Oct 1, 2011

Being African-American in Iowa: Education

Iowa Pubic Radio (IPR) correspondent Rob Dillard (@IPRDillard) has been working on a year-long assignment on diversity. In March-April 2011, IPR ran series of stories on Being Latino in Iowa that highlighted the Latino experience in my home state. Dillard covered stories on the effect of Latino populations on small towns and the importance of Latino food and culture. This week the series returned to focus on a different population in our state--African-Americans.  According to IPR, U.S. Census data show there are now 90,000 African-American adults living in Iowa. According to state department of education enrollment figures, there are almost as many African-American children enrolled in our public schools. My husband and his family have lived in the state since the 1960's and I found it interesting to hear what Rob Dillard learned about Being African-American in Iowa in 2011. His series was divided into five parts: education, economy, politics, health, and spirituality.  I plan to blog about my thoughts on each of these issues and how they relate to my family's experiences in Iowa.

Both as a teacher and a parent of school-aged mixed race children, I found it very interesting to listen to Rob Dillard's piece on education (You can listen to it here:  Being African-American in Iowa: Education.) The piece centers on the Waterloo School District and spends time in a pre-k through 5th grade elementary school called the Dr. Walter Cunningham School for Excellence.  Named after Iowa's first black principal, Walter Cunningham is a public school where 92% of 400 students are black. School officials in the state department of education and the Waterloo School District say that No Child Left Behind data point to a huge gap in achievement between black students and white students.  For every 10 white students in the district, 8 are proficient in reading and math. For every 10 black students, 5 are proficient. District officials, like many other educators in the country are focused on the question,  "How do we close the achievement gap?"

A PBIS assembly at my children's school. Image credit: Bobby Duncan
In the school district where I live, we are seeing a similar gap in achievement that correlates closely with race/ethnicity. Like many other schools both in Iowa and across the country, educators in my home district are talking about how to close the gap. Some things they are trying at the Walter Cunningham School for Excellence and at other schools include: an extended school year (to prevent the loss of proficiency that occurs in all children over the summer),  Positive Behavior Interventions & Supports (a program of setting clear behavioral expectations and rewarding students for meeting them), and an instructional strategy called Differentiated Instruction (individualizing instruction to meet the abilities and needs of each student.)

There are several things that the Iowa Public Radio piece did not discuss. First and foremost is the fact that in Iowa (as well as throughout the rest of the nation) our schools are largely segregated. In the IPR-featured Waterloo school district, Walter Cunningham School is 92% minority. Across town in the same district is Poyner Elementary, which is only 12% minority. In the district my children attend, one school has 13% minority enrollment while another has 70% minority enrollment. It is important to note that in my children's school district (and across the country) poverty and ethnicity correlate: schools with high minority enrollment also have high levels of poverty. Like other school districts in the country, poverty and ethnicity also correlate with lower achievement.  Schools want to close that achievement gap, but are meeting a lot of resistance from parents --largely from white, European-American, educated and middle class parents.

Map via http://www.remappingdebate.org/map-data-tool/new-maps-show-segregation-alive-and-well

Many white, European-American parents are worried that their children are being exposed to a dumbed down curriculum, are being treated like lab rats in a behavioral scientist's research study, and are not receiving the kind of instruction that will permit them to be competitive in the global marketplace.  There is no evidence that the use of research-based practices to close the achievement gap will harm middle class European-American white kids. In fact, the opposite is true--for example, PBIS and Differentiated Instruction research data show that those programs and teaching methods help ALL children--regardless of ability, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status. So why are European-American white parents so resistant to changes that will close the achievement gap?

