Tuesday, May 31, 2016

A Social Justice Mindset Must Become a Leading Indicator for Closing the Opportunity Gap

            The National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) defines literacy as the use of “printed and written information to function in society, to achieve one's goals, and to develop one's knowledge and potential.”  Average scores on the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) literacy scale for adults age 16 to 65 ranged from 250 in Italy to 296 in Japan.  The U.S. average score was 270.  Compared with the U.S. average score, the average scores in 12 countries were higher, in 5 countries they were lower, and in 5 countries they were not significantly different.
            A potential indicator of an opportunity gap rather than an achievement gap is based on the PIAAC international average distribution of literacy skills.  Comparatively, the United States had a larger percentage of adults performing at both the top and bottom of the distribution.  Thirteen percent of U.S. adults age 16-65 performed at the highest proficiency level (4/5) on the PIAAC literacy scale.  This was higher than the international average of 12 percent.  Eighteen percent of U.S. adults performed at the lowest level of the PIAAC literacy scale (at or below Level 1), which was higher than the international average of 16 percent.
            Average scores on the IALS, ALL, and PIAAC literacy scales for adults in the United States age 16 to 65: Various years, 1994-2014

<="" * Significantly different (p < .05) from PIAAC 2012/14.
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Statistics Canada and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS), 1994-98; Adult Literacy and Lifeskills Survey (ALL), 2003-08; and Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), U.S. PIAAC 2012/2014.
1 Data from Australia are not shown due to national restrictions on the use of their data.

