While soaring income inequality in America receives intense media attention, the widening achievement gap among students does not. But that is changing. Several recent reports focus on the educational inequality between rich and poor kids in America. One recent report paints a grim picture of this disparity and the threat it poses to America’s democratic ideals.
What do college students think? After all, they are the ones experiencing this unsettling trend. They are the ones being forced to brace for a future that appears bleaker by the semester.
Amy is keenly aware of the widening educational inequality in America. She grew up in a low-income home with parents who worked full-time. She chose community college because that was her only realistic option. Applying to Stanford or Harvard was never an option. Currently she works as a nanny for a wealthy family. “Their seven-year-old son attends a local private school with a yearly tuition of twenty thousand dollars. He attends math camps, science fairs, music classes and many other educational programs that foster learning and curiosity. Harvard and Stanford are within his easy reach.” Amy wants the government to create programs for underprivileged children. When the economy is bad, it is education and the children who suffer the most. In Philadelphia alone, for instance, 3,000 teachers recently lost their jobs. Private donors can do just so much. Unless the government focuses on improving the education of children from under-served areas, the gap will continue to widen.
Yvonne sees the educational gap widening at an alarming rate between rich and poor kids. Students aren’t graduating from high schools and colleges compared to baby boomers. “One radical way I would solve the educational inequality would be to eliminate private and independent magnet and charter schools and make one main type of schooling with just two other options: homeschooling and parochial schools. Currently, the rich have access to the top schools because they know how the system works and how to control it. I started out at the bottom but I learned to be mentally strong at school. I also learned how important it was to work hard and get a good education to move ahead in life. It is what they say: knowledge is indeed power.”
Krithika sees the growing educational inequality as a crippling problem for America. “It’s a vicious cycle: people without college degrees cannot get jobs so they fall behind even more. The middle class is disappearing. Without a solid middle class, no nation can progress. One way education inequality can be eliminated is if the distribution of tax funds for public education is done by the state or federal government instead of individual counties, so that these funds can be equally distributed to all public schools and community colleges. Another solution would be for state or federal government to allocate more money for public education instead of forcing budget cuts. This money could be obtained if the United States would restrict its overseas involvement in other nations, by avoiding expensive foreign wars and using that money to enrich the lives of Americans.”
Cabot has always been aware of the two very different educational stories in America. The wealthiest families can provide top quality education for their children, while the majority of the lower class cannot. Students in high-poverty areas do not have access to quality curricula, technology and qualified teachers. What makes the situation worse is that minority students with the same test scores as Whites or Asian students are less likely to be placed in accelerated courses and more likely to be placed in lower or remedial academic courses. Cabot feels that America should study and evaluate educational systems in countries like Finland and Singapore that consistently rank high in international evaluations. “America’s educational system has drifted away from teaching students how to reason and think, replacing it with rote learning. This must change.”
While Andrea agrees that education is becoming increasingly unequal in America, she doesn’t think it is because the government doesn’t spend enough money. The problem is that the money is not spent wisely. “There needs to be a better system for low-income schools. They need to spend money on tutors for the kids who struggle in class. There should also be more after-school activities for poor kids, something wealthy kids have. The wealthy are already set up for success. As a country, we need to provide these resources to the middle class and the poor as well.”
Shannon grew up in the Evergreen area of San Jose where families are generally upper-middle-class or higher. At Evergreen Valley High School, one of the top schools in the area, the test scores are ranked very high compared to other schools in San Jose, suggesting that students from richer families have higher-quality education. As Shannon sees it, a big part of the reason why low-income students do not acquire higher education is because their home environment detracts their focus from school. “These students have to worry about the dangers in their neighborhood. Often, their parents aren’t good role models. The parents may not even know how to properly communicate with their kids. Rich kids have more money because some of it comes from local property taxes. To generate money to support poor communities, the government should raise state and federal taxes on rich peoples’ incomes and allocate that to poorer communities. Such funds can be used to create mandatory parenting sessions for low-income parents. Any parent with at least one child in school must attend these sessions that will teach them how to provide a good home environment so that their children can perform to the best of their abilities.” The second solution Shannon proposes relates to moving teachers around. “Wealthier schools often have more effective teachers. Moving good and proven teachers around, even if for a semester or two, can motivate poor and under-performing students to excel.”
