Can We Do More to Help Blacks Improve Their Lot?


Nebraska is a progressive state in many respects.  Last fall we raised our state minimum wage.   The Nebraska Legislature is now on the verge of eliminating the death penalty.  Seven years ago the Legislature established the Learning Community in metro Omaha, whose purpose is to eliminate the academic achievement gap between children from the middle class and those living in low-income families.
CaptureI am an elected member of the Learning Community Coordinating Council which oversees the work of the LC.  As such I give a lot of thought to the plight of the low-income black community in north Omaha.  My own answer to the question in the title is yes, of course, there is more we can do but it needs to be carefully directed.  I have written several previous posts on this topic. Here and here.
For example, the Hamilton Project has an excellent program, ”Policies to Address Poverty in America,”  which calls for a highly focused effort along the lines of:

  • Promoting Early Childhood Development
  • Supporting Disadvantaged Youth
  • Building Skills
  • Improving the Safety Net and Work Support

Mr. Robert Balfanz, the Director of the Everyone Graduates Center at John Hopkins University in Baltimore, suggests focusing on the toughest 660 out of 12,600 high schools in the U.S. which fully one-half of non-graduating students attend.  More specifically:

  • Refocus these high poverty high schools in order to identify by the middle of the ninth grade the students most likely to drop out.
  • Set up early warning systems so that adults can step in at the first sign that a student is in trouble.
  • Employ additional adults to support students who need daily nagging to succeed, especially during the key transitional years in the sixth and ninth grades.

These two programs have lots of similarities and are focused on at-risk inner-city youth.  Massive black underachievement is a huge social problem, and ultimately a huge drain on our entire economy as well.  More than just good intentions are necessary for effective intervention.  An intelligent and focused approach as described here would be a good way to proceed.

Why America Needs the Common Core


It is well understood that American educational standards are falling behind those of many other developed nations.  I have recently discussed this issue from the point of view of giving more public support to community colleges, as recently proposed by President Obama.
Capture1But the problem is much broader than this. American college students in general score very poorly in basic critical thinking and communication skills.  As the above chart shows, even college seniors are only 60% proficient in these skills and college freshmen do much more poorly.
A new book, “The Smart Society: Strengthening America’s Greatest Resource, its People,” by the political scientist, Peter Salins, provides a good description of the basic problem.  It starts long before college!  America actually has two different K-12 academic achievement gaps.  One, the “Megagap” is the huge test score disparity between middle class students and low-income students, who are largely minorities.  This achievement gap is best addressed with expanded early childhood education, as we are beginning to do in Omaha NE where I live.
But as Mr. Salins points out there is also a Mainstream Achievement Gap between what most non-disadvantaged American youth are capable of learning and what is actually expected of them in the typical U.S. public school.  It is this learning gap which is primarily responsible for America’s mediocre standing on international achievement tests.
CaptureMr. Salins argues that the Mainstream gap is closable because there is such an enormous variation in achievement scores among the 50 states, as shown in the above chart.  In particular, in Massachusetts, a top state, the Education Reform Act of 1995 included the following reforms:

  • The requirement for all state school districts to adhere to rigorous curriculum specifications.
  • A new statewide diagnostic testing protocol.
  • More rigorous testing of new teacher candidates.
  • A statewide uniform high school graduation standard.

Reforms such as these are what make up the Common Core State Standards Initiative.  Such high standards are working well in the top performing states.  Other states need to seriously implement these same standards.  America’s competitive edge depends on it!


Why Nebraska Needs a Learning Community III. High Black Unemployment


Omaha’s Metropolitan Area Planning Agency has just released a comprehensive report, “Equitable Growth Profile of the Omaha-Council Bluffs Region,” describing the challenges facing the Omaha area economy in the next 25 years.
CaptureAs also reported in the Omaha World Herald  MAPA says that:

  • Racial minorities currently make up 21% of the area’s population, up from 9% in 1980. Under current trends minorities will comprise 39% of the population by 2040.
  • Minorities are less likely than whites to have high school degrees, associate degrees, or four-year college degrees.
  • The education gap contributes to a skills gap which in turn contributes to a jobs and income gap. As shown above, black unemployment at 12.2% (in March 2014) is much higher than the unemployment rate for any other racial group.

MAPA has several suggestions for improving job prospects for blacks such as more and better job training, better public transit, and helping minority owned businesses.  It also suggests building “cradle to career” pipelines for underprivileged youths.
This last suggestion is precisely what the Omaha area Learning Community is focused on.  As I reported  several months ago, the superintendents of the 11 school districts in the Learning Community have approved a comprehensive plan for Early Childhood Education whose purpose is to make sure that children from low-income families are well prepared to succeed in school.  It will be funded by a ½ cent levy approved by the Learning Community Coordinating Council.
These same 11 superintendents are highly supportive of the overall mission of the LC to close the academic achievement gap between low-income students and middle class students.  They have recently submitted a report to the Education Committee of the Nebraska Legislature suggesting ways to make the LC even more effective than it is already.
Achieving improved educational outcomes for minorities has been called America’s big new civil rights challenge of the 21st century.  Omaha is making significant strides in addressing this problem thanks to a huge communitywide effort by many different organizations including the Learning Community.

