More than a School: A long-form story on the education system

Education is one of the most important functions of state and local government. Many people see public education as the great equalizer for racial, financial and societal issues. Nearly 60 years ago, the Brown v. Board of Education supreme court case ruled that Jim Crow’s “separate but equal” law has no place in American schools. Jim Crow laws have long been ruled unconstitutional giving all parents the liberty to send their kids to whatever school they like. However, there is a looming problem of public schools not being able to offer kids, especially those in poverty, a quality education that ensures them advancement opportunities and a solid future. Even more, many wonder if poor or minority children can keep up or even benefit from the school system at all. In 2011, the United States Census Bureau concluded that 16 to 24-year old students who come from low-income families are seven times more likely to drop out than those from families with high incomes.

There are not a lot of news articles out there about the phenomenon known as the achievement gap but there is a lot of data proving its existence. The term “achievement gap” refers to the differences between the test scores, graduation rates and even employment rates of minority and/or low-income students and their White, Asian or wealthier peers. The term can also refer to an achievement gap between the two genders. For example, in early education, boys typically fall behind girls in maths and sciences but by high school years, it’s the girls who fall short in that area. The typical students who lack behind in academics are racial and ethnic minorities, English language learners, students with disabilities, boys and girls and students from low-income families. Key indicators of this are performances on statewide and national tests, access to opportunities like higher education and advanced courses and attainments such as high school diploma, employment or a college degree. If you’re not looking close enough at national reports, you’d see that while South Carolina is still in the lower quarter of national education rankings, it has improved within the last two to five years. However, there is an issue with wealthy districts significantly outperforming their poor counterparts or local areas. Even more, a look at poor student specifically, or black or Hispanic students, will show that minorities in South Carolina are failing compared to their white classmates, whose high scores could hide their achievement issues when averaged together.

The South has a historic issue with education in general. In the past, education has always been for the elite wealthy in the South and especially not for African Americans and minorities. Obviously, this has changed, but having a history of poverty in your lineage makes you prone to poverty yourself. Education is the best defense against poverty and offense for a sustainable economy. The cycle of poverty cannot be broken unless it is tackled in a classroom of poor children. Even more, racial disparities and predispositions, whether that is economic, political, or educational, will not change if we are not leveling the playing field in the classroom. This article will be an important update on the cycle of poverty in rural South Carolina as well as a detailed example of a self-fulfilling prophecy on racial bias at work.

It will be a story to visualize the impact poverty or race can have on a person’s ability to achieve. My target audience is not educators because they are already aware of this issue. I hope to reach parents and students who suffer from these disadvantages. It’s important for them to realize what they are up against and why it is important for them to push through the odds against them and also request for more assistance where they truly need it.

James Boutin is a veteran high school teacher in Seatac, Washington. He’s a national board certified language arts and social studies teacher. He has previously taught in metropolitan cities such as New York City, Washington D.C., and Knoxville, Tennessee. He also writes a blog entitled An Urban Teacher’s Education where he regularly tells stories of his experiences as an inner-city school teacher. In a 2014 article from The Washington Post, Boutin tells the story of one of his most memorable students to whom, he feels, truly puts into context the issue of the achievement gap. While his story is not about a South Carolina student, it applies to underprivileged students and their teachers everywhere.

He calls the student Guillermo, for privacy reasons. Guillermo had long, dark hair that covered his face. He was tall and lanky and normally wore black pants and a black jacket to school. He didn’t speak much and never made eye contact with Boutin. Boutin remembers him always coming to his last period class late and falling asleep in class. He also never turned in any assignments. Despite all this, Boutin knew that Guillermo actually wanted to do well in school. “To be fair, I believe every student wants to do well in school. But there was something unique about Guillermo’s behavior that made me think that about him,”  Boutin said. Guillermo came to school almost every day. Whenever Guillermo thought Boutin wasn’t looking, he would lean over and ask other students what he was supposed to be doing. He always brought a pencil and even though he never turned in work, occasionally Boutin saw him writing during work time.

Years after the class was over, Boutin learned from a school counselor that Guillermo and his mother had actually relocated around 25 miles away from the school. She kept him at the school so that the move wouldn’t interrupt his education. However, for Guillermo, that meant waking up at 4 a.m. to catch a bus and waiting until 5 p.m. for the bus to return. Normally, he would get home around 7:30 p.m., help out with chores, and then fall asleep around 11 p.m. or 12 a.m.

