In each classroom in the elementary school we worked in when I was in Jackson, MS over spring break, there was a board showing percentage of students on and below grade level. There were three categories: on level, a little below grade level (in need of intervention), and far below grade level (immediate intervention needed). After I got back to Nashville, I asked my sister, a teacher in a metro Nashville middle school, to explain the whole concept behind these three categories to me. She explained it that it’s proportionally supposed to look like a pyramid with on level making up the lowest and largest part of the period. A little below grade level is supposed to make up the part directly above that, a little bit smaller than the “on level” portion. And far below grade level is supposed to make up the highest and smallest part of the pyramid.

She said, though, that in many public schools the sections of the pyramid are reversed. The smallest portion is made up of the kids on level, and the largest is made of the kids in need of immediate intervention. Unfortunately, funding for schools is often based on test scores (how many kids are on grade level), so theoretically if a school has low test scores, it will get less funding and be more motivated to get more funding.

In theory this may seem like a good idea. Realistically, areas of cities and public schools specifically are often very segregated meaning many schools, including the one I worked at, are all black. As we’ve talked about in class, black people have been historically disadvantaged, especially in the public education system. Because they were disadvantaged, the schools they attended, even after the Civil Rights Act was enacted, were already behind other historically white schools. This led to these schools later not getting good test scores and therefore, funding. And so now what’s left is a whole host of schools who can’t get sufficient funding because they aren’t on level with schools in more affluent areas, but because they don’t get sufficient funding, they can’t provide for their students as those other schools can.

It’s a nasty cycle, and one that seemed too unfair to be true. But then one day, you end up in a classroom teaching the most brilliant and joyful first graders to read books they should’ve been reading a year ago, knowing for sure how unfair it is that these kids, too young to even say the word disadvantaged, are two steps behind so many other white first graders by no fault of their own.