This week three stories about poverty and education crossed my desk: Two about the perpetuation of existing class systems in education (however inadvertent) and a third about efforts to level the playing field.
Top colleges remain cloisters of wealth and privilege, with fewer than 15% of undergrads at top colleges coming from the poorer half of American families. At the most elite colleges, such as the Ivy Leagues, that figure is even smaller. Despite efforts of some schools to minimize contributions to tuition by poorer families and eliminate policies like “early admission” (seen to favor wealthier students), along with a shift away from race-based affirmative action and towards economic diversity, these admissions figures have remained stubbornly immovable since the ‘80s. Colleges strapped for cash sometimes balk at the cost of partnerships with organizations that bring in poorer students; admitting large numbers of low-income students costs a lot in financial aid, laying a heavy burden on endowments already stretched to maintain libraries, update labs, and build sports facilities. Another problem: Lack of applications from needy students to begin with, as not enough of them have been exposed to graduates of top colleges, and think the sticker price of tuition is iron-clad.
Meanwhile, in New York City, alumni of the top eight “sci-highs,” a group of prestigious and extremely competitive specialized high schools that includes such notables Stuyvesant High School, Bronx High School of Science, and Brooklyn Tech, voted to keep a standardized test as the sole criterion for entry. The tests are seen by many in the city as a primary barriers to admission for students of color: Only 5% of students at the eight schools are black, and only 7% Latino, despite the fact that 70% of public school students in the city are black or Latino. To do away with the tests, said a representative of the alumni group, would be to accept students who cannot keep up with the workload, thus diminishing the quality of the education overall. The alumni group instead suggests re-vamping enrichment programs and test prep at the middle-school level, particularly for low-income students.
But just when a cynic might give up on the idea of rectifying any socio-economic inequalities in education, an opinion piece in the New York Times last week cited a Johns Hopkins University study showing that student absences to school are highly correlated with poverty--and thus, that addressing chronic low-achievement in poor students is, in many cases, as simple as targeting the factors that make these kids skip school. This can involve providing clean clothes to students who may be embarrassed to attend school due to their unwashed garments, providing access to resources such as mental health counseling for parents, and housing charities to keep these students’ families with roofs over their heads. A program called Communities in Schools, which connects at-risk students with community organizations that provide services like the ones I’ve mentioned above, operates in 26 states and the District of Columbia, and only costs on average $189/year per student--far less than the cost of holding back a student who has failed to be promoted due to chronic absenteeism. All in all, an important bit of research with immediate practical applications.
Now, I have to let the cat out of the bag: This will be my final post on the “View from the Bronx” blog, which I began keeping for Education Week two years ago. Writing about education several times a month and interacting with readers--especially other educators--across the country has been a thought-provoking and enlightening experience for me; it has helped me to reflect on my own practices as an educator, as well as on my views of systemic economic, social, and political issues that affect education.
Why am I not keeping the blog anymore? Simply, in the two years I’ve spent on this blog, I feel I’ve said what I needed to say. I now want to give myself more time to work on my own teaching, and to focus on other projects--longer articles about education issues, and possibly efforts outside the purview of education (such as the Young Adult novel I’ve been trying to write for months). So, while I’m gone from the blog, expect to see my name around--and as always, find me on Facebook or Twitter if you want to drop me a line.
Thank you very much, everyone, for your readership and support. Best wishes for a happy Labor Day weekend and a productive school year.
The opinions expressed in View From the Bronx: An Urban Teacher’s Perspective are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.