By Chris Kieffer | NEMS Daily Journal
When then-Republican President George W. Bush and then-Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy worked together to secure passage of the federal No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, standardized testing became the tool by which America’s schools were measured.
Educators suddenly had access to reams of new data to analyze a problem that had long been suspected – gaps in school performance between students of different races and economic classes.
“Closing the achievement gap” became a talking point in the education world, but its causes were not easy to pinpoint.
Many attributed it to economics, noting that low-income children have less access to educational resources.
Vocabulary tends to be spoken much more robustly in higher-income households, studies say, and low-income children enter kindergarten having heard millions fewer words than their wealthier counterparts. A gap exists before they make their first trip to the schoolhouse.
“Poverty has a devastating effect on children, and it is very difficult to overcome not only 300 years of poverty but also lack of education,” said Andy Mullins, chief of staff to the University of Mississippi chancellor who has helped spearhead educational reform in Mississippi for the past 30 years. “It is very difficult to overcome in one generation.”
Tupelo Assistant Superintendent Fred Hill said he believes the biggest factor is the wealth of new experiences often not available to lower-income students. Those opportunities; whether it is vacations, cultural exposure or knowledge gained outside of school; make lessons meaningful.
“Experience makes curriculum relevant,” he said. “You use practical things in your life and make connections.”
Others say that those trying to address the gap shouldn’t limit themselves to economic causes. These individuals note that efforts must also consider ways to rethink school structures that may be more favorable to white students.
Prior to integration, black schools were the centers of their communities, said the Rev. Charles Penson and several other black leaders. Teachers were all black and often saw their students at church and throughout the community.
Since integration, some of that community connection was lost, especially when teachers and administrators tended to be more white.
“We’ve thought back to integration, if we put all kids together, lower socioeconomic groups would automatically do better because they would have better resources,” said longtime Tupelo education advocate Billy Crews.
“I’m not sure that has proven to be accurate. You have to adjust your system to get results.
“That is not to say an integrated system is not a good thing. It is, in my personal viewpoint, but we are naive in saying the system automatically benefits minorities across the board.”