Head Above Water: The Struggle For Progress in America’s Public Schools


It has been argued by countless scholars and social scientists that one of the major factors to generational poverty is lack of adequate public education. Much too often, American families are forced to send their children to under performing schools which consistently fail to meet state and federal standards. The vicious cycle of generation after generation of lower-income families consistently receiving insufficient public education that do not equip them with the minimum skills to complete any post-secondary educational program, has built in increasing percent of the population that cannot contribute to future progression of America as a world power. This social phenomenon termed “The Achievement Gap” has matured throughout the twentieth century and now is at the forefront of education reform for last two decades. However, poor children receiving poor educations is not a unique situation in America, in fact, the achievement gap has been a low priority in American politics since the current public education model’s inception nearly a century ago. Many critics quite harshly imply that the citizenships lack of interest in this subject stems from an embedded stigma of racism in American culture, they claim that white America does not care about minority children’s unequal educational opportunities, because it perpetuates the superiority of white culture and intellect, furthermore ensuring the institution of white American dominance on the culture as a whole. Of course, the brigade of opposition to such implications explain that the achievement gap is a result of various socio-economic factors that hinder a student’s ability to learn properly. Whichever side of the argument one finds comfort in the fact still remains that the achievement gap potentially can lead to the demise of America as a dominating force in the world. Hence, although the achievement gap is primarily spawned in America’s forgotten impoverished communities, many Americans’ are beginning to realize that the “Gap” ultimately is going to negatively affect all Americans in the future. This realization has policy makers, educators, and parents scrambling for answers and possible solutions to closing the gap.

Still Waters Run Deep: The Plight of Educating the Under-Educated

“Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.” – James Baldwin

The staggering reality that, “Eighty-five percent of poor 4th graders in predominantly low-income schools are failing to reach “proficient” levels in reading on federal tests,” (Viadero) is extremely disheartening; nevertheless, it is a trend in public education that continues to grow in spite of various reform measures enacted by state and federal legislatures. Many education reformers promote that reform is aimed in the wrong direction and that more drastic measures must be taken. They feel that the system is in need of a total overhaul in the way schools are operated and how teachers are assessed. Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of the worst school district in the country, Washington D.C. said in an interview, “Public education is supposed to be the great equalizer in this country. Instead, children who grow up in Georgetown and those who grow up in the poor, mostly black neighborhood of Anacostia get two wildly different educational experiences. There’s a lot of data showing that we’re utterly failing our children in this district” (Kristof). A drastic measure is one of the many things Rhee had become known for during her short stint as D.C. School Chancellor. She closed 23 schools in her first year and fired hundreds of principals, teachers and superintendents immediately after taking her position. Many believe  that her aggressive tactics were unjustified and mismanaged, but in the first year of her reign test scores began to rise from the previous year’s results. For the first time, there was someone in public education that took action and yielded results. Although not politically correct, Rhee’s intentions were to close the achievement gap in D.C. and isn’t that what everybody wants?

Most American citizens would like to believe that the racism which played a vital role in America’s historic economic growth is merely a plague of the past. However, the ghosts of America’s founding still linger in some of its institutions and communities today. Figure one displays the results of a study done in 2005 by the National Assessement of Eduactional Progress(NAEP), a testing program mandated by the U.S. Department of Education. The NAEP study concluded that the academic acheivement gap between black and white nine year olds in math has decreased since 1973, however, the decreased value is not enough to be an effective measure to closing the gap. Furthermore, they have declared the current structure of America’s elementary schools do not provide an eqaul qaulity of education to low-income students (National Assesment of Educational Progress).

Figure 1  Source: NAEP- 2005 Long Term Math Assessment, NAEP Data Explorer.

In Philadelphia, public schools in lower-income communities are extremely underfunded, which serves as the primary reason educators nationwide gives for low test scores. Patricia Hawke a staff writer for educational website K-12 highlighted the disparities of Philadelphia’s schools in her article “Funding Nightmares in Philadelphia Schools” (Hawke), stating that;

“An undeniable angle to the disparities in funding of Philadelphia schools is that of racism. School districts with a predominantly Afro-American or Latino population end up receiving step-motherly treatment. These districts are usually the least funded. Since the state funding for Philadelphia schools is as low as 35% they are heavily dependent on local funding. So, non-white neighborhoods which are usually inhabited by middle-class and lower middle-class families who also don’t speak English are the ones who bear the brunt. They find themselves at the receiving end at all times” (Hawke).

