Cleveland Plain Dealer, February 27, 2008: Poor kids can move to higher income brackets — with a college degree

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A new report by the Brookings Institution is a clarion call for massive, effective reform of public education so it can do a better job of closing the income gap.

“Getting Ahead or Losing Ground: Mobility in America” points out that the ticket out of poverty isn’t singing, rapping or tossing a football. It’s a college degree.

Even children whose parents barely scraped by has a 19 percent chance of soaring to the top income bracket with a four-year degree in hand and a 62 percent chance of leaving the old neighborhood behind and joining the middle class. Without a degree, they’re likely to stay in the same low-income bracket as their parents.

That makes the local school potentially a fairy godmother for a poor youngster. Yet dysfunctional public schools, families and neighborhoods — our words, not the report’s — sap its influence.

The study, sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trusts and a host of other organizations, is more critical of public schools than the neglect, drug addiction, teen pregnancy and other afflictions that lay waste some families.

Schools aren’t the whole story, and the conservative Heritage Foundation is in charge of a sequel that’s likely to spread the blame more proportionally. Still, there’s no doubt that public education must make major improvements. Public schools do better at teaching the kids of well-adjusted upper- and middle-class families than the children of the very poor. It’s a high hurdle to overcome, but teachers and principals have to find a way to reach all children.

And public schools must do a better job of shepherding their best students. Poor youngsters with high SAT scores receive so little help in seeking out financial aid and exploring college options that many just give up. And some of those who make it to college don’t stay.

Public schools are trying to close that achievement gap — witness Cleveland officials’ efforts to go door to door to talk to parents about graduation. But the Pew report emphasizes the urgency of the task confronting public schools in America. School reforms that increase the number of college graduates from poor neighborhoods could help Cleveland and other poor cities vastly improve their fortunes.

The stakes are so high that failure is not an option.

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