Here is what I know about my own children's education:
They attend a school that has more than 50% minority enrollment, and more than 50% of the students enrolled live in poverty. Their school is in its fifth year of using PBIS and the staff believes the program is making significant positive changes for both them and for students. They are working really hard to close the achievement gap by using PBIS to teach behavioral expectations to all students, and Differentiated Instruction to meet the academic needs of all students. Every student in the school shows tremendous growth each year. Those that start out below proficiency show significant improvement in math and reading by the end of the school year. My own children are usually already at or above-proficiency level when they start the school year, but that doesn't mean that their teachers stop teaching them--they are still learning and growing. There is no shortage of opportunities for them to be creative, to learn, or to move forward to more challenging material. There is no doubt in my mind that my children will go on to be extremely successful at whatever they decide to do with their lives because they are receiving a quality education. The methods used by my neighborhood school not only help to close the achievement gap, but they also work to help students like my kids--those who are already proficient in their grade-level materials.

When there is that kind of research and that kind of testament to the success of programs that help close the achievement gap, and white parents don't want their children exposed to them, I am left wondering...Why?  Why are you so against schools using research-based practices that will improve the future for children of color (who will represent a majority of adults by the year 2042)? How can you be so against it when those same practices will also help your white, European-American children? At the very least, those parents exhibit a selfish interest in "my kid" rather than showing a vested an interest in "our nation's kids."  At the very worst, their resistance may be an attempt to protect their white privilege and/or further our nation's history of institutionalized racism.

We all care deeply about our children. But we need to think about their lives in the future. The U.S. Census predicts that by 2042 our current minorities will be the majority. Kindergarteners today will be adult leaders in 2042--old enough to run for the office of President of the U.S.A. Do you want the majority of our country's adults in 2042 to be the product of schools that settled for less? Should we just leave those kids behind and allow the achievement gap to continue? Shall we just cast aside what research says will close the achievement gap so that the white folks can remain on top and in power? It is time to worry about more than just your own kid. We need to worry about all of Iowa's kids, about all of our nation's kids. Let's close the gap.

Flickr image credit: zimpenfish 


  1. There are two schools of thought in the U.S.
    Those who believe in multiculturalism and integration; and those who are xenophobic and separatist. The move to integration and fairness is slow because U.S. courts are mostly conservative (slow to change). Change will arrive when the people demand it. 

  2. No child left behind data should be compared by zip code, not by 'race'. When a zip code shows lower test scores, a tutoring center / homework center can be opened WITHIN that zip code. Single and low income parents (who may be working two jobs) don't always have the time or energy to sit with their children to help them with their homework. 

  3. One of the things mentioned in the Iowa Public Radio piece was the fact that before NCLB, no one really had concrete evidence of the achievement gap. Now we have the numbers to prove that kids of color are not performing as well as their European-American peers. That was the first really "good" thing I'd heard about the law. Another good thing is that schools failing to meet AYP must provide after-school tutoring for students who need it. My kids' school has a free program that runs each day until 5:30 and it helps those working parents you mentioned a lot. The program is in its third year and they are seeing a significant increase in achievement during the school-year; but we don't have a continuous school-year and a lot was lost over the summer. That's going to be my next local activist push--toward an extended school year. 

  4. You are right, Glenn. I'm finding that many European-American folks don't even know there are two schools of thought. They just blindly stick with their own kind.

  5. Jen, both PBIS and Differentiated Instruction sound like wonderful concepts. I wonder if the resistence doesn't come from a place of "misinformation." Not just that, but the mere fact that somebody's trying to change something that for "them" has never been an issue (which is really the issue!) A country that continues to ignore that "poverty and ethnicity correlate with lower achivement" is one that is short-sighted and setting itself up for failure. Whatever approach to closing the achievement gap, it should be both student-centered and school-centered and culturally sensitive to the population it intends to service. Awesome post, Jen. I'm going to set the time aside to listen to both the Being Latino and Being African-American pod casts.

  6. That must drive you nuts.


  7. I think government unemployment statistics where an indicator of job ready skill attainment before NCLB was invented. A teacher on the radio said that he sees children fill in the same bubble letter all the way down, then set down their pencil and take a nap. These tests are of no value to the children. They may be thinking that more funding will go to their school if they do poorly on the test.  

  8. I've seen that bubble-filling technique myself. Many of my students draw patterns. I have to beg them to try their best because now those tests will be reviewed by administrators as a reflection of my teaching skill. 


What do you think? Start a conversation here!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...