Cepeda column: Money can’t buy an end to systemic racism in education
CHICAGO — Over the past few years, I’ve taught at schools that were low-income, terribly under-resourced and majority-African American and Latino. I’ve also taught at affluent, majority-white schools with nutritionally balanced lunches and laptops for every student.
What I’ve come to learn is that in all of these schools, the one factor that should move the needle of student achievement — teacher quality — only supports a woefully inadequate status quo.
My students who attended school in a building with ancient pipes that leached lead into the water fountains and with glue traps that were scattered around the school so that mice could die painful public deaths usually had teachers with their hearts in the right place. But the teachers also had low classroom-management skills or academic subject-matter expertise.
The few true believers with skills — teachers who were there to prove that low-income kids could perform as well as their well-resourced peers in neighboring districts — tended to burn out and leave for greener pastures relatively quickly.
In contrast, affluent schools — where the “whole child” is considered, enrichment programs are built into test-prep-driven schedules and the calendar is marked with countless bells and whistles like field trips and special-learning activities — attract the best-performing and most highly qualified teachers.
This staff tends to stay even if the money isn’t great, because there’s a lot of professional development, parents are highly involved and the student body tends to be stable and homogenous.
What would happen if we yanked all the great teachers out of high-performing schools and swapped them with middling- to low-performing educators whose professional goals were merely to make it to retirement?
Maybe not much.
As if we don’t have enough research to prove that the rich keep getting richer while even the poor who manage to pull themselves up by their bootstraps get poorer, new data out of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW) says that all the things we think matter in education take a back seat to socioeconomic status.
“The most talented disadvantaged youth don’t do as well as the least-talented advantaged youth,” says the CEW report “Born to Win, Schooled to Lose: Why Equally Talented Students Don’t Get Equal Chances to Be All They Can Be.” It adds that a child from a family in the highest quartile of socioeconomic status (SES) who has low test scores in kindergarten has a 71% chance of being in an above-median SES at age 25. However, a child from a low-SES family with high test scores has only a 31% chance of reaching above-median SES by 25.
And, of course, this effect is magnified depending on race or ethnicity.
Black (51%) and Latino (46%) 10th graders with math scores in the top half of test takers are rewarded for their effort and persistence by being more likely to earn a college degree within 10 years than their peers with math scores in the bottom half, but they’re still less likely to earn a college degree than white (62%) or Asian (69%) 10th graders with math scores in the top half.
“To succeed in America, it’s better to be born rich than smart,” said Anthony P. Carnevale, director of CEW and lead author of the report, in a press release.
It’s hard for teachers to navigate the public-school teaching industrial complex in search of meaning. No matter how poorly or well they educate their students, the well-to-do kids are going to fall up into the comfort their families can provide and the low-income students will struggle to find a future.
If that’s the case, then we might be looking at the issue of equity in education the wrong way.
Never mind desegregating schools — you can have majority-Latino and African American schools with incredibly high academic achievement. They get that way with money — which can buy excellent teachers, resources for parents, extracurriculars for students and cash for going on college visits and granting loan-free higher education.
The only thing money can’t buy, however, is the end to systemic racism and inequality.
You could pour cash into the excellent education of every Hispanic and black child in America and they’d still get left behind by a system that preferentially values whites’ long-standing wealth and far-reaching social capital.
Until we recognize and address that disparity, money will be an inadequate method of boosting students of color — the fastest-growing portion of our population.
Esther Cepeda’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow her on Twitter: @estherjcepeda.
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