Like many other children living at or below the poverty level, Guillermo faced many other problems. His father abandoned his mother and siblings when he was 4 years old after years of verbal and physical abuse. His mom couldn’t get regular housing on her own. Guillermo suffered from financial instability and the loss and abuse of his father, while also have to deal with all the struggles of adolescence in general such as hormonal changes, fitting in and finding his own identity. Not many people will share Guillermo’s unique situation but most children under the poverty line are dealing with unusual circumstances that are deconstructive to their school life. Boutin made the note to point out that “Poverty is not just about having enough money for food and housing; it’s often about not feeling the love, support, and stability needed for social-emotional health.”

The National Assessment of Educational Progress is the largest nationally representative and continuing assessment of what America’s students know and can do in various subject areas. The Education Oversight Committee of South Carolina summarized some key points from the NAEP in their 2016 Annual Report. The points compared South Carolina reading performance, in general, and by race, to the rest of the nation. The report found that South Carolina, in general, is performing just a small percentage lower than the average United States student, an improvement since 2013. However, it shows that African American students in South Carolina are performing almost 30 percent lower than the national average, while South Carolina white students are outperforming the United States average by fifteen percent.

A report from the Education Week Research Center highlights specific information from South Carolina’s 2015 school year. It analyzes early childhood education which is typically a predictor of where a child stands currently and in potentially in the future as far as achievement in the classroom. The report highlights specific topics statewide such as enrollment, performance, and a child’s foundations such as their parent’s education level and income level. It gives the state a grade based on the student’s chance for success, school finance, and K-12 achievement. The research center gave South Carolina an overall grade of a D on their 2015 Quality Counts report card. Chance for success (2015) was graded at a C, school finance (2015) was graded at a C- and K-12 achievement was graded at a D.

There have been other efforts within the last decade to narrow the achievement gap. The State newspaper, based in Columbia, S.C., released an article on the progress of S.C.’s Full Day 4K program. This is $65 million-a-year free program allows 4-year-old children in poverty to attend kindergarten all day at no cost to them. The aim is to help narrow the achievement gap for underprivileged children at a young age. The report notes that while the program is popular with parents and is actually helping some children, poor children still lag behind. A study was done by the Education Oversight Committee of South Carolina comparing how poor children who enrolled in the program during the first four years performed later on the standardized test. The study revealed mixed details. One fact is that poor children who enrolled in 4K had “consistently lower” achievement levels on state tests than did all students statewide. However, this can be a confusing review. Poor children in poor districts in the 4K program are more likely to pass standard tests than poor children in poor districts not in the 4K program. However, the success rate of these 4K children in poor districts is still lower than poor children in wealthier districts not in the 4K program. Finally, the report noticed success rates for children on the 4K program varied dramatically by school districts. Some districts reported 90 percent success, while others reported less than 10 percent success. Melanie Barton, head of the EOC concluded that the state’s 4K program is not meeting the goals that lawmakers had planned. According to Barton, “Despite modest academic gains, the state’s 4K program is not closing the (academic achievement) gap.” She also added that the board remains concerned that they are not succeeding with the at-risk population in South Carolina.”

Within the last three years, state lawmakers have more than doubled the number of children served by the 4K program to 12,500 students. They also tripled the program’s budget to $65 million. South Carolina is looking to expand the program again but Barton says the quality of the program must be improved before moving forward. According to Barton, teachers in the 4K program need more training. Also, she says elementary teachers need to change their curriculum to build on what kids learn in the 4K program rather than simply repeating what students have already learned. Lawmakers also need to raise standards for private day care centers and public schools participating in the program.

Guillermo dropped out when he was 16 years old. For James Boutin, his experience with Guillermo leads him to believe the primary purpose for school, especially for disadvantaged students, should not be preparing them to compete in the marketplace, but that the school should be contributing to their socio-emotional needs as well.  Boutin asks “Why don’t we spend more time teaching students about interpersonal communication or nutrition of personal finance in public schools?” Boutin also recalls him asking a handful of his students if they were considering going to a four-year university when they graduate and all of them looked at him like he was crazy. He explained that it would be a great opportunity when one replied “Yeah. Probably. But my family comes first, and they need me here, with them right now.”

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