is Power Program, better known as KIPP, has demonstrated charter schools can enhance the learning of impoverished minority children by lengthening the school day and year.

Geoffrey Canada has produced promising results in the Harlem Children's Zone, a 60-block area of New York City created to marshal educational, social and medical services for 8,600 youngsters from birth through college. The vast majority will enter their name correctly at the top of the page when they enter kindergarten, and there is solid hope that most will graduate from high school prepared to succeed in higher education.

We cannot settle for less in any community of Illinois.

Mike Lawrence retired Nov. 1, 2008, as director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. He is returning to his journalism roots as a twice-monthly columnist. 

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