        Despite the Elementary and Secondary Education Act’s (1965) emphasis on closing the achievement gap, the 2001 reauthorization known as No Child Left Behind has produced only modest changes to literacy rates.  The PIAAC results (2012/2014) indicate a statistical significant change compared to the Adult Literacy and Lifeskills Survey (ALL, 2003-08) but was not significantly different than the score on the International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS, 1994-98).  Metrics, including those mentioned herein, have sought to quantify gaps in achievement.  However, perhaps it is time to examine the qualitative experiences found in diverse opportunities.
            The reality that problems exist for families regardless of their Socioeconomic status (SES) is indisputable.  However, the following may be helpful for understanding the real-life differences and opportunities provided for middle and upper SES students compared to lower SES students:
A study by UNICEF (2007) of the twenty-one richest nations in the world found the United States ranked last in almost every indicator of children’s well-being.  The United States had more children living in poverty (22%), had the worst record in child health and safety services, had the most children living in single-parent families, and had the lowest ranking in the positive health behaviors of its children.  Another analysis of poverty in America concluded that “disproportionately large numbers of American children remain poor” with 38% of children under 18 living in low-income families (Education Commission of the States, 2007).  Furthermore, the gap between the rich and the poor in the United States is widening.  Between 1979 and 2004, the after-tax income of the top 1% of the population nearly tripled, rising from $314,000 to nearly $868,000, for a total increase of $554,000 or 176% (with figures adjusted for inflation by using 2004 dollars throughout the analysis).  During that same timeframe, the average after-tax income of the middle fifth of the population rose a relatively modest 21%, or $8,500, reaching $48,400 in 2004.  Meanwhile, the average after-tax income of the poorest fifth of the population rose just 6%, or $800, during the past 25 years, reaching $14,700 in 2004 (Sherman & Aron-Dine, 2007).  Tax cuts enacted by the Bush administration in 2001 made the gap even more pronounced.  As a result of that legislation, in 2006, households in the bottom fifth of the income spectrum received tax cuts that averaged $20 and raised their after-tax incomes by an average of 0.3%, while households in the middle fifth of the income spectrum received tax cuts that averaged $740 and raised their after-tax incomes an average of 2.5%.  The top 1% of households, however, received tax cuts in 2006 that averaged $44,200 and increased their after-tax income by an average of 5.4% (Leiserson & Rohaly, 2006).  As one analysis concluded, “Income is now more concentrated at the top of the income spectrum than in all but two years since the mid-1930s” (Sherman & Aron-Dine, 2007).  From the liberal perspective, closing the student achievement gap required closing this cavernous and still growing gap between the poor and the middle class.  The disparity in achievement and academic potential between poor and middle-class students begins prior to children entering school and is only exacerbated during the school years (Lee & Burkham, 2002; Schemo, 2006; Steinberg, 1996; Rothstein, 2004).  Children of the poor are far more likely to attend lower-quality schools with substandard facilities, fewer resources, and less qualified teachers than their middle-class peers.  They return to homes and neighborhoods that are less likely to support student learning or communicate that learning is important (DuFour, DuFour, & Eaker, 2008, pp.49-50).  
The progressive perspective of this data is the problem does not originate in the schools but are societal conditions.  However, a social justice mindset recognizes social conditions creating an opportunity gap are leading indicators in education and must therefore, be addressed if we ever want to truly mitigate the trailing indicator known as the achievement gap.  Mehlinger (1995) posits, “If America’s poor children could be provided the same conditions for growing up, including the same quality of schools, as those afforded to middle-class suburban youth, we would have no crisis (in education) at all” (p. 27).  Otherwise, the following describes what has been the result of the opportunity gap leading to a discrepancy in achievement:
A chilling editorial in U.S. News & World Report (Zuckerman, 2006, 2015) warned that education and family background are replacing race and gender as barriers to upward mobility.  Throughout most of the 20th century, young boys and girls could choose to drop out of school and would still have access to the middle class.  That possibility is increasingly remote in contemporary America.  Today a school dropout earns only 65 cents for every dollar earned by the high school graduate and only 33 cents for each dollar earned by those with a bachelor’s degree (United States Census Bureau, 2006a).  Those with an undergraduate degree are most likely to move up from the income bracket in which they started, but a student from the top income quartile has a 1 in 2 chance of earning a degree, while the chances of a student from the bottom quartile earning a bachelor’s degree are less than 1 in 10.  A child in a family earning under $35,000 has a 1 in 17 chance (Brooks, 2006).  The American dream is receding from reach for many of our children.  Education opens not only economic doors, but other doors as well (DuFour, DuFour, & Eaker, 2008, pp.60-61).
Readers are encouraged to reflect upon the life opportunities provided to them.  How did your family rank on the statistical continuum related to SES as noted above?  Regardless of your high school successes, if you were a child in a family earning under $35,000 would you have been able to attend a college requesting $30K-$40K per year for annual tuition? 
This is why the seven correlates of Effective Schools Research (Lezotte & Snyder, 2011) address leading indicators of learning.  Schools interdependently implementing Effective Schools Research optimize the mission of learning for all regardless of SES factors.  We all desire to make a difference for our future students.  Collaborative leadership reminds us of a sound mission, provides a clear vision for growth, requires our professional integrity and competency, and details an action plan for sustained success, thereby optimizing opportunities to change students’ destinies! 
            The most effective way to mitigate the adverse impact of a lack of opportunity is to ensure public school are culturally responsive, capable of emotional nurturance, AND highly qualified to deliver the curricula.  The first two leading indicators address essential basic needs: love and belonging.  Maslow (1959) initially referred to basic needs as “deficiency needs” that must be satisfied BEFORE growth can occur (p.125).  The latter competency addresses the need for effective differentiation and Response for (Reading) Intervention.  The results of children failure in early childhood education includes:
  • Dropping out in later years at 3-4 times greater rates is correlated with children who have not developed some basic literacy skills by the time they enter school (National Adult Literacy Survey, (2001) NCES, U.S. Department of Education). 
  • More than 20 percent of adults read at or below a fifth-grade level.  This is far below the level needed to earn a living wage (National Institute for Literacy, Fast Facts on Literacy, 2001).
  • Approximately 50 percent of the nation's unemployed youth, age 16-21, are functional illiterate.  Given this they have virtually no prospects of obtaining good jobs  (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services).
  • Illiteracy is a variable in 75% of those on welfare, 85% of unwed mothers and 68% of those arrested are illiterate.  About 60% of America's prison inmates are illiterate (Washington Literacy Council).
  • Illiteracy and crime are closely related. The Department of Justice states,  "The link between academic failure and delinquency, violence, and crime is welded to reading failure."  Over 70% of inmates in America's prisons cannot read above a fourth grade level.
         The Parent Nurture Science Program of Columbia University seeks to identify research-based strategies for effective parent nurturing.  Respective of the opportunity gap related to poverty and single parent households, this program should generalize to teachers that must renew the educational axiom: In Loco Parentis.  To promote the common good, a culturally responsive teacher capable of emotional nurturance willingly acts in place of a parent.
            Lastly, the link between reading failure in the early elementary grades and failure in society is profound.  Sixty-six percent (66%) of students who cannot proficiently read by the end of 4th grade will become involved in jail or on welfare.  More than five million U.S. children (7%) had a parent who lived with them go to jail or prison.  This proportion is higher among black, poor, and rural children.  This creates a cycle that only a social justice mindset can begin to mitigate.  Therefore,  next month’s blog post will address the school failure to prison pipeline.    
To cite:
Anderson, C.J. (May 31, 2016) A social justice must become a leading indicator for closing the
               opportunity gap [Web log post] Retrieved from http://www.ucan-cja.blogspot.com/

DuFour, R., DuFour, R., & Eaker, R. (2008). Revisiting professional learning communities at
               work: New insights for improving schools. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.
Lezotte, L. W., & Snyder, K. M. (2011). What effective schools do: Re-envisioning the
               correlates. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.
Marzano, R. & Waters, T.(2009).  District leadership that works. Bloomington, IN: Solution
               Tree Press
Reason, C. (2010). Leading a learning organization: The science of working with others.
               Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.