Children born into lower-income families face many obstacles to seeing their economic circumstances improve as they themselves reach adulthood. Economic inequality is becoming increasingly the rule in a country that throughout its history has prided itself on the upward mobility it offers everyone.
An extensive investigation by The News and Observer and The Charlotte Observer revealed yet another obstacle that lies in the way of even gifted children. Far fewer students from low-income households are placed in advanced classes for which their test scores and performance qualify them than are students from higher-income households.
As Joseph Neff, Ann Doss Helms and David Raynor opened their three-part series, “Counted Out”:
“About this time every year, roughly 5,000 North Carolina 8-year-olds show they’re ready to shine. Despite the obstacles of poverty that hobble so many of their classmates, these third graders from low-income families take their first state exams and score at the top level in math.
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“With a proper push and support at school, these children could become scientists, engineers and innovators. They offer hope for lifting families out of poverty and making the state more competitive in a high-tech world.
“But many of them aren’t getting that opportunity, an investigation by The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer reveals. Thousands of low-income children who get “superior” marks on end-of-grade tests aren’t getting an equal shot at advanced classes designed to challenge gifted students.”
The disparities occur in districts all across the state. In Durham, for example, 75 percent of high-performing third graders from higher-income households are placed in advanced math classes in the fourth grade. For lower-income students, only 48 percent get the more challenging course in fourth grade.
The series quickly caught the attention of state officials. Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper said after the series was published that he was “surprised and appalled” by the findings. Republican state Senate leader Phil Berger reacted similarly. “The discrepancy revealed in the data you’ve uncovered,” he told the papers, “it’s problematic and its something we need to address.”
It’s encouraging that officials are troubled by the findings, but what’s important is what actions they take to address them. While scarce resources are not the entire explanation, they play a role. One problem the series identified, for example, is that guidance counselors who can help assure that high-performing students are considered for gifted classes are overwhelmed by the number of students each must serve.
“We have a treasure trove of hidden talent in North Carolina schools who we should be educating and not overlooking,” Cooper said.
That we have been overlooking so many is an injustice to the children and a drag on our economy.