Meeks: Student ‘achievement gap’ is persistent problem

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The head of the Illinois State Board of Education painted a bleak picture of how minority and low-income students perform in statewide during a speech at the City Club of Chicago Tuesday.

“We’re not making many successes in districts of high poverty, we’re not making many successes in minority districts,” said Rev. James Meeks, a pastor and former state senator.

In talking about the “achievement gap,” Meeks noted that in 2013 and 2014, 67 percent of white elementary students met or exceeded state standards across Illinois, while only 43 percent of Hispanic kids did and just 36 percent of African-Americans reached that level.

“We’ve been researching it for decades,” Meeks said, referring to the achievement gap. “But we still have the same problem.”

Meeks pointed to the third grade as a critical time in a student’s education.

“If a student leaves third grade and they are not at grade level, they have great difficulty catching up because all of the other subjects become [more] complex and complicated as they go on from grade to grade,” he said.

Meeks, who was appointed by Gov. Bruce Rauner, proposed a number of solutions to help overcome that challenge, including expanding access to “quality preschool.”

“Unfortunately, kindergarten is too late,” Meeks said. “Language and literacy development starts at birth. And the gaps are starting to appear well before kindergarten.”

Meeks urged members of the business community to sponsor “reading specialists,” who could be sent out to communities most in need of help.

Rev. James Meeks, chairman of the Illinois State Board of Education, talks to the City Club of Chicago. | Saiyna Bashir/ Sun-Times

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