Reforming Remedial Education


Many observers agree that one of the best ways to boost the economy and reduce income inequality is to improve educational outcomes at both the K-12 and postsecondary levels.  One of the main barriers to accomplishing this goal is the huge K-12 achievement gap between students from low-income families and those from middle class families.  This creates a huge need for remedial education in college as shown in the chart below.
CaptureA recent article in the Wall Street Journal, “Remedial Courses in College Stir Questions Over Cost, Effectiveness,”  shows the dramatic increase in the number of undergraduate students taking remedial courses in recent years and also the extent to which these remedial students are receiving financial aid in the form of Pell grants.  The article points out that some states such as Connecticut, Florida and Tennessee are no longer requiring remedial education for students who test poorly.
But the educators Jane Wellman and Bruce Vandal say not so fast in an article “5 Myths of Remedial Education

  • Myth #1. Remedial Education is K-12’s problem. Colleges could do a much better job of specifying clear benchmarks for college success.
  • Myth #2. Remedial Education is a Short-Term Problem. Even if the Common Core curriculum raises high school standards, there will still be a large number of poor performers, as well as older adults returning to school, who will need remediation.
  • Myth #3. Colleges Effectively Determine College Readiness. College placement tests do not provide a precise diagnosis of student skill deficiencies.
  • Myth #4. Remedial Education is Bankrupting the System. Remediation using non-tenured faculty and making heavy use of technology is not expensive and can be very effective. (The UNO Math Department, where I work, is a good example of this.)
  • Myth #5.   Maybe Some Students are Just Not College Material. This is an elitist point of view which minimizes the importance of postsecondary education in today’s economy.

As the article concludes, “Remedial education is the 800-pound gorilla that stands squarely in the path of our national objective to increase the number of adults with a college degree. … Our nation can no longer afford these myths.”

The Learning Community Is Not a “Failed Experiment”!


The “Learning Community” represents an experiment being conducted in Omaha, Nebraska, where I live, to determine whether the entire metro area can work together to close, or at least narrow, the academic achievement gap between low-income and middle class students. The extent of the problem is clearly demonstrated by the chart below which shows that starting in elementary school reading proficiency is lower for low-income students and this “gap” continues to get worse in middle school and then gets much worse in high school.  Not surprisingly, the same problem exists throughout the entire state of Nebraska to only a slightly lesser degree.
CaptureNow, six years after the establishment of the Learning Community by the Nebraska Legislature, the superintendents of the 11 LC school districts are putting together a comprehensive report on its operation.  There have been repeated complaints about the fairness of the LC’s common property tax levy because it has created many more losers than winners among the 11 districts.  There have also been questions raised about the costs and efficacy of the “open enrollment” facet of the plan whereby low-income students can transfer to an adjoining district and receive free transportation.  It is useful for the superintendents to address these issues in an organized manner.
What will be difficult, of course, is for all eleven school boards to come together in agreement on a final report to the legislature.  The Omaha World Herald reports today  on how that process is going. The superintendents are actually very positive about a new program for early childhood education as well as other elementary learning center programs housed primarily in North and South Omaha.
One superintendent has suggested to his Board that they might want to tell lawmakers that the Learning Community should be declared a “failed experiment” and dissolved.  But given the enormity of the achievement gap, as discussed above, it is unlikely that a majority of the K-12 educational leadership in Omaha will support such a negative recommendation.
The U.S. must figure out how to do a better job of educating children from low-income families and Omaha’s Learning Community is making significant progress in addressing this very critical national problem.

Frustration Has Deep Economic Roots


My last two posts have dealt with the racial unrest in Ferguson MO and how American society should respond to the basic underlying causes.  In particular Omaha NE where I live is in the process of setting up a large scale pilot project in early childhood education to better prepare children from low-income families to succeed in school.
The St. Louis Post Dispatch had a recent article “Frustration in North County Has Deep Economic Roots” pointing out, for example, that unemployment for young black men in St. Louis is 47% compared to 16% for young white men.  Said the author, David Nicklaus, “If police tactics were the spark which set off the explosion in Ferguson this week, then poverty and hopelessness were the tinder.  Those in charge of the police can begin the healing process, but it won’t be complete unless we tackle the deeper economic issues too.”
CaptureThe Equality of Opportunity Project at Harvard University has published a chart (above) showing the degree of upward mobility for children born into low-income families in different parts of the country.  Omaha ranks much higher than St. Louis but not as high as it could.  The current unemployment rate in Omaha is 3.8% which essentially represents full employment.  This means that there are plenty of jobs available for well qualified applicants.
Capture1However the above chart shows the extent of the achievement gap in metro Omaha between middle class children and children living in poverty.  It is already substantial for fourth grade reading proficiency and becomes much worse in the higher grades. Conclusion:  in Omaha NE the root cause of lack of economic opportunity for racial minorities living in poverty is not the availability of jobs but the inadequate educational achievement to hold a good job.
Omaha is a prosperous community in a prosperous state.  But it could do a better job of educating children living in poverty.