RIC Lecture Examines Educational Opportunity, Graduation Gaps

The president of the Schott Foundation for Public Education said more needs to be done to promote educational opportunity for all students and to reduce the gaps in graduation rates between genders and among races.

John Jackson, president and CEO of the Schott Foundation, was the speaker at a recent lecture sponsored by the Dialogue and Diversity Committee at Rhode Island College.

Jackson told the audience that a recent study by the Schott Foundation showed that only 51 percent of Latino and African American graduated from high schools and colleges last year. That’s a problem, Jackson said, because 66 percent of new jobs will require that employees have college degrees.

In his lecture titled “Race, Class and Indifference: Predictors of Educational Access and Outcomes,” Jackson said all students deserve an equal opportunity to learn, regardless of race, academic achievement or financial background.

“We are 99.6 percent the same regardless of race and ethnicity,” said Jackson. “Variances in educational performance are caused by social policies and practices which lead to these differences.”

Jackson spoke of his own experience, as a black male who graduated from high school with a grade point average of 2.5. He went on to earn four college degrees, and he worked for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for seven years and was called to public service by two U.S. presidents.

“Even if we are all a little different, we need to realize our commonalities can bring us together,” he said. “…If there is one thing I want you to take away from this talk, it’s how we can all move forward, or else we’ll be working against one another rather than working together.”

RIC President Nancy Carriuolo, in her opening remarks at the lecture, noted that about 20 percent of RIC students are members of minority groups, compared to about 11 percent a decade ago.

Other schools across the country are seeing similar increases in the enrollment of non-white students, however Jackson noted that there is still too large of a gap between graduation rates of white and non-white students nationwide.

In addition, Jackson said, the attainment rate – the percentage of people who earn college degrees – is even lower, weighing in at 38 percent for the last 10 consecutive years, even though President Obama has called for the U.S. to increase the number of degree-holders to 60 percent by 2020.

“This is the goal, but we won’t get it unless colleges start to be more receptive to low-income and minority students,” said Jackson. “For students to be successful in a global market, schools must be able to offer them world-class educations.”

Jackson suggested four steps needed to reduce graduation gaps and increase attainment rates in the future:

1) Give everyone an equal opportunity to learn.

Rhode Island College is a school that understands that giving all students equal opportunity is important, especially at a time where education and attainment are more closely related than they have been in the past, Jackson said.

Carriuolo noted that RIC is among the top 25 public institutions of higher education in the nation to have increased graduation rates and smaller graduation gaps between white and Hispanic students, according to a 2012 study done by The Education Trust.

A study by the Schott Foundation examined where black males perform best in the nation, and concluding that they excel where they are provided with the same resources as their peers.

“We don’t have an innovation challenge, but an execution challenge,” Jackson said, suggesting that school systems need to implement different ideas rather than just thinking or talking about them.

2) Be bold.

To keep young people in school and on the right learning path, Jackson said, “We need to be bold and seek systematic change. We do a great job of setting up programs, but we need to work on our policies.”

He suggested removing out-of-school suspensions in favor of mentor or faith-based programs, so students can continue learning. He also recommended mandatory kindergarten programs in all school districts, and stronger efforts to ensure students are reading at the proper level by grade three.

“Programs are progress, but policy is power,” he said.

3) Adapt.

The technological era that has resulted in more than 800 television stations, the Internet and the proliferation of smart phones has caused drastic changes in the world of education, and Jackson said these outlets should be embraced as a way to understand the needs of today’s students.

“Education doesn’t occur until the teacher learns something from the student,” he said. “There is excellence in everyone. The question is, how to tap into that excellence and use it as a bridge.”

4) Be persistent.

“These issues are big, and we can’t get results overnight,” said Jackson. Goals must be divided into a combination of short-term tasks and long-term assignments, rather than expecting quick change.

“I have confidence that we have everything we need to do the job, from the minds, to the public will and the level of partnerships,” he said. “The only question in my mind is Shakespeare’s famous quote, ‘to be, or not to be,’ and the answer is in your hands.”