Critics tackle the wrong institutions
Education for sophomore Jonah Gold has meant having a school-funded math tutor in second grade to teach him faster than his classmates could learn, a psychologist in eighth grade to address his test-related stress and a spot in the Communication Arts Program (CAP) after his parents—a working father and a mother with a part-time job—advocated for him while he was on the waiting list.
But on days when Gold's mother tutors him in Spanish or his father comes home early from work to edit one of Gold's papers, the parents of another student, a junior who wishes to remain anonymous, are busy working two jobs apiece and struggling with the English language. For this student, education meant entering the lowest-level Spanish education reading and math classes without even knowing he was behind, failing sixth grade and joining Blair a year later than his friends, a grade level behind in reading comprehension and math and without the informed, involved, English-proficient parents who could demand a lifeline for a child being pulled under by the riptides of the fast-paced public education system.
These two boys grew up in the same school system; they had the same courses, the same opportunities and the same resources at their disposal. But contrary to the mythos of equal opportunity, defined as making it big with a lot of hard work and a little bit of luck, some children enter the workplace as recipients of very different types of "free and equal education" than children like Gold. Public education has been stuck with the impossible task of eliminating inequity, but it is inequity that must be eliminated in society before public schools have a chance at functioning properly.
The cycle of poverty
In a society that purports social mobility, the fact is that a family's income will likely stay static over generations. Ninety percent of those born into the poorest 25 percent will live in that bracket all their lives, according to a January 2004 Business Week article. Lack of money translates to lack of resources, opportunity and parental involvement, in most cases, because parents are working longer hours to make less money, perpetuating the cycle of poverty.
Public education is the one shot at escape America offers to kids born into the prison of poverty. It's the one factor that's supposed to level the playing field, even the odds, close the gap and it's not working: Where 19 percent of students from lower-income families will get suspended or expelled, only nine percent of middle- or upper-class students will be similarly punished; where 13 percent of poor students will be forced to repeat a grade, only six percent of middle- or upper-class students will do so, according to a study by the Children's Defense Fund.
But when critics call on the public-school system to "raise the bar and close the gap," they're barking up the wrong tree. It's not possible for one underfunded, overpopulated and all-too-often-overlooked institution to compensate for historical and systemic inequalities in society.
Demography and geography
The task is especially difficult for a school system faced with the types of extremes with which MCPS must cope. While Walt Whitman High School students in Bethesda are hauling $30,000 Kevlar boats down to the Potomac as part of a crew team backed entirely by intensive communal fundraising efforts, administrators at Kennedy High School in Silver Spring struggle to get funding for their increasingly desperate "learning community" initiatives. While families in one part of the county have the resources to teach their students to stroke in tandem, other schools in the same system are struggling to stay afloat.
Examining the boundary lines that create one parent body able to contribute $20,000 to a general school fund annually (Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in 2003) and another that has yet to break the $3,000 mark (Kennedy in 2003), it's easy to cry foul play: In such a diverse county, what kind of school-system gerrymandering must it have taken to create such a concentration of wealth? But the real tale is one of an uphill battle against demographic factors that dwarf the school system's efforts at fairness.
The average income in Bethesda, home of B-CC and Whitman, is $130,160, more than double the average income in Silver Spring ($60,631), according to the 2000 U.S. Census, meaning that students in downcounty regions have few resources available to them at home. But it's not the school system that perpetuates this inequity: School boundaries are drawn by geography, and in this county, geography is governed by demography.
A crystal ball
Even if public education could counter income inequities and raise standards of expectations to an equal high for all students, the widening gap in income and achievement between the poor and rich in the outside world would continue to create a stronghold of low expectations for low-income citizens that the school system cannot fight.
Parents like Gold's, who are on the upper end of this demographic spectrum, have the assertiveness, background knowledge and time it takes to gather information about an increasingly complex school system and create success for their children within this system. They know how to put their children on the fast track towards a first-rate education, by teaching their children to read at an early age, arguing their children out of low educational tracks and creating a safety net of psychiatrists and tutors if their child falls off the track toward college and high achievement.
In short, parents like Gold's maintain consistently high expectations for their children. As a result, their kids perform well academically. Research has shown that individuals are molded from expectation and opportunity; they have the capacity to sense what is predicted for them and the tendency to fulfill these predictions.
This tendency creates a crystal ball in which poor black boys see themselves unemployed and poor Hispanic girls see themselves as dropouts. This near-superstitious emphasis on stereotyping populations already hampered by decades of legalized second-class citizenship introduces variables into the education of poor youngsters with which members of other populations have never had to contend.
It is one thing to encourage schools to demand the best from their students. It is yet another to hold the rest of society, every employer, banker, insurance agent and media outlet, to the same expectation.
A growing gap
The repercussions of our wealth inequities are being played out on the $180,000 tiled floors and within the planetariums of schools like Bethesda's Wood Acres Elementary School, between the SAT vocab lists of college-prep English classes and the practice job applications of non-Honors classes, and inside students' hearts and minds. Capitalism was never meant for eight-year-olds; they get put on equal footing now or never. Public school represents the only chance we have to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor in America, but the rift is widening, the link tenuous and the building material scarce.
Easha Anand. Easha was born on January 17 (mark your calendars!!) in Connecticut, but she lived in India for 3 out of her first 5 years. She's a senior in the magnet, and is especially proud of being one of the big, buff Burly Gorillas (the #1 … More »
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