The Inequality of Public Education

I recently went to a meeting for the school district I work for. At the meeting other teachers and I were told how the district performed on the Tennessee standardized test issued during the prior year. The director of schools and his staff told us about the state of the school system; he revealed data, graphs and other information that each school can use to analyze student performance and focus our sights on raising student achievement for the current year. I am sure superintendents of schools all across America have had meeting with their respective staffs telling them of their test data and explaining how the Common Core Curriculum will enhance student learning and move the nation into the 21 century.

Public Education Inequality

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The problem with having one curriculum for all 50 states is that not all public schools are the same. Some public schools look, feel and test like upscale private schools while others look, feel and test like schools in so-called Third World countries. The disparity among public schools is one of the reasons that  prompted the Supreme Court to strike down racial segregation in public schools; under the then standard of ‘separate but equal’, equality was just an esoteric concept and never realized.

Thousands of African-American school aged children were sent to inferior schools, with inferior teachers and inferior financial resources. The black children were not expected to excel and the system of separate but equal was the farthest from ‘equal’ one could get.  While many white students all across America were receiving top-notch academic training in schools that had every advantage given them from state of the art science labs to technology, black students received next to nothing and their poor academic status was the product of a bigoted and racist system.

Today, America is not segregated by color to the degree that it was in 1956 when the Supreme Court overturned Brown v. Board of Education finding that separate is inherently unequal. Today American public schools are separated by money. Schools all across the country are as segregated as they were years ago not by color of the students skin, but by the financial status of their parents.

If you look at state public school spending per student, the inequality gap is as wide today as it ever was, with some states spending three times more for K-12 education than the less fortunate states, yet teachers are asked to teach and accelerate students without the same financial advantages of wealthy school districts. In some states the gap between financially stable communities and poorer communities is as striking as night and day, and poor schools are not just struggling to promote students ready for college and the work force they are struggling to meet the basic needs of the students they serve.

Many people believe poverty has no effect on student learning. They believe teachers should be able to increase student performance no matter what the students’ socioeconomic status. They believe a good teacher can turn students who live in poverty into high-achieving,   proficient students  — and they are right, they can. But it is hard and it is a daily struggle just like it is a struggle for the students they teach.

The difference between schools that have and schools that don’t is striking, yet politicians and state education administrators expect the same outcomes. In the school in which I currently work, the 65% of students who live in poverty do not have the financial resources that kids in other parts of Tennessee take for granted. They are the kids who come to school hungry every day. They are the kids who come to school in the same clothing every single day. They are the kids who sit in class as if in a fog because they could not sleep the night before because their absentee parents did not come home from their minimum wage job and they had to lay awake all night in fear and in a state of lonesomeness. They are the kids who get themselves up every day and somehow get to school just so they can eat.

These are the kids I teach. These are the kids I have always taught. These are the kids that my Tennessee state evaluation on student performance in judged. I do not teach many children who come from financially stable homes. I teach the kids whose mothers work in fast food shops or stand on a line in a factory. I teach the kids whose fathers are in prison or are off to parts unknown, forgotten and discarded like the old sneakers on their feet. I teach the kids who are so needy for attention they will do anything to disrupt the class just so someone looks in their direction and says something to them, even if it is a disciplinary warning from a caring adult or laughter from their peers. These are the kids the State of Tennessee wants me to increase their learning at the same rate as kids who come from schools with four, five or even six times more family wealth. Schools where the median income per family is almost three times the national average. Where students drive to school is more expensive cars than the teachers that teach them. Schools where parents can afford to send they kids to summer camps, European vacations or Aspen ski trips during fall break.

Teachers do not flock to poor schools. Many would rather teach in schools that look and feel like some of the finest private schools, bypassing schools that have large percentages of students who live in poverty. Teaching in high poverty schools is hard; it is stressful and it brings teachers to tears. It is also rewarding and,if not for those rewards, many teachers would leave and never come back –  just like so many adults leave kids in poverty.

Evaluation of student performance is a necessary tool for educating the children who attend American public schools and I, like many other teachers, look forward to the day when our charges are asked to show what they can do on standardized test — but we also want the evaluation to be fair and to be equitable.


  1. Mike – Great Article. I think you hit a profound point with the actual gap between the spending per student. That’s one of the reasons we decided to start homeschooling. Thanks.

  2. We should not forget that many more students, schools and good teachers are drowning because of policies that exacerbate racial and wealth inequities. Finally, every school should conduct an “opportunity audit” to determine if they are offering each student a fair and substantive opportunity to learn. Thanks for sharing the good article that everyone should go through.


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