Unfinished Business: Closing the Racial Achievement Gap

Monday, January 19, 2015

Part of Dr. King's iconic "I Have a Dream" speech included the phrase, "Now is the time to open the doors of opportunity to all of God's children."

The audio from that phrase echoes even as I type those words.

NOW is the time...50 years ago.

And, still, the evidence suggests that the doors of opportunity are anything but open, at least not equitably, to all children in the United States. Too many correctly perceive that they may not be able to squeeze through the narrow crack in those doors. Too many have concluded that the American Dream is not for them, as they confront low levels of economic mobility, the elusiveness of higher education, and the specter of unaffordable student debt.

And too many of these, are students of color.

AEDI's research has contributed to the broad consensus that students of color fare worse in nearly all measures of educational attainment and related well-being. Our findings corroborate lower high school and college graduation rates, poorer labor market outcomes even controlling for educational status, and, most notably, far lower levels of wealth. These persistent and crushingly predictable inequities are an affront to Dr. King's vision of a racially-just society and a threat to the viability of the American ethos, which holds that only ability and effort should determine outcomes.

And, recent analysis by the Center for American Progress suggests, they are bad for the overall economy, too.

CAP's analysis suggests that closing the racial achievement gap could mean a $2.3 trillion boost in economic growth by 2050, in addition to the intangible benefits to the collective American psyche and, of course, to the individual students of color whose aspirations are, today, thwarted by reality. Doing the right thing would be the smart thing, too, but we are held back from significant progress against the achievement gap by the powerful forces that perpetuate racial divides.

The racial achievement gap stems from many factors, of course, as the report outlines:

"Gaps in academic achievement are a function of a host of factors, such as income and wealth inequality, access to child care and preschool programs, nutrition, physical and emotional health, environmental factors, community and family structures, differences in the quality of instruction and school, and educational attainment."

But complex causation does not preclude meaningful reform, and, indeed, the Center for American Progress concludes, "This suggests there are a wide range of public policies that could help narrow educational achievement gaps; this report demonstrates that there are enormous payoffs to closing the gaps through public policies."

At AEDI, we believe that one of the potent tools with which to confront these corrosive gaps is children's asset-building, an intervention that works on the metrics above to increase expectations and educational engagement, build empowerment through asset stores, and reshape the family's finances. We would never purport to shrink Dr. King's 'dream' to just an intervention, even a promising one like a CSA. But we sincerely and rather fervently offer our work to highlight and, then, redress, educational achievement gaps, as a humble continuation of Dr. King's vision.

Until those doors of opportunity are held open for all, there is work to be done.

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