(ESSENCE) -- With all the unique challenges facing African-Americans, identifying just one problem as the most fundamental issue sounds like the beginning of a long, nuanced conversation. It's not so complicated, however, for President Barack Obama. In a recent conversation with reporters, Obama easily cited education as the most important issue for the black community.
First lady Michelle Obama talks with students at Anacostia High School in Washington, D.C. in March.
"If we close the achievement gap, then a big chunk of economic inequality in this society is diminished," Obama told a small group of journalists from black media outlets, including ESSENCE.
"Now, how do we do that? Better teachers, greater accountability, and more resources combined with more reform."
According to a recent study from the National Center for Education Statistics, African-American students continue to score significantly lower in reading and math than their white counterparts. Essence: Al Sharpton wants you to cut the education gap
Although the gap narrowed slightly between 1992 and 2007 -- about 7 points on a 500-point scale -- the disparity remains wide, with black students still scoring about 28 points behind whites. Consequently, black children also have a far higher high school dropout rate and a lower rate of college enrollment.
"We're not going to transform the urban school system in a year," the president admitted. "It's going to have to be a sustained effort, including a change of attitudes about education within our own communities." Watch the president answer student's questions on education »
So, what is his team doing to combat these problems? The Obama administration says there are a number of policies and proposals in their agenda to get all children college-ready. Watch how education, jobs can stop violence »
"The president has laid out a goal to provide a complete and competitive education for every child from cradle through career," said Heather Higginbottom, Deputy Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council. "That's how we look at this; we look at every piece of this pipeline, starting with early education."
On the early education front, the Recovery Act secured $4 billion for programs like Head Start and Early Head Start, which provide education and parent involvement services to low-income families, for infants and children up to age 5. The 2010 federal budget has also called for a significant increase in these programs.
With regard to the K-12 part of the pipeline, the Obama administration is using money given to states from the Recovery Act as a proverbial carrot to drive education reform in the country's worst performing schools. Essence: 'House of Payne' star graduates from college 25 years later
"We had conditions on that money, and states had to comply with certain things," Higginbottom said, explaining that standards and improvements had to be agreed to first in order for states to access Recovery Act education funding. She also said that many states have shown enthusiasm about programs rewarding teacher performance with higher pay, an Obama-supported innovation for which the 2010 budget requested funds.
The president has also called for federal budget funds for charter schools, where he sees thriving education innovations taking place, and for proven programs focusing on dropout prevention and college enrollment.
Another Obama proposal is Promise Neighborhoods, which would make grants available to low-income communities to start comprehensive education and parenting programs similar to New York's successful Harlem Children's Zone program.
On higher education, the president is working with Congress to increase funding for the Pell grant, which is targeted to low-income students. "It's an incredibly important tool, and we've seen it underfunded and not rising with inflation," said Higginbottom.
The Recovery Act also included a $2,500 annual tax credit, which working families can use toward college tuition and which covers the full cost of tuition at most two-year community colleges. In June, Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced a major simplification of the FAFSA financial aid form, streamlining it from a complicated and intimidating form to a shorter, easier-to-complete document.
"We've got to get our kids up to speed," Obama emphasized at the black media roundtable, before asserting that he's putting his money where his mouth is. "Arne Duncan, I think, is pushing for more aggressive reforms than we've seen under any previous president. And we're putting more money into education than any previous administration." Essence: Educating our way to a better economy
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