I grew up in an upper-middle-class white household, where my good liberal parents did their good liberal-parent duty of teaching me about educational inequality. I knew bad schools existed, and I knew they were a problem, but I couldn’t have told you where those schools were and what kind of problems they had. For me, part of having privilege was being able to live in a bubble where, even though I could acknowledge educational disparities, I didn’t actually have to deal with them.
When I got to Yale, I started volunteering at a New Haven public school. Kids have come and gone, but there are two kids, in particular, whom I have been mentoring long term. In addition to working two jobs apiece, these kids are at the top of their classes and on their school’s debate team, where they discuss a range of issues, from parental consent laws to the efficacy of economic sanctions. And when they wanted to learn even more, we started meeting on weekends. One of them voluntarily spends two to three hours every Sunday working on SAT math prep.
These kids, who have so much intelligence and so much motivation, simply don’t have the background and the resources that they deserve. It’s a problem when a kid who can have a nuanced debate about the warrants for paternalism asks me what the word “liberal” means, because she’s never heard it used before. It’s a problem when a kid with an A in his honors precalculus class struggles to understand exponents, because the class, despite its “honors” label, doesn’t actually explain them.
These are problems. Not because these students are stupid. Not because these students don’t try. But with limited resources at school and limited resources at home, these kids can’t be expected to know things that they simply haven’t been taught.
When we think of educational disparities, we often compare the students at the top of the charts to those floundering at the bottom. In the process, we neglect to discuss the perverse impacts that a flawed education system creates for kids who are doing well despite their circumstances — the kids who appear to be succeeding in struggling schools.
One of the reasons these students are ignored is the standards we use to evaluate them. One of the measures that New Haven uses to track the performance of its public schools is the percentage of kids enrolling in a third semester of college. Another such measure is the high school graduation rate. Don’t get me wrong — these measures are important, but do not fully reflect the shortcomings in our schools. Statistics like these capture the picture of who graduates and who doesn’t, and of who stays in college and who drops out. But they ignore the kids who are learning, but could learn more; the kids who are doing well, but could be doing better; the kids who’ve gotten to college, but don’t know what to do when they get there.
Education is not a binary of who finishes and who doesn’t. Rather it is a gradient of success, and these numbers don’t reflect that gradient. The kids I’m mentoring will graduate. They’ll go to a four-year college. But these statistics don’t say anything about how the school system is failing them.
Lately, there has been a lot of discussion about programs that “bridge” the gap between low-performing high schools and top-tier colleges. Yale is even starting one this summer. This is great. These programs do a lot to help correct educational disparities and prepare kids to enter college with a greater understanding of what is expected of them.
But one summer program can’t sufficiently address years of educational inequalities. We need to start earlier. Only by talking about education in a way that truly reflects the issues can we effectively implement programs that will address the needs of all students.
Becca Steinberg is a sophomore in Berkeley College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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