A recent study indicates most public school children live in poverty. How can we stay silent as the education system transitions from the great lever to a class marker?

In #BensTake, our President and CEO, Ben Hecht, shares a candid response to one of the week’s key news stories, focused on issues that impact low-income people.

Recently, the Washington Post reported on a new study by the Southern Education Foundation revealing that the majority of U.S. public school children live in poverty and are eligible for free and/or reduced price lunch. I was shocked by how relatively little discussion this milestone provoked given not only what I believe it represents, but also the wake-up call it should have been for our country.

One day, if we stay the current course, we may view this milestone, together with the well documented and widening ‘achievement gap’ between rich and poor children, as the time in our history that the promise of universal education died. This movement, driven so successfully by Horace Mann and others in the 19th Century, went to the heart of the American value that we theoretically still hold so dear — that education is and should be the great leveler. The argument went that ‘not every American will be rich and successful but their education should give them an equal chance to succeed.’ Well, the data now tells us that our public school systems aren’t meeting that promise for the majority of students, especially students of color. Just one striking fact to that effect – the gap in standardized test scores between the now majority of public school students who are from low income families and affluent students has grown 40% since the 1960s double the testing gap between black and white students.

Achievement Gap Growth

40% The gap in standardized testing scores between public school students from low-income families and those from more affluent families has grown 40% since the 1960s.

The reality of this new majority in our public schools also makes it clear how much harder it will be to solve the problem. The more that Americans opt out of interacting with each other, whether by living in gated communities or by sending their children to private schools, the greater the ‘empathy gap’ grows. The greater the empathy gap, the harder it is for Americans to do what we have historically done: the right thing for the entire body politic.

Most troubling to me, however, is that this milestone was not used by our local and national leaders as a wake- up call for large scale change. Can we really accept that our public schools are a factory for building an American caste system? Why aren’t more leaders, public, private and philanthropic, calling for us to build a New Urban Practice that will change these conditions dramatically and a lot faster? Why aren’t they saying that our public school system should be the place where students of all income levels learn with and from each other? Why aren’t they calling for a ‘moonshot’ where we close the achievement gap between rich and poor by 2025? There are promising approaches to addressing these disparities at scale, like the StriveTogether Network but they need to be supported with more reckless abandon.

This is a big deal.


Image credit: Paul Roeder, Flickr, under CC by 2.0.