Stop Blaming Students
A recent Education Week headline brought my scanning eyes to a screeching halt: “High School Poverty, Minority Enrollment, Undermine College Progress, Study Finds.” I checked for the publication date in disbelief. Surely, we aren’t still mired in the morass of “demography is destiny” in 2016.
Apparently, I was wrong.
The article, it turned out, summarized a recent report from the National Student Clearinghouse, which showed that high school students who attend high-poverty schools and schools serving lots of students of color are less likely to enroll in and successfully complete college. And it stopped at that.
There was no acknowledgment, in either the article or the report, of any other contributor to educational outcomes — like educational inequity, structural racism or classism, or that despite being “created equal,” low-income students and students of color have to fight harder for every single thing they get in (and out of) school than their more privileged peers.
And despite decades of research, there was no acknowledgment of the powerful role institutions — both high schools and colleges — play in the success of their students.
Take University Park Campus School in Worcester, Massachusetts, for example, where more than half of students are economically disadvantaged (double the state’s average). Nearly all University Park students graduate high school, and 81 percent of graduates — including 79 percent of low-income graduates — are enrolled in college. That’s higher than the Massachusetts state average both for low-income graduates (65 percent college enrollment rate) and for all students (76 percent). University Park’s college enrollment rate is also higher than the enrollment rate for students from low-poverty schools that’s cited in the National Student Clearinghouse report.
Or take Elmont Memorial High School, a large neighborhood school just outside of Queens, New York, where nearly all students are African American or Latino. More than 9 in 10 students at Elmont graduate on time, and nearly all are headed to college.
The success at University Park and Elmont is not an accident; it’s not luck. It’s the result of hard, purposeful work by teams of educators who make it a point to hold all students to high expectations and to provide them with the support they need to master the knowledge and skills necessary for college.
Just as important, what colleges do is critical. Consider Florida State University, for example, where the graduation rate for underrepresented minority students rose from 60 percent to 79 percent between 2002 and 2014. Or consider San Diego State University, where only 31 percent of Latino students graduated in 2002, but 59 percent donned their tassels in 2014. Again, improvement at both of these schools was no accident; it happened because both universities changed their practices in a way that supported student success.
Universities serving nearly identical student populations, in fact, can show vastly different results. Michigan State University and the University of Alabama, for example, have nearly identical percentages of low-income students, and median SAT scores of incoming freshmen are just about the same. But while 72 percent of low-income students at Michigan State graduate within six years, only 52 percent do so at the University of Alabama.
The data in the National Student Clearinghouse report aren’t new, and, frankly, given our unequal and inequitable education system, they aren’t surprising. What is surprising (and frustrating) is the degree to which we are still willing to be satisfied as a field with a conclusion that places none of the responsibility — or opportunity — with educational institutions, the “Great Equalizers” of America.
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