October 20, 2015 - Posted to Writing Tips
Educational Inequality – A Tale of Johnny and Juan
Johnny has learned that 2 + 2 = 4. With the aid of his teacher, brightly illustrated textbook and the great software programs, he has memorized this fact. Later he will build upon this fact until he is able to solve complex mathematical problems, perform well on the SAT and get into the college of his choice.
Juan has learned that 4 – 2 = 2. With the aid of his 4 cookies and the bully down the street who took two of them, he has really learned this fact. In the scuffle with the bully, one of Juan’s remaining cookies broke in half. He picked up the two pieces and wondered if 2 could be halves of 1. He could ask his teacher tomorrow but she probably won’t have time to answer. There are so many kids in his class and it is pretty noisy. Juan ate his cookies and didn’t think about his question again.
The Universality of Johnny and Juan
The tale of Johnny and Juan is being played out in schools all across America, and, in fact, the entire world. Recent research out of the University of Michigan, shows this inequality of math skill development to be the case in 62 countries worldwide, and socio-economic demographics are the largest factor in this inequality. In short, students from lower class demographics are not exposed to the math curriculum that middle and upper-class students are. The net result is that students from poverty do not have the skills to engage in appropriate personal finance problem-solving as adults, nor do they have the skills to pass the tests that will allow them to pursue higher education. Inequality in math education stalls them, and they remain in poverty for their lifetimes – able only to take the most menial of positions that are available to “uneducated” individuals.
Two Basic Causes of Inequality
Any effort to combat the inequality of educational opportunity will have to be a two-pronged attack.
Neighborhood Schools: Worldwide, students attend public schools that are close to their homes. And those schools reflect the economic situations of those neighborhoods. In America, for example, public schools are primarily supported by local property taxes, with state governments kicking in some funding. In low-income neighborhoods, there is a very low tax base. Property values are low, there is little in the way of thriving large businesses, and so the amount collected from property taxes to support those schools is quite low. Low revenues mean that schools in these neighborhoods cannot attract quality teachers and cannot find the funds to equip schools with the learning tools they need. Just maintaining old and decaying buildings takes a huge chunk of the revenues.
Contrast that with a school in a middle and upper-middle class neighborhood, where the tax base is substantially higher. Schools are newer and fully climate controlled; the highest quality teachers can be employed; the latest technology and other materials are supplied to every classroom; class sizes are smaller, and there are more aides to assist in the learning process.
Until we find the will and the means to even out the playing field among neighborhood schools, inequality will continue to be a huge factor in determining student futures.
Segregation of Students within Schools: In an attempt to “even-out” the playing field, many states began a de-segregation program a number of years ago, to fulfill a federal mandate. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Students in poor neighborhoods could apply to attend schools in more affluent predominantly white neighborhoods and, in so doing, receive educational advantages not available in their “home” schools. They got up an hour earlier than their peers, in order to make the long bus trek to these better schools. And, once there, they were assessed and “placed” in classes according to their abilities. The end result? Exactly the same type of segregation that exists among neighborhood schools. Affluent students have outside tutoring; they have access to the Internet and all kinds of other resources in their homes; they have parents who are not too tired after cleaning hotel rooms all day to sit down and assist with homework completion; they have SAT tutoring when the time comes; and they enroll in AP classes that give them a head-start on college before they ever graduate from high school. Those students who travel from the poor neighborhoods are placed in “regular” or “remedial” classes, because their skill levels are lower, and they never make it out of those classes. The curriculum offered in reading, language arts, and math is clearly far less challenging than that of their affluent peers, they cannot compete on standardized tests and the SAT, and they still graduate woefully unequal in basic skills training.
It would seem that public leaders, at local, state and federal levels, would want to address this inequality. After all, an uneducated and under-employed population perpetuates poverty, crime, and a host of other societal ills. And yet they seem unwilling to allocate the resources necessary to correct the problem. In this case, the solution truly does lie in correct allocation of funds – funds that will infuse into low-income neighborhood schools the advantages, the teachers, the curriculum, and the resources that will make educational programming and delivery more equal. We can always dream!