Last week, I came across an interesting article in Greater Greater Education, which considered the unintentional effects of emphasizing equality (and not necessarily equity) in education. Setting aside the conversation about whether our country’s attempts at providing an “equal education” are, in fact, equal, the author offers thought-provoking commentary on the philosophical and pragmatic tensions of a education focused on college preparation versus a more practical post-graduate path (equality vs adequacy).
While not offering a solution to this inherent conflict, the piece considers why equality in education is failing many of our public school students and not preparing them for the realities of working life:
…Only 32% of young adults complete an undergraduate degree by 29, meaning the vast majority of high school students need preparation for a decade or more of life without any further education. These students…need classes that prepare them to navigate government programs, secure employment, understand the contracts they sign, nurture relationships and build a family. They need to be taught about the structure of the US workforce, and what the requirements are on paper and in practice to advance in different industries. They need to be taught consumer financial skills.
On the other hand, free education is seen as the “great equalizer” in American society – the only opportunity equally afforded to all children regardless of race, class, gender, ancestry, disability, or any other status. Many first-generation college-bound students only learn about opportunities to climb the ladder from that one dedicated teacher or guidance counselor at school. Ideally, any student who is presented with these opportunities and encouraged enough would pursue the college dream, succeed, graduate, and provide a strong and supportive environment for her children to do the same. At least in theory, this is how marginalized and disadvantaged groups gain a greater level of wealth, power, and status within society.
In practice, many of us know this isn’t true. Public education has existed in this country for over 150 years, and yet the system has promoted institutionalized biases for much of that time – against women, minorities, and immigrants, among other groups. How do we recognize the failings in our current system of public education, while preserving its idealistic integrity, and equitably meet the needs of all students?
The nonprofit community has stepped up to tackle this challenge, providing educational enrichment programs that try to cover the spectrum of students’ needs. College prep nonprofits, like Collegiate Directions Inc, identify students who have high potential for success in college and offer them intensive support, beyond what public school can provide. The results are impressive, according to a recent opinion piece in the Washington Post:
Since we began in 2005, 98 percent of our scholars have graduated from four-year colleges within six years, compared with only 11 percent of low-income, first-generation students nationally, according to a 2008 Pell study. Our scholars exemplify how earlier intervention, personal advising and academic support are essential to finding, gaining admittance to and succeeding in a best-fit college.
Other nonprofits offer nontraditional high school programs that address head-on the reality that many students will face after graduation. For example, Youth Build Public Charter School prepares students for post-secondary education and the workplace by offering, in English and Spanish, academic, vocational and workforce development programs. The D.C. Students Construction Trades Foundation offers students the opportunity to explore a broad range of careers in the building industry and gain experience in those fields through a hybrid high school program.
As important as it is to strive towards the lofty goals of our public education system, it’s more of an injustice to our diverse student population today to ignore their realities. That doesn’t make the dilemma any less uncomfortable to face. We’re faced with providing a band-aid solution to overall economic inequality while our society figures out how to heal the deeper wounds. Ultimately, the patient can’t survive without either the band-aid or the surgery – something we shouldn’t forget when providing immediate solutions to education inequality in the United States.