Greensboro News Record
Greensboro, NC

Joseph Graves: How you and I can enhance local education

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Joseph Graves

One question asked at the One Guilford symposium on education earlier this year was how the community could help improve education in the county. That prompted this response from N.C. A&T's Joseph Graves on the achievement gap between European American and African American students in Guilford County Schools.

The situation

Analysis of statewide student performance on the reading and math achievement found that the following variables -- spending per student, family income, parent's education, family structure, and socially constructed race -- had statistically significant influences on a student's score.

Of these variables, spending, family income, and a parent's education were positively correlated with increases in reading and math scores while family structure (two parents versus single parent) and socially constructed race were negatively associated with reading and mathematics score.

In the positive variable category, for reading, parents' education had a 2.43 fold positive impact and spending per student had a 4.72 positive impact compared to each unit of family income.

In mathematics, spending per student had a 4.6 fold positive impact, and a parent's education had a 1.39 impact for each unit of parental income.

On the negative side in reading, family structure had a .95 fold impact, compared to socially constructed race which had a 7.33 fold impact compared to each unit of parental income.

In mathematics the pattern held, with family structure maintaining its .95 fold impact and socially constructed race having a 4.45 impact per unit of family income.

These data indicate that socially constructed race is the most potent variable determining whether a child will be able to read or do mathematics at grade level.

Defining community

How does this information help the community devise effective interventions to eliminate this achievement gap? To answer that, we must first get a sense of what we mean by "community."

Clearly, communities are comprised of individuals with differing characteristics. Some individuals share characteristics that can be employed to help eliminate the achievement gap.

For example, the parents of children in the schools should shoulder a disproportionate portion of the responsibility for the well-being of the students. This fact does not absolve people without children in the school system of responsibility, since those people benefit or will be harmed by the product of the schools (e.g. students who graduate with relevant 21st century skills versus those who graduate without such skills).

Some community members are professionals (doctors, lawyers, professors), others have important technical skills, and some have life experience which can be used to help students excel. Virtually every responsible adult has some skill that can be employed to help children learn.

Examining the variables

We can imagine a variety of interventions that might reduce the achievement gap by examining each variable separately. Data on income levels in Guilford County show that there still is a major disparity by socially constructed race. European American median income was $54,403 and African American $30,530 in 2004. In 2008, the U.S. Census Bureau defined the poverty line at $21,027 for a family of four. This means that significantly more African Americans live below the poverty line in Guilford County. Therefore, any programs that the community enacts that alleviate the impacts of poverty will have a positive impact on reducing the achievement gap.

Parental education is a variable closely linked to family income, since generally those with better educations also earn more money and accumulate more wealth. Most likely the socially constructed race variable is having its impact through its relation to family income, parental education and family structure.

What you can do

One way that individuals with greater education levels can help alleviate the achievement gap is to find ways to mentor children from poorer performing schools. This can be done in a number of ways, such as volunteering to tutor for basic reading, mathematics or science.

Personally, I teach chess to children from these schools in conjunction with the Hayes-Taylor YMCA. Chess is an excellent game that requires students to understand basic principles of critical thinking as well as mathematics and spatial-reasoning. However, we also help students improve their reading (we require them to read chess books) and grammar (we correct how our students speak during the chess sessions.) Finally, we also prepare these students for competition by helping them develop positive self-esteem. Recently, five of our students won prizes at the Winston-Salem Chess Association Scholastic Tournament. (We won so many prizes we are afraid that we won't be invited back!)

It is also important that more males volunteer to mentor these children. The family structure variable is linked to family income in that most single-parent households living in poverty are headed by women. The male children of such households often lack positive male role models. The impact of such male role models can be multifaceted.

Even if community members cannot volunteer their time, there is a variety of school related programs that can use additional money. Schools have limited budgets to support arts, music and athletics. You can donate money to poor performing schools (or to community-based projects that help such schools.) Recently, the Hayes-Taylor YMCA received a donation of old chess books from an anonymous donor. We have put these to excellent use.

You can donate school supplies or money to the Teachers Supply Warehouse (called TSW, see Guilford County Public Schools Web site.) Businesses can clean out their closets and donate things to TSW. If you have musical instruments at home that you no longer use, there is a school that could certainly use them for children who can't afford to rent or buy instruments.

Education must be revered

The most important thing community members can do is to take an active interest in what's going on related to education issues. One thing that is sorely lacking in America is a reverence for education. Do you know that most Americans cannot name a single person who is a practicing scientist? Our local news media (newspaper and television) give inordinate amounts of coverage to high school athletics, but how much coverage do they give to high performing academic students?

Most people have heard the names of the all-county basketball team, but do they know the name of the student who won the regional Algebra II competition? (Shameless plug here for my son ... This year's winner was Joseph L. Graves III, of Northwest High.)

The all-state football and basketball players can count on receiving full scholarships to our top state universities, but what about the state chess champions? The state chess champion receives a one-time award from the N.C. Chess Association that isn't more than $1,000. The University of Texas-Dallas dominates collegiate chess because it gives full scholarships to qualifying chess players. These are students who also major in high-demand mathematics and science areas. Why aren't we in Guilford County looking to recognize our high achieving academic students in the same way?

Students aspire to be like people who they can see that society rewards. The more alternative careers we expose students to that involve cultivating their intellect, the more we will observe students pursuing those careers.

Joseph Graves is dean of university studies at N.C. A&T. He participated in the One Guilford symposium on education in March.