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Education gap leaves advocates divided

Pharoh Martin | 4/12/2011, 4:37 p.m.
Education gap leaves advocates divided

A day before the 55th anniversary of the Brown V. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that made segregated schools illegal, Rev. Al Sharpton led a rally for education equality, but solutions are still not clear.

"The crisis is that 55 years ago, education was separate and unequal," Sharpton declared to the hundreds in attendance in the White House Eclipse on Saturday. "And 55 years later, education is still separate and unequal.'' Sharpton stood on stage with Minnijean Brown Trickey, one of the "Little Rock Nine"--a group of nine Black Arkansas teenagers that was escorted by the 101 Airborne Division into a desegregated Little Rock high school after enduring abuses by the previously all-White student body. Together, they

led a chant urging Washington to "close the gap!"

The rally comes on the heels of a McKinsey study that found quantifiable and disturbing educational achievement disparities between students from different racial and economic backgrounds, as well as between the United States and other countries.

The study found that by the fourth grade, African-American and Hispanic students were already nearly three years behind their White peers, a trend that worsens as they get older. And while students from higher-income backgrounds fare better than those that come from less fortunate backgrounds, statistics show that Black and Latino students in every economic class scored significantly lower in math and reading tests than White students of the same economic class.

Closing the education achievement gap--as it's referred to by the study and by the Education Equality Project (EEP), an education advocacy organization founded by Rev. Al Sharpton and New York City Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein--has become a national priority, but there is not a consensus on solutions for reform, nor is there a consensus on why such a great disparity of achievement exists between different student groups even though the gap was widely considered to be even as recently as 1998.

"The McKinsey report was focused on collecting the data and measuring the economic impact--both individually and socially,'' says Bennet Ratcliff, a representative of EEP. "It did not address why the achievement gap exists. EEP believes-- and studies support--that African-American and Latino students can dramatically close the gap if they are taught by quality teachers. The current education system offers--and has historically offered--some of the lowest performing teachers to African-American and Latino students, which is a significant part of the problem. Rev. Sharpton has spoken eloquently on the subject of receiving a ''back-of-the-bus education".

The issue is serious enough that even fundamental conservatives like former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich jumped on board to speak in favor of education reform at Sharpton's rally. The McKinsey study estimates that the U.S. economy lost more than $3 trillion dollars in potential gains because of failures to close the educational achievement gap to its 1998 near-even levels, a figure that is more than the amount lost during the current deep economic recession and the one experienced at the beginning of the 1980s.This is a number that will only grow if nothing is done to curtail the trend because the U.S. Census Bureau forecasts that non-White students will make up more than half of the national student population as early as 2023. Why are Black students, even those from privileged backgrounds, performing worse than their White counterparts? ''I think it's an institutional racism," Sharpton responded in an interview. "I think it's because we see that education in our communities, regardless of economic income and class, is different."