Poverty, racial disparity in education intolerable -- McGee


October 6, 2000                                            (217) 782-4648 or (312) 814-3490

Springfield – The achievement gap between white and minority students – and the poverty that almost always leads to it – can no longer be tolerated if Illinois wants its education system to truly be Second to None, State Superintendent of Education Glenn W. McGee said Thursday.

McGee, delivering his annual “Back to School” speech to about 600 Illinois school administrators at the State Board of Education’s annual superintendents conference, said that poverty is at least 10 times more powerful a predictor of student achievement than any other. 

Ultimately, poverty most clearly shows itself in significantly lower student participation and achievement, McGee said. “We cannot tolerate this,” he said. “We will not let this continue in the great state of Illinois.

“This is our biggest academic challenge. This is D-Day. This is Normandy, and we have to succeed because all of our students need and deserve to master the learning standards,” he said, referring to the Illinois Learning Standards. The Standards comprise rigorous skills and knowledge that all children need for future success.

“Today is tomorrow,” he said. “We have no time to wait.”

McGee credited strong, innovative local leadership for numerous important success stories in school districts statewide. “Leadership – not materials – is making a difference in education,” he said.

East St. Louis District 189, for example, a district plagued by extreme poverty and low achievement for years, last year saw a 45 percent increase in students meeting the state Learning Standards.

More than 57 percent of schools showed improvement on the Illinois Standards Achievement Test this year and more than 70 percent of eighth graders are meeting state writing standards, , McGee said.

Illinois public school students posted the nation’s highest average score on the Advanced Placement tests this year, higher even than several states often touted as education reform leaders. And Illinois’ ACT score rose again this year, to a record-high 21.5, while the national average remained flat.

He also praised the highly-successful Summer Bridges summer school program -- 61 percent of those in the program gained at least one grade level in their reading abilities – and emphasized the need for preschool programming, pointing out that 52,500 children benefited from State Board-supported prekindergarten programs.

But, McGee said, too many students are still falling short. Nearly 40 percent of third graders did not meet state reading standards (along with 41 percent of fifth graders and 28 percent of eighth graders.) Similarly, 31 percent of third graders, 43 percent of fifth graders and 53 percent of eighth graders did not meet state math standards.

Only 19 percent of local schools have even moderately implemented the State Learning Standards, the cornerstone of the state’s educational system, McGee said. Repeating the commitment he made a year ago, McGee said. “Some districts think the Standards will go away. I am telling you again that we will not blink.”

Still, most disturbing of all, McGee said, is the undeniable, consistent, and troubling correlation between poverty and student performance. Statistics show that the higher a district’s poverty, the lower its student achievement.

That poverty tends to affect minority students more is evident in statistics showing that 86 percent of white students meet or exceed third grade reading Standards, versus only 33 percent of African American and 47 percent of Hispanic students.

Similarly, 60 percent of white students meet state math Standards. But only 16 percent of African American and 23 percent of Hispanic students do.

What’s more, though minorities are taking the ACT test, more than 60 percent of Illinois African American and Hispanic students do so without taking part in a more-rigorous “core”-type curriculum geared toward college admission. That figure far exceeds the 39 percent national rate of minority non-participation in core curriculum

The time has come for strong, committed action to give all of our students the tools they need for academic and lifelong success, McGee said. “It is time for victory for each of our school districts and for all of our two million children who need and deserve it,” he said. “So let’s get to it.”