New research points to the achievement gap as primarily a language gap, and so for all practical purposes, it is a cultural gap, too. But political correctness prevents us from facing these facts head on.
Likewise, it’s now news that the principal cause of the achievement gap is a language gap The implications of this research are that oral language matters a lot, and that effective use of school time, if started soon enough, can mitigate some of the worst effects of the achievement gap. If a child from a relatively language-poor, low-income home is exposed to a rich verbal environment from the earliest days of school (a key rationale for the Core Knowledge Language Arts program, by the way) with quality preschool followed up by a strong, rich kindergarten and elementary education, the gap-closing results can–and should be–pronounced.
Essentially, what this means is that the achievement gap is mostly cultural. It might be politically incorrect to point it out, but what other conclusion is there? Language is cultural, for better or for worse. If minorities are underachieving and a primary reason why is lack of rich language at home, this points squarely at parents and the home life in general. It’s cultural. In the same way that positive influences help kids, a lack of positive influences can hurt them.
And, even more important, if the achievement gap — that educators spend countless hours and millions of dollars trying to fix — is actually a cultural phenomenon rather than an educational one, how can educators possibly fix it? That’s point number 1.
But they try to fix it anyway, of course. They forget both common sense and Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which point to a need for safety before every other need, except pure survival needs like food, shelter, etc.
So point number 2 is that educators will not just continue to try to fix a problem that is not caused by educators, but in order to do so, must necessarily fix safety and security issues in these kids’ lives, i.e., gangs, family problems, general social breakdown. But this they will not do, because that is frowned upon in polite society. Better to defer to a need to avoid unpleasant facts, and bury our heads in the sand by refusing to face the fact that many minority kids from poor urban areas have very poor role models for parents, to the extent they have parents at all.
How’s that working out so far? Not well, not well at all. Of course, not all of these parents are poor role models, but the numbers are startling. A majority of black women under age 45 have never married. The illegitimacy birth rate for black families across the nation is 70%. Some people can look at these numbers and tell themselves that everything is still fine. They are fooling only themselves.
And since, largely because of that lack of parental guidance, most of those kids are at risk for gangs, and random street violence, and God knows what other kinds of hell, how can a bunch of professional educators fix this gap? They literally have almost no chance. You cannot expect kids who live in constant fear and turmoil to learn much of anything in school.
The achievement gap is primarily a social issue with educational consequences, not primarily an educational issue. This distinction is key.
So, how do we fix it? Well, that is a tough question. In the case of the black family, I suspect that LBJ’s Great Society is largely to blame, and should be rolled back. The Great Society package of government services designed to “help” minorities — social welfare, education policy, the whole deal — is a massive failure. That much should be obvious by now. And it should also be obvious that as a piece of social engineering, it has almost destroyed the black family, at least in poor urban areas. These kinds of systemic problems just did not exist on this scale before government stepped in to save poor people. Are there still people who believe it can work? If so, why? How many decades of failure do you need to see before you abandon an idea?
So before we talk any more about fixing the achievement gap, let’s take a crucial first step and define the problem correctly. But this requires admitting the blindingly obvious, which often causes us as a society to shrink away. Can we go there yet, or are we still paralyzed by fear and platitudes, and caught in a web of lies?
A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. And refusing to be honest with others also means we are are refusing to be honest with ourselves. Do we care about fixing the problem, or not? So far, based on our responses, the answer would be “no”.