photo: Ben+Sam via Flickr

No matter how tough politicians and education pundits talk the obstacles remain. Massachusetts is a good example. The Boston Globe reports that among 3rd graders last year, minority and low income students were twice as likely as white students to score lowest in the state’s standardized tests. These are discouraging numbers for everyone, and they are pretty much replicated nationally. They raise the question: Why after all these years of No Child Left Behind are we still struggling to achieve parity between rich and poor students, between white and minority children?

Nobody is satisfied with our schools, and there’s blame all round as experts scramble for solutions: We label schools as failing. We fire whole teachings staffs. We tweak curricula. We script teachers’ every move. We increase the school day and student seat time at the expense of art, music and recreation. Still things don’t improve.

Maybe we’re not listening to the right people. Somebody like Dick Gregory, for example. Yeah, Dick Gregory. You may remember him (if you’re old enough)—African American comedian, civil rights activist, 1968 presidential candidate, author, and nutrition guru? His list of accomplishments doesn’t include education specialist, but he knew quite a lot about why schools fail and about the “achievement gap.” He went to one of those failing schools and was trapped in that gap.

Most of my students—kids serving time in an adult county jail where I taught high school—didn’t know who Dick Gregory was when I announced that we were going to read a short chapter entitled “Shame” from his autobiography. At first they weren’t interested. They assumed (like so many teenagers) that the reading, any reading would be boring. Then when I mentioned that he was black, and had marched with Dr. King there was a spark of curiosity. It was enough to get us into the chapter. After that they were hooked. . . .

In a page and a half, Gregory tells the reader (and America if we would only listen) why poor kids of color fail in school. In heartbreaking detail he writes about being in the third grade filled with shame—the shame of poverty, of being a “welfare kid,” of being abandoned by his father, of living in the projects, of wearing dirty clothes because once again there wasn’t any hot water, of having little food, and of living with rats and bugs.

When my locked-up students read that he was a “troublemaker” in school, the little kid who spent more time in the corner facing the wall than he did at his desk, none of them was surprised. And when Gregory wonders out loud why the teacher didn’t understand that maybe he caused trouble not because he was bad or stupid but because he was poor and hungry and too tired to concentrate you could hear the whispered, “Ya got that right,” followed by, “bitch” when she berates him in front of the class, talking about “you and your kind.”

The reading may seem dated to those of us comfortable with the gifts of life; after all that was back in the late 30s. But my students had no problem with what Gregory described. Most of them lived similar lives, although I would venture to say, much harsher and more embattled ones. They grew up in neighborhoods overrun with drugs, guns and random violence, in households fractured by unemployment, disease and substance abuse. My students went to schools that never had enough books or supplies or staff to go around, in falling down buildings in neighborhoods unsafe to walk. A friend of mine works in a school where it’s not unusual that kids can’t play outside at recess because of drive-by-shootings.

If it wasn’t good in Dick Gregory’s day, it’s far from good for minority students today. The 2010 Census confirms this: Black children are three times as likely to be poor as white children. Forty percent of black children are born into poor families compared with 8% of white children. An even more alarming statistic is that an African American boy born in the past decade has a 1-in-3 chance of being incarcerated in his lifetime.

There’s a poignant moment in Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools when he goes into an East St. Louis grade school classroom that is dirty, dilapidated, and overcrowded. At one point Kozol reports that as he came into a classroom a young boy looked up at him with an expression that asked, “What did I do to deserve this?” The “achievement gap”—which is just that young boy’s unspoken question in a different form—will never be closed until our policymakers, educational and otherwise, aggressively address the underlying issues of poverty and racism that cripple every aspect of poor and minority children’s lives.  Maybe those policymakers need to stop talking and listen for a change to people who know a lot more than they do about failing schools, and about failing lives.

Originally posted on Beacon Broadside