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Keep Your Eyes On The Prize

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Your age has a direct effect on what you are taught in history class. If you were in school during the Vietnam War, chances are you weren’t being taught anything about it (save for a current event discussion or two.) If you attended school immediately following World War II, curriculum didn’t include a section on internment camps. But these gaps, in theory, should be closed by life experience. Home life, including television, and adult learning (in any form) should eventually create a seamless sense of American history.

Whether unique or not (my personal) recent experience would dispute this scenario. Conversations prompted by the 50th anniversary of The March on Washington have revealed startling ignorance of (relatively) recent American history. My (utterly unscientific) sample included people in every decade from 20s – 70s. It would be a safe assumption that those people in their late 40s to early 50s might not have a full understanding of the history of the civil rights movement. The March, which many would identify as the fulcrum of the movement, happened before their arrival or shortly thereafter. But that particular (non-random, self-selecting) sample was not lacking in information. It was the younger people who seemed to have no knowledge beyond there having been a speech. What led to the March, the climate at the time, the danger, the heroism, and the cast of characters were all news to them. Even those at the anniversary celebration on the National Mall (presumably having an interest in the subject) did not appreciate the significance of the ringing of the bell salvaged from the Birmingham 16th Street Baptist Church.

Going beyond the 1963 March and the people who brought it to life, are the politics that preceded and proceeded. The significance of speakers; Lynda Bird Johnson Robb and Caroline Kennedy was lost on those in their 20s and 30s. More than once I dutifully explained the civil rights legislation that was crafted and signed by their respective fathers. It is hard to fathom how the details of the civil rights movement and all that happened in the 1960s could not be a major part of K-12 American history. History, like most subjects, builds on prior knowledge. Without covering the civil rights movement how does one teach women’s rights, union/migrant workers’ rights and the LGBT movement? How does one cover international civil rights and racial/ethnic issues without discussing our own domestic fight?

I’ve actually no doubt that the civil rights movement is comprehensively covered in many (if not most) schools across the nation. I suspect that the reason for those blank stares and awkward silences I received was due to the time period in which the students were taught. Learning about the 1960s in the 1980s or 1990s must have seemed abstract. Growing up in a Reagan, “greed is good”, post-affirmative action, post-Title IX world, would make the black and white imagery seem archaic and less relatable. But the thing is, it’s not an abstraction. A lack of understanding about the fight (that has not yet been won) is dangerous. If we aren’t conscious we can let too many things slide. When we see things out of context we are more willing to wave our hand and dismiss bigotry or racism. When we don’t know about the Voting Rights Act we might not notice it slipping away.

What we learned in school (whether in the classroom or out) will always shape us to some degree. But that learning and understanding should just be the start of understanding our world. We need to know what came before to appreciate how best to go forward. It is worth mention that my random unscientific sample included people of varying ethnicity and race. The lack of knowledge/understanding was equally distributed. A woman standing behind me (at the 50th anniversary) referred to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s infamous speech as ending the KKK and white supremacy. Part of me wanted to live in her world, but the other part of me wanted to forcibly open her eyes.

 
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Posted by on September 1, 2013 in Cultural Critique, Education

 

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Equal (Higher Education) Opportunity

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Higher education is the launching pad for the American dream. No matter where you come from or what you’re parents have done, college holds the promise of the pathway to success. We take enormous pride in being a classless society in which anyone from any means can grab their piece of the pie. We love nothing more than stories that prove our beliefs right. Every year or two a new “homeless to Harvard” story populates lifestyle media. Colleges/universities love profiling their hard-knock life graduates come May. And why not? Who doesn’t want to be inspired by people who have Horatio Alger-ed their way to commencement? But beyond the headlines or sentimental stories is a less than cheery reality.

Higher education is much more democratic than it’s ever been in many real and meaningful ways. But institutions are rather limited in what they can do. They can throw their metaphorical doors open for any and all (who have academic potential) but they can’t make them come. There are many many truly academically gifted students who are accepted and never attend outstanding universities. These students come from homes in which they may be the first to attend college. The family may be very reluctant for a child to leave home or simply not have the resources to support the travel costs. The student often attends a local college and lives at home. There is nothing wrong with either of these two phenomenons, but when performed in concert they are seriously limiting. The point of higher education is to expand the knowledge base and worldview of students. College is most meaningful when it makes a student’s world bigger. Attending classes with people who are just like you and living with people just like you can render the higher education experience more vocational or technical than intellectual. Yes, great ideas can be explored in the classroom, but only to an extent. Lack of diversity limits the value on the exchange of ideas. Colleges and universities know this and work (to varying degrees) to rectify it. But by the time kids are filling out college applications it’s too late to impact a family’s will.

