Pre-schoolers played at the Denver Indian Center.

Educational Inequalities Discussed

Carol Berry
2/25/11

BOULDER, Colo.—If little Johnny can’t read, it’s likely thanks to a “structural, intergenerational disparity of resources”—not lack of ability, not lack of achievement, not even being “at-risk.”

That polysyllabic message to educators, parents, and other worried folks was to confirm what is widely known and narrowly accepted—people have been getting an unequal education for generations in the U.S. and it shows, especially among students of color.

The results are alarming. Only about half of American Indian students graduate from high school, and only about one in five finishes college, according to Dr. Dean Chavers, director of a Native scholarship organization.

“Defects are assumed—they’re not real,” said Dr. David Stovall, University of Illinois-Chicago, keynote speaker for a R.I.S.E. Symposium—“Examining the Rhetoric of Race & Achievement Gaps”—convened February 18 by the Racial Initiatives for Students and Educators/University of Colorado-Boulder School of Education.

People of color were punished severely for trying to learn to read in post-contact North America and, later, separate-but-equal educational facilities were touted but did not exist, leaving a legacy that today reinforces societal notions of superior/inferior—“messages of 500 years,” according to one speaker.

Society once referred to those currently termed “at-risk” as “troublemakers,” “them,” or “those people,” Stovall said.

Noting the relationship of inadequate education to crime, Dr. David Connor, Hunter College-City University of New York, pointed to the basic literacy struggle of one inmate who, with others, was told to write down the offense that sent him to prison: “How do you spell ‘murder?’” he asked.

In Chicago, educators found that if students dropped out by their sophomore year in high school, there was an 80 percent chance they would be in contact with law enforcement within six months of leaving school, Stovall said.

There has been a “direct, structural historical legacy of inequality,” said Dr. Rita Kohli, Santa Clara University, California, noting that parents with low-paying jobs and no access to health care as a result of inadequate education have children who attend underfunded and overcrowded schools “and the cycle continues.”

There is actually an intergenerational disparity of resources, “but now we’re blaming individuals for it,” she said, citing a high school graduation rate of less than 50 percent in some areas.

A belief in meritocracy—if you work hard, you earn a desirable place in society—is at odds with overcrowded classrooms and school texts in which students of color often find, “I don’t see myself in the curriculum anywhere,” she said.

While broad solutions may be few and far between, Connor noted it is erroneous to believe “that achievement sums up academic ability,” or that education is context-free. “Whiteness is an ethnicity and should be part of a multicultural curriculum” he said. Society should remember it is three to seven times cheaper to have alternatives to imprisonment, Stovall said.

“The power is in the hands of individual teachers to shape the trajectory of (students’) lives,” Kohli said. “Being a teacher is easy, but being a good teacher is very, very hard.”

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