Built-in Barriers to Educational success: A North Carolina Story

Sunset Barrier” by Dawn Huczek

May 19, 2017; News & Observer

Education and economic success are closely related. The further you progress educationally, the better your earning prospects are. As the Center for Poverty Research at UC Davis noted:

[T]hose who had no high school diploma comprise a far greater share of the population in poverty than their share of the general population and those with a high school diploma and no college comprise are overrepresented to a lesser degree. Those with some college but no degree comprise a somewhat lesser share of the population in poverty than their share of the general population and those with a bachelor’s degree or higher are underrepresented to a much greater degree.

Moving up the economic ladder remains difficult, and the gap between rich and poor has grown. Is this an indicator, as some assert, of the failings of our public education system? A recent look at the schools in North Carolina by the News & Observer and the Charlotte Observer suggests a need to think about the problem more deeply. Their study of the state’s gifted programs suggests that implicit bias plays a significant role in school and life outcomes:

As they start fourth grade, bright children from low-income families are much more likely to be excluded from the more rigorous classes than their peers from families with higher incomes…The unequal treatment during the six years ending in 2015 resulted in 9,000 low-income children in North Carolina being counted out of classes that could have opened a new academic world to them.

The support that admission to a gifted track provides has a major and enduring benefit. Keith Poston, executive director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina, told the News & Observer, “Students who show promise need to be challenged. Schools need to see their promise and push them into more rigorous classes early so they aren’t left behind and left out.” The track, once begun in the fourth grade, provides opportunities for learning that make college admission more likely years later. Moreover, subtle benefits accrue from the affirmation of their capability that selection for this track conveys.

Conversely, the implicit message to qualified students not so recognized is that they aren’t really that bright and are not expected to perform at a high level. A math coach described the impact when students are left behind: “Once…off the track, it’s almost impossible to get back on. Kids know when they are not being challenged. They know when they’re moved out of that environment. The way they see themselves shifts, and they don’t make it back up until they’re adults.”

For families trying to move upward, the cost of a biased system is high. From one mother’s perspective, getting a fair shot at success should not be in question: “As a single mother and a minority, I want to trust the school system to do the best thing for my children. I want them to have my children’s best interest at heart and push them to their potential.”

There seems little reason to see these outcomes as unrelated to the bias built into the system. Using test results to compare groups of students, the analysis found, “In Wake County, 24 percent of low-income third graders scoring a 5 in 2014 were labeled gifted in math the following school year. The percentage for their higher-income counterparts was more than twice as high: 54 percent. Overall, 25 percent of Wake’s more affluent fourth-grade students were labeled gifted in math in 2015, versus three percent of students from lower-income households.”

The News & Observer and Charlotte Observer found no simple explanation for these outcomes.

Experts, educators, and parents cite a range of causes: Educators can unwittingly stereotype low-income and minority students as low achievers. School assignments can leave high achievers with few academic peers or advanced classes. Testing and screening consistently favors higher-income, white, and Asian students. Overworked faculty must sometimes fill gaps for families that lack ability to advocate for their children. And a range of costly private help is available to affluent families whose children compete for recognition and opportunities.

The impact of poverty makes escape difficult. Unless that is recognized and taken into account, educational systems will continue to not see how they have stacked the deck against those who need their supports the most.—Marty Levine