Kindergarten is the time to start exposing families to the idea of what higher education can mean to their child and how to embrace the most expansive experience possible. There is little point in preparing and urging children to soar if their parents are not on board. Over the course of 13 years (K-12) parent-teacher meetings, PTA, homework, and extra-curricular activities can have a higher-education component. School administrators, teachers and staff will no longer assume that all families are educated higher education consumers. Clinics can be held to help families navigate the (often opaque) terrain of colleges/universities. Topics such as financial aid, return on investment, defining degrees, career placement, and areas of study could be offered from middle school on. The more families are included in the conversations, from the earliest possible point, the more likely they will support the best choice possible for their child.

There are enough impediments to a truly equal opportunity for college students without this major hurdle. Some students, regardless of academic talent often have a first-class college experience while other students, of equal or greater talent, are stuck in coach. Some students are just go-getters, they will seek out and uncover any and all opportunities and not rest until they’ve squeezed every last drop out of the experience. Some students’ parents do that for them, and arrange (through personal contacts or friends of friends) network and resume building internships. Many students either need to work during the summer and/or don’t have their parents doing their work for them and graduate with a lesser experience. The same is said for many academic experiences as well. Studying anywhere off-campus cost money that is rarely covered by financial aid. Summer classes, remote campuses or study abroad programs are often not an option for students who must make every dollar count. Even on-campus these financial decisions must often be made. Most campus events and some courses of study cost additional monies. There are areas of study that necessitate equipment or fees that might not be covered in financial aid packages.

Creating a college student body that reflects the greater society is an admirable goal. However to do so in any meaningful way will take more than opening up the doors. Resources and attention are needed so that we don’t just democratizing education we also equalize it.

 
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Posted by on June 12, 2013 in Education

 

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Hand-Picked For College

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According to today’s paper better colleges fail to lure talented poor students. If it’s true the reason is simple; it’s complicated. While it is not complicated to identify and recruit academically gifted poor students, it is more involved to ensure that they succeed.

Many if not most financial aid packages do not include monies for housing and/or dining. There are rarely stipends for books, computers or travel. There are several periods during the academic year in which dormitories close and dining plans evaporate. Students who come from great distances and/or do not have the funds to travel are left utterly unmoored, often during a holiday. Colleges and universities now invite not just parents, but entire families to weekend events on campus. Families with limited means could not attend and students might be affected. Student activities occur throughout the years that cost money (not supplied by aid). Joining the Greek system (aka fraternities & sororities) is not free. Attending sporting events, senior class events, or arts events are rarely free. Without a meaningful stipend a university would ensure a second-class status to poorer students.

The more complex issue is that of social and/or emotional support. Attending classes and getting good grades is only one part of the college experience. If the idea of luring talented poor students to ‘better’ colleges is for them to get more out of the college experience (than they would’ve attending their local college) then more has to be done for them. Academic advising would need to be aggressive and include tutorials on research opportunities, graduate schools, and career opportunities. Student services would need to help foster networking opportunities to ensure the students reap the benefit of the stellar student body. Adjusting to college life is never all that easy. The environment always feels just a bit foreign, and the expectations daunting. For poorer students the culture itself could be off-putting and/or foreign. If a student has left an economically struggling family behind, it can feel disorienting to be among people with plenty. There can be issues of guilt if a family could use the student at home.

Finding talented students who are poor is not difficult. Every high school in the nation can identify their top 10% and SATs do a fine job of categorizing people. Many universities already recruit students from big cities (which no doubt offer a pool of talented, poor and ethnically or racially underrepresented students.)  Many schools have institutionalized support programs for students from ethnically/racially-underrepresented groups. If the ‘better’ schools are to recruit poor students from more remote locations they will need to create a similar model of institutional support programs. Recruitment and admission are only the very very beginning of the higher education journey. If colleges and universities take an aggressive role in recruiting students they must take seriously their obligation to ensure success.

 
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Posted by on March 17, 2013 in Education

 

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College Affirmative Action

Higher education affirmative action is in the news again. It’s not all that surprising that in recent years people are more comfortable discussing its merits. It has been (almost exactly) fifty years since Ole Miss first integrated and fifty years is a long time. It’s enough time for people to forget and it’s enough time for generations to come of age free of the first hand effect of segregation. Add to that a shift in our collective attitude about college being for everyone; and it’s no doubt the subject of parity crops up. The continued need and efficacy of affirmative action is often discussed in academic circles. Lately, it is also often played out in the courts and media.

