The sit-ins, die-ins, marches and other demonstrations sparked by the tragic deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner are not just about law enforcement and our judicial system. The real cause is deeper and even more troubling: a generation of American youth has been denied hope, dreams and opportunity.
That’s my takeaway from recent conversations about the protests with young adults from Harlem.
All of these young men and women are African Americans and Latinos at the beginning of promising careers, and they delivered the same message about the demonstrations: it’s not over and it’s going to get worse.
“We were the lucky ones. We got out,” Sandra, a graduate of Cornell Medical School, told me.
Rodney, a Penn State graduate, agreed: “Most of my middle school friends never finished high school, never mind college. A lot of them are dead, or in prison now.”
I heard about significant but familiar obstacles – homelessness, parents in prison, family members murdered, poverty. But I also heard repeatedly about friends who fell behind early on – friends who scored poorly on standardized tests as far back as elementary school, and internalized the belief they weren’t smart enough to keep climbing the ladder to academic success and opportunity.
I’m not going to rehash the debate around our nation’s obsession with standardized tests and the inequitable testing arena for low-income students. Certain facts about testing’s impact speak for themselves. Test results essentially rate the quality of our schools. They determine whether states or districts receive federal support, and they can even decide the fate of a teacher’s career.
Meanwhile, the best indicator of how a student will perform on a standardized test is family income.
Consider also the fact that 82 percent of young people from the highest U.S. economic quartile graduate from college, compared to only eight percent of their peers from the bottom economic quartile.
Or look at the “educational gap” – as measured by high school graduation, college diplomas and, again, standardized test scores. This gap between America’s low income youth and their high-income peers has widened every year since 1980.
It’s high time for new measures, new priorities, and new strategies that will create an environment in which low-income children are encouraged to and supported in their efforts to climb the ladder and share in the dream. The recent White House Opportunity Summits have proposed strategies that focus on mentoring and college partnerships. What a welcome shift!
Our organization, College For Every Student (CFES), is based on three core practices—mentoring, exposure to college, and service to school and community.
The young adults from Harlem all participated intensively in these practices during high school and each one overcame significant obstacles. They have earned college degrees and, today, they’re teachers, entrepreneurs, social workers, and doctors.
Let’s shift our national focus away from raising test scores to the people-centric cultivation of The Essential Skills—raised aspirations, grit, resilience, leadership, and adaptability. These are the skills that create a powerful interest in and a solid foundation for college, career readiness and, ultimately, the realization of dreams.
To help schools implement The Essential Skills and develop more students like the group from Harlem, College For Every Student announces CLOSING THE GAP AWARDS. Thanks to the generous support of anonymous donors, CFES will offer awards to five schools that serve predominantly low-income youth so they may participate in our program for three years. Information on the CLOSING THE GAP AWARDS program can be found on our website at www.collegefes.org.
It’s time to fix the broken rungs of the ladder and eliminate the barriers to higher education that, in themselves, have become a root cause of social injustice. It’s time to recognize what’s happening in our country is of our own making. It’s time to do something about it by ensuring that low-income youth can embrace hope, seize opportunity, work hard and realize their dreams.
- CFES Students Train to Become Leaders (www.essexonlakechamplain.com)
- HuffPost Features Upcoming CFES National Conference (www.essexonlakechamplain.com)
- The College 2025 Conundrum (www.essexonlakechamplain.com)
- CFES Global Summit in Essex Featured in Huffington Post (www.essexonlakechamplain.com)
- Responding to a Global Crisis: Helping One Million More Low-Income Students Attain College Degrees (www.essexonlakechamplain.com)