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Originally published Saturday, September 8, 2012 at 2:28 PM

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Op ed: Education challenge for next 50 years is the achievement gap

The biggest challenge facing education in the next 50 years is the achievement gap for minority and low-income children, writes guest columnist Tre' Maxie.

Special to The Times

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AS we grapple with how to close the achievement gap for low-income children of color now, we should start thinking about how education will look in Washington state in 50 years. Left unchecked, this gap will become a giant chasm as our country's demographics and economics change dramatically.

Recent census trends reveal that for the first time, children of color have become the majority of children under the age of 1 in the U.S., with a large number living in families who are below the poverty line. This portends that in the late 2030s or 2040s, the U.S. population will become less than 50 percent non-Hispanic white.

There is also evidence that the income gap has surpassed the gap between racial groups. The achievement gap between low income and non-low income students has surged by more than 40 percent, and is now double the gap between African Americans and whites, according to a recent study by Stanford University Professor Sean Reardon.

For schools to prepare all children for success in life and the workforce, severe disparities in family income, coupled with inadequate education funding and low expectations can no longer be widely accepted causes of inequity in student opportunity.

Some families can afford to spend more to ensure their child is successful in and out of school. Most low-income families -- which disproportionately include African-Americans and Latinos -- cannot.

The current inequity of student achievement in our public schools is epidemic. There are big forces at play, both economic and societal that rob children of their right to a chance at success in life. Just as the education opportunity gap for low-income children has grown, so has the access-to-enrichment gap.

Between birth and age 6, wealthier children will have spent as many as 1,300 more hours than poor children on child-enrichment activities such as music lessons, travel, and summer camp, according to Reardon's study. Why has family income become an acceptable leading indicator of opportunity for children to learn and explore?

If we want our education system to produce strong results for all children, we must address both school and nonschool factors in tandem, especially for low-income families.

School factors are significant including teachers, principals and expectations. However, increasingly nonschool factors such as family access to health, stable housing and a child's access to quality enrichment activities are equally important to student achievement.

All leaders must set aside orthodox positions on public education and find common ground to fully fund education and they must address the significant nonschool factors, such as poverty, that impact student achievement.

Washington state must take a holistic approach to solve the issue of achievement gaps for low-income children. There must be better coordination between meeting the basic needs of poor families and meeting the education needs of children. The number of instructional hours parents receive to support their child's education at school should be coordinated along with the amount of hours they receive for housing counseling, for instance.

The state must support full-day kindergarten and better support early education. We need to ensure that teachers are properly supported so that they can meet the needs of low-income children. And, educating low-income children and empowering their families cannot stop at the end of the school year. There must be year-round learning opportunities.

Lastly, we must all give a damn. The "pull yourself up by your own bootstraps" mentality only works if everyone can afford boots. Everyone can contribute a little of their time and resources toward ending inequity in opportunity and expectations.

It matters that we reverse the growing education gap between rich and poor children. Failure to do so will have aggregate negative effects on society for generations to come.

Tre' Maxie is executive director of Powerful Schools, a nonprofit dedicated to student achievement. He also serves on the Washington State Board of Education.

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