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Katherine Bassett: Division Lessons


Division Lessons

I’ve recently read three articles with a common focus; the focus is on the cost and quality of education of children of affluent Americans. In the first, the primary focus is on the impact on the children of the intense pressure to perform. (Money Cuts Both Ways in Education: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/10/us/10iht-letter10.html) The second focuses on a specific school, Avenues, and parental involvement in the education process.  The third focuses on factors that may be adding to the increasing divide between affluent and poor students’ school performance.

Taken together, which is how I read them, these articles paint a disturbing picture of the division – ever increasing – between the haves and have nots (or not as much) in terms of preparedness for college and career. One of the most concerning points is one we already knew, but the Rearden article (http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/04/27/no-rich-child-left-behind/?ref=nochildleftbehindact) really brought it home – the divide is attributable to the readiness of children entering into Kindergarten.  When I was at ETS, in 2008 (http://www.ets.org/Media/Research/pdf/PICWINDOWS.pdf) and in 2009 the Policy Evaluation Research Center did similar reports, (http://www.ets.org/Media/Research/pdf/PICPARSINGII.pdf)

And the readiness divide is widening.  That gap continues to widen over summer vacations, when children of more affluent parents have access to opportunities that less fortunate children do not.  The author makes the point that it is not inadequate schooling or school funding that most contributes to the divide, but the experiences that children have at home that make the greatest impact.

The second article was disturbing to me on many levels. (Is this the Best Education Money Can Buy?  http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/05/magazine/is-avenues-the-best-education-money-can-buy.html?pagewanted=all) It profiles Avenues, a private school into which parents have much input and children have incredibly rich learning experiences.  These parents, like all parents, recognize the value of education, and that education does not end when school lets out for the day, or for the summer.  Further, they know that their children are privileged, and parents and school are determined not to allow this privilege to result in children becoming ‘jerks’ - consider this statement from the article:  “And so Avenues students may run to their “Empire State of Mind: Thinking About Jay-Z in a New Way” “mini-mester” while passing a Chuck Close self portrait, but they do so with the intent of being “humble about their gifts and generous of spirit,” as the school’s mission statement puts it.”

Tuition is $43,000 annually and the school does have a three million dollar scholarship fund.  Entrée is competitive, even for the affluent, and parents may not make donations.  Rather, parents are required to contribute in more concrete ways.  And parents do.  They are deeply involved in their children’s education.  Recently, one issue of deep concerns to parents was the quality and nutritional value of the food children were eating in the school cafeteria, asking why there was no sushi, why so much bread, etc. The article makes the point that the school may be training our nation's next leaders.

We live in a democratic society and a capitalistic one.  Every parent wants his/her children to have the very best education possible; and if some can ‘buy’ that education, certainly, that is their right.

However, as I read these articles, there are certain faces that kept drifting before me.

While some parents are concerned about microorganisms in their child’s school lunch, what about James, one of my fourth graders, who stopped coming to school for a period of time. When I contacted his grandmother, she told me that James would not come to school because the hot water heater was broken.  When I could not make that connection, she assisted me – “There’s no hot water and it’s winter.  The landlord won’t fix the hot water heater and James won’t come to school dirty.”

Or Charlie.  Charlie’s parents were alcoholics, not even functioning ones. The fourth of five boys, Charlie’s sneakers were handed down to him and were now – Chuck Jones’ – falling apart.  He was holding the tops to the bottoms with rubber bands and his toes were hanging out.  He was constantly fighting with other kids, and it turns out that the reason was because they were making fun of those shoes.  It was one of my worst days as a teacher when I discovered that I had not known this.

And Chris.  Chris’s mom was a single mom who worked a night shift at the casinos.  She was not there to get him up for school in the morning.  That was on him.  Chris often missed the bus.  But walked over fifteen blocks to get to school, no matter what the weather.  School was a stabilizing influence for Chris; it was also a place where he knew he would get a meal.

These are children who were inquisitive, bright, intelligent, who had dreams and aspirations, just like the children who attend Avenues and similar schools.  But, they started out behind from day one of school, not because their parents didn’t care – they cared passionately about their children – but because they did not have the resources to provide the same experiences and after school learning as more affluent parents.  Shouldn't these children also have the opportunity to serve as our nation's next leaders?

So, how do we balance parental rights to provide the best possible education for a child with what we call equitable distribution in education?  Particularly, when we discover that one of the biggest causes of the divide we now see is not what happens in the classroom, but what happens outside of it?

This is a complex question and there are no easy answers.   My fear is that until we turn our time, attention, and money to addressing this question, the divide will continue to grow.

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