At this early stage of the school year, excitement fills the air for parents and students who see education as a way to create a brighter future for our young people.
Yet for too many of Idaho’s students, going back to school is filled with more anxiety than excitement. For them school means feeling unprepared to read at the same level as other students and not being able to solve basic math problems.
Many of the students who feel this way are caught in the so-called “achievement gap.”
Studies show that in nearly every key educational measurement, low-income students in Idaho and across the country lag behind their more economically advantaged peers.
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In Idaho this is a particular issue because about 50 percent of our students meet the federal definition of low-income. In some of our districts the percentage of students that meet the criteria is much higher.
Even in the Boise School District, 49 percent of the students are low-income. That is up from 22.3 percent in 1990. A study two years ago by ECONorthwest showed that by 2019, Idaho would experience a net increase in households earning less than $25,000 per year and a net decline in households earning $50,000 or more.
In other words, the demographics do not bode well for closing the achievement gap unless we come up with effective ways to do so.
The achievement gap isn’t just a problem for low-income families. We all have a stake in solving this nagging issue. That’s because studies show that up to 68 percent of all jobs by the year 2020 will require postsecondary education.
If a large percentage of Idaho students are not prepared to go on and earn a postsecondary credential, it will be very difficult for us to create the skilled and educated workforce our economy needs to grow. Just as importantly, it will be very difficult for many young people to rise out of poverty, which will just perpetuate the cycle for another generation.
To its credit, the Boise School District is taking a leadership role in narrowing this gap through its Community Schools initiative. This effort focuses on the “whole student,” addressing not just their academic achievement, but also the basic human needs that make learning possible.
The Idaho Legislature took another important step this year by appropriating $11 million to help 37,000 students who are struggling to read at grade level become proficient. This is important because if students can’t read, they can’t learn.
But, as a state, we need to do more to narrow the achievement gap. We need a comprehensive strategy for tackling this issue that includes all stakeholders — parents, educators, policymakers and community leaders.
If Idaho can “close the gap,” it will not only help all children achieve their version of the American dream, but also create a brighter future for Idahoans by reducing poverty, creating the workforce we need for the 21st century and improving our great state’s quality of life.
Rod Gramer is president of Idaho Business for Education.