Education Matters: Pope Francis, Bernie Sanders, and educational inequity


If you liked Pope Francis’s message last week, you’ve got to love Bernie Sanders.

When the pope spoke of the heartbreaking misery of those living in poverty, he was not just talking about Third World countries. The income inequality in this country is a fine example of the social injustice the pope rightly denounces.

Is this not precisely the message presidential candidate Bernie Sanders delivers? Why are we not hearing this from other candidates? Again and again, Sanders stays on point, condemning the growing divide between the rich and poor.

Everything wrong in education starts with this.

Experts have worked tirelessly to boost the achievement of minority and low-income students. Methods and incentives have been in place for years, only to reveal that little progress has been made.

The latest test scores show once again that the achievement gap is alive and well.

If educators focused 100 percent of their time and energy on low-income students, they still couldn’t overcome the effects of growing up poor, hungry and denied opportunities for success that middle- and upper-middle-class children receive.

From lack of breakfast to lack of preschool, poor children lose out on the basic building blocks for future success.

Shelley Petersen, assistant superintendent of instructional services for the Del Mar Union School District, was recently quoted discussing Del Mar’s test scores, saying the exceptional outcomes had nothing to do with demographics and everything to do with skilled teachers.

She implied that Del Mar’s teachers could make brilliant students out of the poorest children.

From the Sept. 24 story in this newspaper, Petersen said, “I absolutely refuse to dismiss our test scores due to our demographics. I would put our teachers and the work we do in any district anywhere and we would see marked results.”

As I wrote in my last column, the way to get good test scores is to first start with smart kids. I stand by that statement.

Sure, districts can certainly screw things up by not providing excellent professional development or by not hiring and training motivated, energized teachers. Del Mar has done both.

But unless districts completely drop the ball, districts serving high-income communities absolutely have a leg up on those that don’t.

Some statistics

The state’s new Smarter Balanced tests, first given last spring, were administered to all public school students in grades 3-8 and grade 11.

Del Mar, an elementary school district serving kindergarten through sixth-grade students, tested students in grades 3-6, while the San Diego Unified School District, the closest large urban school district, serves students in grades K-12.

Only 5.1 percent of DMUSD students tested were classified as economically disadvantaged. This is indisputably an affluent community.

To compare, in San Diego Unified, 57 percent tested were classified as economically disadvantaged.

If it’s simply a matter of better teachers, then the disparity between economically advantaged and disadvantaged kids should be much less in Del Mar. But that is not what we see.

DMUSD’s test results show glaring differences in achievement based on socio-economics, even with good teachers and stellar training.

In English/language arts/literacy, for the 135 DMUSD low-income students tested, 57 percent met or exceeded standards. For the 2,422 other students who tested, 89 percent met or exceeded standards. The difference is 32 points.

In math, the same 135 DMUSD low-income students were tested, and 53 percent met or exceeded standards. Of the 2,488 non-economically disadvantaged students tested, 86 percent met or exceeded standards. The difference is 33 points.

In San Diego Unified, for English/language arts/literacy, 38 percent of low-income students met or exceeded standards. Of those students not economically disadvantaged who tested, 71 percent met or exceeded standards. The difference is 33 points.

In math at SD Unified, 27 percent of low-income students met or exceeded standards. Of the others who tested, 62 percent met or exceeded standards. The difference is 35 points.

The disparity between the two groups of students, 32 to 35 points, is essentially the same for both districts. If it were all about good teaching, Del Mar’s gap would be less.

Overall test scores for both low-income and non-low-income students in Del Mar are higher than San Diego Unified, to be sure. But a district primarily serving poor students like SD Unified will naturally average lower overall achievement numbers than one with significantly fewer low-income kids.

Petersen makes a point, though. Good teachers are certainly a key ingredient to student success. Sadly, it’s well-documented that poor kids living in low-income communities generally don’t get good teachers.

So agrees Bernie Sanders.

“We need to take a hard look at our education system,” he states. “Black students attend schools with higher concentrations of first-year teachers, compared with white students. Black students were more than three times as likely to attend schools where fewer than 60 percent of teachers meet all state certification and licensure requirements.”

The homeless

Add to all this the fact that homelessness is on the rise.

According to a Washington Post report, “The number of homeless children in public schools has doubled since before the recession, reaching a record national total of 1.36 million in the 2013-2014 school year, according to new federal data.”

This is an 8 percent increase over the prior year and “offers a glimpse of the growing challenges that public schools face nationwide as they seek to educate an increasing number of low-income children.”

There’s more: “The impact is profound on public schools which struggle to try to address the needs of homeless children. Teachers often find themselves working not only to help children learn but also to clothe them, keep them clean and counsel them through problems — including stress and trauma — that interfere with classroom progress.”

Is it fair to blame teachers when low-income students don’t perform as well academically as kids who grew up in stable homes with enough to eat, attended preschool, traveled, and were given innumerable opportunities to explore their environment and exercise their curiosity and creativity?

How do we tell teachers that closing the achievement gap is their responsibility, when it’s next to impossible to counter the debilitating effects that poverty has on the very young?

Even the best teaching can’t possibly overcome the crippling condition of growing up poor. Teachers have for years bemoaned this unrealistic expectation placed on them.

Sanders supports quality universal child care and pre-kindergarten programs, which are an absolute necessity if we are to begin to level the playing field for all children in America.

“Every psychologist understands that the most formative years for a human being is from the ages 0-4,” states Sanders. “We have got to make sure every family in America has the opportunity to send their kids to a high quality child care and pre-K program.”

About income inequality, Sanders says, “There is something profoundly wrong when the top one-tenth of 1 percent owns almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent.”

He calls this “economic violence,” noting that America has “the highest childhood poverty rate of any developed country on earth.”

Educational inequity

The link between poverty and chronic academic underachievement is undeniable and has far-reaching and long-lasting effects on the workforce, crime, racism and America’s place in the world.

Which brings me back to Bernie Sanders and the pope.

Is it socialism to say that we must care for our poor? Is it socialism to say that vast amounts of money in politics are warping our democratic system? Is it socialism to say that the gap between the wealthy and everyone else has left far too many children behind?

I’m not suggesting support for Sanders — just his message. If the pope resonated with you (and who could not be moved by his words of compassion?), then connect the dots and recognize how poverty and the disparity in wealth doom poor children to insurmountable academic struggles.

Solutions cannot be found using foolish incentives and federal funding bribery. Nor can we browbeat teachers into pretending the educational inequities that stem from entrenched societal ills don’t exist.

Only when the ruinous effects of poverty on our children are recognized and addressed can we begin to close the so-called “achievement gap” — which should by all rights be called the money gap.

Until then, eliminating that achievement gap will remain unattainable, no matter how skilled the teacher.

— Marsha Sutton can be reached at