Hawke proposes that a possible solution to this funding issue would be to combine local tax revenue for education funding and allow the state to distribute it evenly between all public schools. Hawke’s proposal may seem like an obvious solution to a social injustice that plagues our society, but how local administration uses the money is the root of the issue. Although tax revenue from lower-income communities may amount to less money than revenue from more affluent districts, the state usually supplements the difference. Camden, New Jersey, one of the nation’s poorest and most dangerous communities spent over $19,000 per student during the 2008-2009 school year. While Cherry Hill, New Jersey a neighboring and more prosperous community spent barely over $12,000 per student that same school year. The per pupil spending for Camden’s school system is comparable to other districts that consistently record great scores on the state test, nonetheless, Camden’s annual testing scores are among the lowest in the country. Funding for schools is a vital entity which yields resources for students and faculty, but it is not the only factor that makes a productive student body.

Going Against the Grain: The Importance of Charter Schools

“He, who opens a school door, closes a prison.”  –  Victor Hugo

Since 1991 charter schools have been sprouting up across America, however, growth of such institutions has always been met with opposition by community organizations and teachers unions. These organizations that represent the opposition, among other things, protest the opening of charter schools because they feel that, “they take resources from traditional public schools without improving students’ education” (Medina). On the contrary, all charter schools document increases in state student assessments in all subjects, and if the school within a four year period does not consistently report adequate student achievement levels than it will be closed. This standard of accountability is not present in traditional public schools, because the school’s administration is restricted by the teachers union in disciplining incompetent teachers, however in charter schools there are no unions which allows school administrators to hold teachers accountable for their student’s academic standing. Traditional public school students may not reach grade level in annual state assessments for an infinite amount of years; however, the only effective option for policy makers is reform and funding adjustments, because teacher’s union requires a due process for all tenured members which make it very difficult to dismiss ineffective teachers. Charter school administrators are not restricted by unions or the rules that most traditional public schools must follow. Advocates for education reform highlight often that the non-presence of teacher’s union restrictions benefits the administrators, teachers, and parents whose children finally attend a school in which they finally can excel.

In Harlem, New York City, charter schools are the only schools whose students’ accomplish grade level assessments each year. The Harlem Success Academy is one of the country’s most renowned charter schools and since its inception has had a student body that scores at or above grade level 100% of the time. Recently retired New York City Public School Chancellor Joe Klein “…routinely praises (H.S.A.) as Exhibit A for educational reform.” (Gonzalez). Also New York City mayor Michel Bloomberg, has held Harlem Success Academy and charters like it in high esteem as model in education that all schools should aspire too (Gonzalez). Institutions such as Harlem Success Academy defy the odds, proving to the nay-sayers that it possible to educate impoverished children no matter what their situations. As C.E.O. of  The Success Academy Network Eva Moskowitz states, “The problem is not the children, it’s the adults. We do not have a magic trick here; we just set the bar high, and work hard to make sure our children meet it” (Moskowitz). There are many that would dispute Moskowitz’s point of view, but there is something to be said about charter schools pulling excellence out of children, that so many determined were unable to excel.

Works Cited

Aronowitz, Scott. How can American education compete globally?5 November 2009. 27 November 2010 <http://www.thejournal.com>.

Gonzalez, Jaun. Harlem Success Academy Expands Further into P.S. 123 in Harlem.2 July 2009. 27 November 2010 <http://www.nydailynews.com>.

Hawke, Patricia. Funding Nightmares In Philidelphia Schools.21 November 2010 <www.schoolsk-12.com>.

Kristof, Nicholas D. Education’s Ground Zero.21 March 2009. 23 November 2010 <http://www.nytimes.com>.

Medina, Jenifer. New York State Votes to Expand Charter Schools.28 May 2010. 25 November 2010 <http:www.nytimes.com>.

National Assesment of Educational Progress. http://www.state.nj.us/education/guide/2010/.2010. 23 November 2010 <http://www.state.nj.us/education/guide/2010/>.

The Lottery.Dir. Madeleine Sackler. Perf. Eva Moskowitz. 2009.

The Oprah Winfrey Show. The Shocking State of Our Schools.20 September 2010. 27 November 2010 <http://www.oprah.com>.

Turque, Bill. Rhee feeling “guilt” over Fenty loss.15 September 2010. 27 Novembe 2010 <http://www.washingtonpost.com>.

United Press International. U.S. Slipping in education rankings.19 November 2008. 27 November 2010 <http://www.upi.com>.

Viadero, Debra. Analysis Ties 4th Grade Reading Failure to Poverty.18 May 2010. 21 November 2010 <www.edweek.org>.