By Freddie Allen
NNPA Senior Washington Correspondent

WASHINGTON (NNPA) – Education reform alone isn’t enough to close achievement gaps between Blacks and Whites, according to a new report by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI).

The study by EPI, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank focused on the needs of low- and middle-income families, analyzed how key social and class factors work to diminish student achievement. Those characteristics include parenting practices, single parenthood, irregular work schedules, lack of access to primary and preventive health care and lead exposure.

Leila Morsy, a lecturer from the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, said that even though politicians understand that family and community characteristics affect student performance, they don’t understand how to address its impact.

“Though not all lower-social-class families have each of these characteristics, all have many of them,” Morsy said in a statement. “Pushing policies that address these social class characteristics might be a more powerful way to raise the achievement of disadvantaged children than school improvement strategies.”

Educators should still be encouraged to support strategies such as improving access to early childhood care and education, school-based health centers and after-school and summer opportunities, the report suggested, but those programs must be pursued in conjunction with “macroeconomic policies like full employment, higher wages, and stable work schedules,” that also help to nurture children.

Parental engagement and an educational home environment are critical to fostering student achievement.

According to the Education Department’s Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (Kindergarten Class of 2010–2011), Black parents reported an average of 44 books in the home, less than half the number given by White parents (112). Black parents also spend about 40 percent less time reading to their young children compared to Whites and Black mothers are “two-thirds as likely as White mothers to read to toddlers daily,” according to the EPI report.

Parental engagement and home environment can be life-changing in those preschool years and research shows that poor families, independent of race, can take steps to make sure that their children don’t lose ground to their financially-stable peers.

“Low-income parents of children in Head Start who spend more time reading to their children, visit the library more often, keep more children’s books in the home, and begin reading to their children at an earlier age have children with higher literacy skills,” the report said. “These children are more ready to read when they reach school age, have better vocabularies, are better able to identify words and letters, and know more story and print concepts – the title of a book, the author, reading from left to right, understanding characters’ feelings.”

More than half of Black children under the age of 18 live in homes with absent fathers, compared to just 18 percent of White children.

The report said that single parents are more stressed and that single mothers who suffer from depression at higher rates are “more likely to abuse children, causing worse outcomes for children themselves.”

That stress is compounded when parents have irregular or nighttime work schedules.

“For example, for low-income African American mothers of preschool children, each additional nighttime hour of work is associated with a decrease in cognitively stimulating mother–child activities,” the report said.

Even though most poor children can get health care through Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), they still face hurdles accessing primary and preventive care. Doctors are also in short supply in low-income communities. That means poor children, especially poor Black children, have to wait longer to get treated for common illnesses, including allergies, asthma and dental problems.

Despite strides to eliminate lead in gasoline and in paint for about 40 years, Blacks are still twice as likely as Whites to have dangerous levels of the metal in their blood.

“Even very low levels of lead contribute to cognitive impairment, including reductions in IQ and verbal and reading ability, with no identifiable safe bottom threshold,” the report stated. “Childhood lead exposure also appears to be closely linked to young adult criminal behavior. Crime rates fell more rapidly in states where leaded gasoline was banned more quickly.”

Black children from low-income families absorb more lead from their environment, because they have less calcium in their diets, negatively affecting brain development.

The report noted that discrimination in the criminal justice system leads to higher incarceration rates for young, Black men. Prison convictions make it harder for Black fathers to find gainful employment to support their families, which can also affect the academic success of their children.

“Reforming drug laws, ending imprisonment of non-violent offenders, and curtailing racial profiling in urban policing can result in fewer young African American men disqualified from employment because they report criminal records,” the EPI report suggested.

The report also recommended curbing “just-in-time” work schedules, expanding full-service school-based health centers and protecting children from lead exposure can have a positive impact in the lives of children from low-income families.

Richard Rothstein, a research associate with the Economic Policy Institute and co-author of the report, said that closing the education achievement gap is going to take social reform for low-income families and their children.

“Policymakers should focus on improving the living conditions of these children and their families,” said Rothstein. “That is likely to have a palpable impact on closing the achievement gap.”


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