Panelists discuss equity in Wisconsin education

Mouna Algahaithi, News Editor

Institutionalized racism is the root of which the “achievement gap” thrives on. This term doesn’t insinuate that most individuals in the United States are racist, but rather that government policies lead to disproportionate mass incarceration, high unemployment or low graduation rates among minorities, especially black, which allow for the cycle of racism to continue.

A study by the National Assessment of Education Progress showed that Wisconsin has the largest achievement gap between white and black students, as well as the highest black incarceration rate in the nation, according to UW-Milwaukee research findings.

On Thursday night, Nov. 5, Edgewood College and Simpson Street Free Press hosted a panel addressing Madison’s achievement gap, which refers to the discrepancy between academic performances between students of different ethnic, gender, and socioeconomic background compared to their white peers.

“To call it gap does not give it the gravitas it deserves,” says Gloria Ladson-Billings, pedagogical theorist and faculty of UW-Madison and panelist. “It’s not some nagging achievement gap. We’re in a persistent, structural crisis and we are at a point in which we can’t go another generation failing this many young people.”

According to Race to Equity: A Baseline Report on the State of Racial Disparities in Dane County, black third graders were 4.5 times more likely to have lower literacy skills, which is a wider gap than anywhere else in the country.

Meanwhile, whites do better in Dane County than the national average when it comes to health, employment, and educational achievement, according to the report. In 2011, studies showed that 75 percent of the black children in Dane County were living in poverty, compared to 5 percent of whites. Unemployment rates are 25 percent for blacks with only 5 percent for whites.

“I do think it’s an opportunity gap (instead of an achievement gap),” explained panelist and WIBA radio host Darrell Connor. “It needs to be examined, to see how we can make sure that all of our kids have the opportunity to succeed and to get the best education possible.”

James Kramer, executive director of the Simpson Street Free Press, another panelist, voiced his concerns: “There are many in Madison who don’t consider this a crisis. Behind the scenes, there’s talk about how kids don’t need to be college ready, but community ready.”

“There won’t be job opportunities in the future at (places like) Findorff or Epic for kids who don’t have the basic building blocks, skills that start with literacy, writing and math,” he said.

In Dane County, 86 percent of black third graders are not yet proficient in reading, with a similarly high percentage of black eighth graders not yet proficient in math, according to the Wisconsin Department of Public Education study in 2011.

“We want to think of this as an insolvable problem,” continued Billings. “It’s not.”

Billings cited studies showing that if a child has three really good teachers in a row, it will close the opportunity gap.

“We need some alignment and standards for which we are judging kids and teaching effectiveness so that the transition between elementary and middle school doesn’t end up as difficult as we see with our kids. The same with the transition from middle to high school and high school to postsecondary…alignment isn’t there, and is not that hard to do,” Billings concluded.

“As a post-secondary institution, we look at things not only from an academic standpoint but from an economic standpoint,” said panelist and Madison College President Dr. Jack E. Daniels III. “Folks can’t get the trainings for jobs if those opportunities weren’t available to them earlier. One of the key problems we look at is reading. If students don’t have the ability to read and comprehend, they will be less successful.

“We are also developing linkage programs between what students study and what they want to do. What is needed for what the actual goals of these students are? Young kids say I want to be a doctor, a teacher, well, what are the types of careers that allow one to be in the medical field that isn’t just a doctor? How do we engage young students, to excite them about taking the next level? The pathway is crucial and we need teachers who will encourage our students to make that next move.”

Teachers and other adults can have a huge impact in closing the gap, Billings said. “Our middle class students have a soccer coach, a ballerina instructor, … and (all of these make it) less likely that students will make catastrophic mistakes. We’ve created these systems that are self-fulfilling and that are designed for failure. This whole prison injustice system makes it virtually impossible for some families to get out of this cycle.”

Shining light on the brighter spots, one of the reporters pegged the question highlighting what society is doing right and where there is room for improvement.
“One of the things we’ve done right is that we’re still having this conversation,” Connor said. “When leaders get hired, one of the things that come up in conversation is how they’re going to address these issues.”

“We need to continue to work on bringing in professionals who care about each student’s success – to push them to do well. It won’t matter about zip code, color, background, religion, it is every student when walking into my classroom, and this is what I expect from you. Anything less is unacceptable.”

“As a community, we focus far too much on the issue of poverty when it comes to kids and education,” Connor continued. “It’ll cripple kids – because we have so much focus on poverty, that people will throw their hands up and say as soon as we can get rid of this poverty issue, we can address this school issue. This whole idea that we can’t achieve because of our surroundings is not the overriding issue to why kids don’t succeed.”

Billings also said that creating an academic atmosphere where cultural competence and exposure to a more global mindset will help students become more successful in a global economy.

“This is the only county in the world in which being bilingual is treated as a deficit,” she said. “It’s the only country where knowing more is treated as knowing less. The real deficiency is that we are promoting our white middle class kids who will not be able to participate in global economy because they are monolingual and monocultural. Cultural competence, how to have kids fluent in their own culture while at the same moment becoming fluent in at least one other culture, is what we would see in an ideal culture.”

President Daniels shared an anecdote about his time teaching in downtown Chicago to illustrate the importance of exposure. Teaching around 45 seventh and eighth graders at a school a few miles from downtown, none of the students had ever been downtown.

“If we don’t find ways to expose young kids to broader society, we will continue to have this difficulty with language and understanding cultural differences.”

Reporter Michelle Li asked what the media should be shining a light on.

“Advocate for our children,” Daniels replied. “… What their needs are and how do we meet them, and it’s by following those pathways for education. We’re taking a hit, nationally, and when you think about funding, the last thing that should ever be cut is education. In fact, we should be putting more into it. We don’t need to have our K12 institutions scrabbling for money.”

“Without those basic building blocks,” Kramer added, “our students, as bright as they are, are not going to succeed. The key is to create learning opportunities for young people that don’t replicate the classroom, but support the school day.”