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On Educational Inequity

Today was a day off from school–we were closed for Hurricane Sandy.  Here’s what the day looked like at our house.  William practiced his trumpet, read for several hours, played a board game, and worked on a math project.  Julia played with a friend, practiced trombone, read a book, and helped me make banana bread.  I finished writing comments on each essay submitted by my AP students, and I was in touch with them via Facebook as I encouraged them to use the day to read ahead in their college-level textbook or take some practice tests.  In other words, the day was relatively productive for me, my children, and my students, and I didn’t worry that anyone would go hungry because they didn’t get a hot meal at school.

There is a persistent myth in our society.  Many Americans believe–or would like to believe–that with enough determination and elbow grease, and maybe a special teacher or mentor, any child can “make it” in our country and overcome poverty and dysfunctional neighborhood schools.  I want to believe this myself.  It feels so democratic and positive, and storytellers from Horatio Alger to the woman behind “The Freedom Writers” would have us buy in.  Further, I’d like to believe that my own academic success was largely of my own making, but I know that my path was made so much easier by being born to well-educated parents, growing up in a home full of books,  and attending a strong suburban public school with many advanced classes and no metal detectors.

This fall, I am teaching a seminar called “Poverty and Equity in Montgomery County.”  Each week, my students explore one factor that is deeply connected to poverty, be it hunger and nutrition, housing, health care, or family structure.  For our education unit, we compared and contrasted Montgomery County public schools, looking at graduation rates, test scores, and percent of students who receive free lunches.  We looked at the history of Head Start and took a field trip to a local Head Start school where we spoke to a teacher and observed her class.  At the beginning of the year, she meets her new group of four-year-olds, some of whom are barely potty trained.  She visits each one of her students’ homes, which can be a single room devoid of furniture and rented by the week.  She administers a pre-test and documents their limited ability to identify letters, numbers, and colors.  She discovers that many don’t even recognize their own written names.  In three hours a day, she teaches oral hygiene, table manners, the alphabet, and even basic English.  At the end of the school year, she re-tests, and discovers that many have made good progress.  She is a hardworking and dedicated teacher.  However, while she was introducing these children to the basics, other four-year-olds in the area had were developing vocabularies of thousands of English words, reading books, and learning simple math concepts.  Despite her heroic efforts, her students will enter kindergarten with considerable deficiencies.

Last weekend, I was in New Orleans for a conference and had an interesting conversation with a professor of Pediatrics at Morehouse Medical School.  We happened to share a table at Cafe du Monde, and over beignets we traded theories about the root of childhood challenges.  She explained that her current research focuses on the impact of maternal health and stress on the development of a fetus.  In other words, a baby can enter the world with cognitive delays that may never be overcome.  Similarly, a new book by Paul Tough speaks about the importance of nurture by parents.  He examines lives of children who grow up in such adverse conditions that their “fight or flight” instincts are constantly triggered.  He finds examples of young people who do manage to survive their communities, but it takes major intervention and support.

I know I should end this post with a solution or some upbeat words, but I am far from optimistic.  I can advocate, research, tutor, and mentor, but I am increasingly convinced that there are massive and systemic disparities that extend well beyond what any earnest teacher can overcome.   There is no such thing as a level playing field or an equal starting point, only kids who were blessed to be born into the “right” communities and families and children who face a significant uphill battle.

My students work in small groups on primary document analysis.

My classroom

My “Poverty and Equity” students interview a teacher at a Head Start School


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