In Pittsburgh, like most other large metropolitan areas, we have long had unacceptably large achievement gaps, along the lines of both race and socioeconomic status.[i] Over the years, PPS has implemented many reforms and programs trying to address these systemic and historic inequities. And yet we still have the same gaps, in part because our previous efforts have failed to address some of the most important factors affecting student outcomes, including early childhood learning and child poverty.[ii] The U.S. has the second highest child poverty rate of any industrialized country in the world, second only to Romania.[iii] A full 26% of U.S. children spend the first five years of their lives in poverty.[iv]

As terrible as that number is, it is even worse in Pittsburgh, especially for people of color. Of the top 40 major metropolitan areas in the U.S., Pittsburgh has the third-highest poverty rate for working-age African-Americans (ages 18-64). Almost half (45%) of all African-American children under the age of 18 live in households below the poverty line. A whopping 53% of black children from birth to age 5 live in poverty.[v]

These are the children who have historically attended the least-resourced schools, with the fewest extra-curriculars or A.P. classes, and the lowest graduation rates. Yet these are the very students hurt the most in the past decade by a toxic mix of de-funding (through local, state, and federal education budget cuts), school closures, and public policies aimed at privatizing public education.

Far too many Pittsburgh students face the effects of poverty, racism, discrimination, food insecurity, inadequate shelter, violent neighborhoods, healthcare disparities, and the criminalization of children of color. It is not just that poverty is racialized, but that racism is still a very real problem. As we talk about closing the so-called “racial achievement gap” we should remember that this term itself raises thorny issues. As teacher and education researcher Camika Royal has argued, “the cross-racial comparison that holds up white student achievement as the universally standard goal is problematic.” Royal further argues that the phrase is inaccurate because “it blames the historically marginalized, under-served victims of poor schooling and holds whiteness and wealth as models of excellence.”[vi] We ought to be focusing on the equality gap – equality of opportunity and income.

That doesn’t mean that what happens inside schools does not matter: it’s incredibly important. And our most under-served children deserve the very best schools, with adequate and equitable resources, quality teachers, and rich programs. If we close the opportunity gap, both inside and outside the school doors, we will see real learning and the love of learning improve for all children.


Related Yinzercation articles:

[i] See, e.g., A+ Schools, School Works Findings (June 13, 2013).

[ii] For a collection of sources on the impact of child poverty on education, see Broader, Bolder Approach to Education, “Annotated Bibliography.”

[iii] UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre (2012), ‘Measuring Child Poverty: New league tables of child poverty in the world’s rich countries’, Innocenti Report Card 10.

[v] Analysis by Harold D. Miller, Carnegie Mellon University, Post-Gazette, 5-5-13.

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