The lawsuits (or protests) that bubble up often have to do with a perceived lack of fairness. Thwarted students compare their own applications and numbers (i.e., test scores, grades, rankings) against those who were admitted. The would-be (white) students compare their own larger (or equal) numbers to that of a non-white student and feels there has been discrimination. All issues of affirmative action aside, that understanding of the admission process is deeply flawed.

Straightforward scorekeeping is the determinate in plenty of endeavors. When you play sport, or lose weight; numbers are all that matter. But most of life’s external accomplishments are much more subjective than a numbers game. The skyrocketed costs, four-star amenities, and assumption that college is for every high school graduate, has created a sense of a transactional relationship. There are thousands of four-year colleges/universities in this country. Before a student applies he/she has presumably poured over websites and determined; “Yes, I’d be a good fit.” The student knows the requirements for admission, knows the average SAT/ACT scores and class rankings, and knows they fit the bill. Rejection stings, and many struggle with trying to get past the hurt. Parents and children will rattle off admitted high school classmate’s rankings, and GPAs in their struggle to understand the rejection. Resentments and overall icky behavior often ensues. No one wants to be told; “Thanks but no thanks” particularly when the rejected was set to pony up (potentially) over six-figures for the privilege of acceptance.

But what these parents and their children might not realize is that those numbers are simply how one gets to be considered. Creating an incoming class involves much more than comparing numbers. The goal of creating a class is generally two-fold; the students should be able to succeed and the students should be able to add to their classmates’ educational experience. “Succeeding” can mean many things and varies according to schools and programs. What a student can add to the experience is dependent upon the historic nature of the school, the location, the discipline, and many other elements.

Whether our country is in need of creating equal opportunity for all based on ethnicity and race is a subject for another day. When we do engage in that conversation we should think long and hard about economic class and first generation students when we talk about equal opportunity. But until then let’s be crystal clear about college admissions. It is not simply a numbers game; (hint: that’s why there are essay components and pages of extracurricular activities on the application.)

 
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Posted by on October 10, 2012 in Education

 

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I Can Read The Writing On The Wall*

Universities, public and private, are wrestling with affirmative action. Not just ‘still’ but seemingly more so than ever.  For most colleges, having a well-rounded student body is a priority.  Efforts are made to seek out and (sometimes) care for students that might not find their way to the institution on their own.  There are development programs, public and private, that partner with higher education to help nurture underrepresented students and increase their chances of academic success.  Universities should always look to create a student body that is representative of the world at large.  But the fact that they must go to the efforts they do (to seek them out) suggests that there are qualified students who are not bubbling up to the top.  Once out of K-12 and nurtured in the university, these recruited students do quite well (why wouldn’t they?)  Interestingly, college and university classes and life are far more challenging than anything in K-12.  Ability is not the issue here, preparation is.

What does it say that in 2012 the K-12 playing field is so clearly inequitable that higher education affirmative action efforts not only need to exist, but need to increase?  Yes, there will always be parents who have the means to throw every enrichment opportunity upon their child.  And yes, there will always be children who simply do not have a stellar academic acumen.  But then there’s everyone else, which really amounts to an awful lot of children.  At a time when as a group we believe that higher education is the path to work-life success, can we allow for such disparities in preparation?  Variety and rigor in science and mathematics courses vary widely across school systems.  There are schools at which writing (not penmanship, but writing) is not taught beyond the rudimentary.  High school students are not always assigned a smattering of classics to read.  Now before the eyes start rolling; the reason an educated child needs to be exposed to the classics is not so they have something to discuss with grandma at Thanksgiving, but because it fosters their understanding of the world and culture and is a building block for higher level studies.

There are school systems that have all the technological bells and whistles that property taxes will allow.  That’s fine, and maybe even results in higher comprehension, but it’s the sizzle of the issue not the steak.  Curriculum and teacher talent is at the heart of the issue.  Are there enough excellent teachers at each and every school in this country?  Are there tutoring opportunities, effective guidance counselors, and an atmosphere of optimism?  If we are sincere about wanting all children to succeed and want our nation to have a robust economy, it might be time to stop ignoring the inequities in public education and leaving it to colleges to amend.

*Kodachrome – Paul Simon (1973)

 
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Posted by on April 2, 2012 in Education

 

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