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.
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?
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.
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.