According to Keenan, it is not just money that explains the growing educational gap in America. Drive and passion are as important. Students who do well in school are those who take an active interest in what they are learning. This doesn’t come from money. It comes from how fascinated they are with what they are learning. A good teacher can make a big difference, of course, but ultimately it is up to the student. Although some schools do not have the latest technology and the best teachers, a student from such a school can use the Internet in libraries to acquire knowledge. Many of the great discoveries in almost all branches of knowledge came from students whose families were dirt poor but whose hunger to know and discover knew no bounds.
Rachel was surprised to learn that the “United States has the highest college dropout rate in the developed world.” However, she finds the comparison between today’s students and the baby boomers misleading. In the 50’s and 60’s a college education was not a requirement for landing a decent and well-paid job. Students who had no aptitude for higher studies could pursue full-time work right after high school. Not anymore. Students who don’t want to go to college or who aren’t ready for a college education are forced into something they are ill prepared for. It is this factor that explains the dismal state of education in America today. The solution is to create varieties of jobs that can absorb people with varying interests and skills. “That way, people who are more interested in blue collar work are able to get a good job without competing for positions requiring a college degree. “
Andrew is convinced that if the government stops offering financial favors to the wealthy and pursues a more ethical and equitable policy, the educational gap will shrink considerably.
The most practical solution to narrow the educational gap in America is to change the way schools are funded. As Michael sees it, school funding should be controlled at the federal and state level, and it should be based on the parents’ income. This will allow poorer schools to acquire the resources they need to give their students quality education. Michael has seen firsthand the disparity in education in different neighborhoods in San Jose, where he lives. In the well-funded elementary school in his neighborhood, the teachers are among the best, with access to the latest technologies. The school benefits from property tax measures that the wealthier parents can afford. In contrast, in East San Jose, where poor neighborhoods abound, the schools barely function. If the government creates a more humane funding program, there will be less educational gap between students.
Brandon feels that the rich are used as scapegoats in too many debates in America. Sure, part of the gap in education can be attributed to the unequal distribution of wealth, but anyone focused and willing to work hard can get a great education. His parents came from low-income families but both were determined to advance their careers through education and they both did, graduating from a California State University. The real issue is whether or not parents are interested in the education of their children. If they are, their children will find a way. The contrast can be seen with rich but unmotivated kids who go nowhere with their lives.
For Krish, eliminating educational inequalities can, to a large extent, be achieved by providing free preschool education to low-income children. Countries that provide early education for children have been more successful than other countries in raising achievement levels. A barrier to achieving equality is that American colleges are becoming prohibitively expensive. Many students have an extremely difficult time paying for college tuition. Even public colleges and universities such as the University of California, California State, and California community colleges have had one fee increase after another. “The cost of higher education is increasing at a far higher rate than the cost of other goods and services. If we agree that the community benefits from well-educated youth, then the government must prove so through increased funding. I have relatives in France who went to college there at a very low cost. Many universities in countries such as France are either free or have lower costs and are heavily subsidized by the government. To ensure equal access to all students, public colleges and universities should waive tuition for low income students, while the wealthy students could pay more. If tax payers are expected to support secondary schools because of the benefit to society, the same argument can be made for subsidized college education.”
Brett sees investing in teachers as a powerful way toward ensuring equal educational opportunity for all students. Schools and colleges need to hire qualified and inspirational teachers who can make subjects come alive for students. If the class is interesting, more students will be motivated to go to schools and appreciate the education they are receiving. Students must also recognize the value of a good education. “My mom made it clear to me at an early age that working hard in school will only benefit me in the future. She made sure I did my homework. She laid the foundation for the student I am today. I know that not every student in the country has the same support that I have. For this reason schools should implement various educational and recreational programs for those who don’t receive enough support at home. This will create a drive within the students to succeed in school and allow them to strive for a successful future.”