01 January 2009

Advocating for Fairness

A couple of articles in the New York Times have caught my eye and had me thinking some more about the roles of equal and fair in education. The first article, All's Fair in the Middle School Scramble, describes the efforts of many parents to ensure that their children get into the "right" middle school within the public education system.

As the Bloomberg administration has created hundreds of new schools, centralized the admissions process and publicized the options, there is a wave of panic among many parents of fifth graders facing the next step. And throughout the country, middle school is increasingly seen as a kind of educational black hole where raging hormones, changes in how youngsters learn and a dearth of great teachers can collide to send test scores plummeting.

Many parents fear that picking the wrong school could dash their children’s chances for a top high school or college.

For the moment, let's set aside the whole "good teacher = good test score" aspect, as well as the one related to "middle school kids are excused from learning due to hormones." The real gist of the article is that parents and kids are working hard to be selective, but what isn't stated is that these are families who know how to navigate the system and have the luxury of being able to do so. How many working class moms can go on tours of eleven different prospective middle schools? Know who might best advise them? And so forth. Is it "fair" that some families do and others don't? Should this be a concern of the public schools?

I have known many teachers over the years who assumed that because some parents didn't show up for Open House or Parent-Teacher Conferences that the parents didn't care about their children or their education. My experiences working with families living in poverty provides a very different perspective. Those parents love their kids just as much as anyone else. But when you are dependent upon bus schedules and jobs where you only earn your minimum wage for the hours you are actually working---well, options for having time to go to the school (let alone find ways to get there and back) are limited, at best. What's more important---going to Open House...or staying on the job to earn a few more dollars to feed your children?

The second piece I looked at was the changes to College Board policy which will allow students to pick and choose which SAT scores colleges see. The article outlines a variety of perspectives and the rift this policy is creating between the College Board, schools, and colleges; but, again, it is the missing component that raises my interest. The advantage for this policy lies clearly with those who can afford to pay to take the test multiple times, get coaching/tutoring/prep classes, and so forth. I do know that students of poverty can take the SAT at a reduced rate...but I can't help but think that with the current economy, there could well be quite a large lower middle-class population that isn't poor enough to qualify for assistance, but for whom taking the SAT at all (let alone 2 or more times) would be a luxury.

The admission practices of a particular college or university may well be "equal" in their expectations, but are they encouraging unfair advantages? Are middle schools starting to be in a similar boat? I'm really okay with the whole idea that "Life isn't fair." I know that there will always be individuals who milk a system for all its worth without a thought for others. College admissions have been gamed for ages---selecting SAT scores won't change that.

What I'm worried about here is the system enabling---maybe even encouraging---that behavior. Are we just giving equal and fair lip service? Shouldn't every child have access to a determined advocate? It might not be the parent, for whatever reason, but the assumption at this point seems to be that because kids have parents (equal) that the playing field is automatically level (fair) for every child.


Jenna said...

I have to say that where there is a will, there is a way... a lot of the parents at those meetings are full-time working parents. It's just what NYC parents do if they care about thier child's education; doesn't matter if they clean toilets or bake $12 cupcakes... At my school there are parents who show up exhausted from their dialysis treatment to meet with teachers and there are parents who can't be bothered to walk to the school next door. There are parents whom I've never seen, but talk to on a weekly basis. Income isn't necessarily an "caring" indicator, I think it's deeper than that - more of an emotional or intellectual issue. If I could figure out what it is, I'd probably win the Nobel Peace Prize.

The Science Goddess said...

Well, get on that, would you? :)

hschinske said...

My kids' high school has gotten funding for all students to take the PSAT in 9th and 10th grades. One purpose is to identify students who might not have thought they were capable of taking AP courses, but who in fact are. Another is that the practice and feedback substitutes to some extent for SAT tutoring, evening the playing field for those who otherwise wouldn't have gotten any. Personally I think the College Board folks are funding all this stuff because it makes them money in the long run, but there are some marginal educational benefits to be had out of the deal, so I cynically say okay.

Incidentally, for students who don't need remedial work, don't have severe test anxiety, and don't suffer from low self-esteem academically, I very much doubt that any SAT prep course out there will teach you a whole lot more than you could get out of a single prep book and a free practice site such as number2.com.

Lightly Seasoned said...

Our district pays for all 10th graders to take the PLAN. It's a pretty good wake-up call for a lot of kids who assumed they were going to college but have been slacking through since middle school. Our land grant has a minimum of a 23 on the ACT, so the PLAN showing a probably score of 20tends to shake things up a bit.

Taking the tests multiple times, even with coaching between, doesn't tend to raise scores all that much. This is just a revenue generator for the CB.

hschinske said...

I think our district's grant is actually *from* the College Board. I forget the details, though, so don't quote me on that. (I still think it makes them money in the end.)

I suspect taking the tests multiple times makes a big difference for some -- generally those for whom the first test, for whatever reason, wasn't that accurate, due to test anxiety, kid blowing it off, etc. -- and very little for others.

Jane said...

"some parents didn't show up for Open House"

Also, some schools make it impossible for parents to show up at Open House.

My kids school held Open House for the entire school K-5 on one night. Each grade had two 1/2 hour time slots, once in English, once in Spanish. I have three children in elementary school and I only speak English. Since I have difficulty being in two places at once, I made it to two kids' classes.

I am an older, professional parent. The school infuriates me, but doesn't intimidate me.

Think about how difficult it might be for less educated, less opinionated, less confident parents to try to deal with the school.