SAJU: Nation must address disparities in our system of education


Opinion Column: Pride, Not Prejudice

How does a nation secure its future? 

While there are numerous answers to this question, the most obvious response concerns a country’s treatment of its youth. The real test of a progressive nation is how it chooses to support and empower its young people, as they are the future of that country.  

To sustain the institutions and systems that the United States has built, the education system in America must be altered to narrow the widening achievement gaps between students of different backgrounds. In accordance with the sentiments of the U.S. Department of Education, equational equity is vital because equal opportunity is a core American value that is integral to the nation’s economic strength. 

While the civil rights movement, school desegregation and the war on poverty helped bring a measure of equity to the playing field, class privilege as well as the individual choices of parents helps to maintain the systemic segregation of the American school system. The importance of education is more critical than ever before, as college is now commonly viewed as a precondition for upward mobility. 

But individuals from lower socioeconomic classes are at a disadvantage long before they have the chance to achieve their college pursuits. Seemingly unimportant factors like the educational experience of one’s parents, especially combined with class disadvantage, have a direct result on the educational opportunities for children. From the day these kids start kindergarten, they are already more than a year behind the children of college graduates in their grasp of both reading and math. 

This gap between children of different financial backgrounds eventually widens over time. Nine years after beginning kindergarten, the gap (on average) will have widened by somewhere from one-half to two-thirds. Even high performing children from disadvantaged backgrounds, who are at the same starting level as their richer peers, will fall behind through the course of their schooling. 

This discrepancy between children of different socioeconomic classes is arguably the biggest problem in education today. In fact, taking steps to narrow proficiency gaps that emerge before college would be more beneficial to increase America’s college graduation rate than offering universal community college, easier terms on student loans or more financial aid. 

Achieving increased educational equality is possible. Countries like Canada, Australia and Britain have achieved more equitable outcomes concerning education than the United States. It can be done. 

But it must be done justly. 

Instead of just focusing on improving the school curriculum, bettering conditions for teachers, or even investing to bring struggling students to speed (although all of these ideas are important to take into consideration), the education system must also direct attention to helping parents. 

It is nearly impossible for poorer, less educated parents to keep up with their more privileged colleagues, as the gap between the earnings of individuals with a college degree and those without one is bigger than ever. By helping hardworking parents balance the demands of work and family, the school system can help to ameliorate the cycle of disadvantage instead of reinforcing it. 

Furthermore, the presence of a divided school system is structural and systemic, but it is also upheld by individual choices. When parents make choices to benefit their children without taking the community into consideration, the education system as a whole is negatively affected. 

Journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones said that her work chooses to unearth the “hypocrisy of progressive people who say they believe in inequality, but when it comes to their individual choices about where they're going to live and where they're going to send their children, they make very different decisions.” By choosing to send her daughter to public instead of private school, Hannah-Jones justified her decision and said that this was how she could avoid being someone who contributed to the inequality that she is writing about. 

On the other hand, journalist Michael Godsey said in an article — also referencing his previous article aptly titled “Why I’m a Public-School Teacher but a Private-School Parent” — that while he believes that a common and equitable educational system is integral to equality, democracy and a sense of true community, he also understands that public schools often allow for the normality of disengagement and concedes to “buying into” the system rather than “selling out.” 

It must be noted that parents with the best intentions for their children’s lives are not entirely to blame for the inequality that exists in the American school system. But they are, at some level, contributing to the problem. 

In order to foster a more prosperous and equitable society, America must address its severe socioeconomic disparities and support low-income communities so disadvantaged kids will have the chance to write their own futures. 

Neha Saju is a School of Arts and Sciences first-year student planning on majoring in political science and history and minoring in English. Her column, "Pride, Not Prejudice," runs on alternate Mondays.

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