equity, Higher Education, Inclusion, Innovative Pedagogies

Cognitive Dissonance and Equity

It’s been a tough couple of years for higher education, and I’m not talking about funding or enrollment. Whether we point to the pulling down of Confederate statues, to heated discussions about racism in our academic organizations, to photoshopped recruiting materials that exaggerate campus diversity, it is clear that things are not going as we had hoped. We have reached a point of cognitive dissonance, with our sense of ourselves as fair and equitable routinely contradicted in academic and main stream media. And that cognitive dissonance is making us very uncomfortable.

Good. We should be uncomfortable.  We should be questioning our ability to support inclusive educational experiences that grapple with hard questions and take honest looks at discriminatory narratives and inequitable social structures.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about diversity (or the lack thereof) in our curricula.  I argued that we should get started with looking at our syllabi, course offerings, and majors with eyes toward greater inclusivity.  The importance of this task cannot be overstated.  Regular exposure to that diversity has the potential to weaken pervasive stereotypes or what Banaji and Greenwald call “mindbugs.” (Their book, Blind Spot (2013), by the way, would be an excellent text for a psychology course addressing our biased social constructs around race, gender, and age.) When we are not intentional about creating curricula that draw on excellence from all groups, we are supporting discriminatory narratives and inequitable social structures.  There is no time to waste on this project.  It is time-consuming, but it is the easiest of all the tasks associated with creating an inclusive learning environment because it is entirely within our control.

But there is more to do. Our next step is to work harder at supporting dialogues that address systemic inequity.  This is much harder than updating our curriculum. Let’s face it, leading those conversations is fraught with risks. There is a chance we may get the words wrong and inadvertently offend someone.  There is a chance that our students will not wish to participate.  There is fear that administrators like me will not understand the complexity of the situation when a conflict does emerge in a class.  These are all valid concerns, but we do no good avoiding difficult subjects. So, what do we do?

I have one suggestion to get us started.  Let’s see how far we can get by adopting a debate across the curriculum model.  We can identify classes in every major that will include structured debate.  It is important that we don’t default to debate in general education and ignore all of the other areas where these arguments should take place.  Students need to see the value of this investigative strategy in all disciplines. It would be great to lay foundations in general education and then follow up in majors so that the form of inquiry supported by this pedagogy becomes a habit. I’ve selected courses from nearly every discipline at WCSU where I’d love to see debate included:

  • ED 206 Introduction to Education
  • NUR 301 Nursing Leadership in Health Care Organizations
  • HPX 200 Introduction to Community Health and Organizations
  • SW 210 Social Welfare as an Institution
  • ACC 340 Business Law I
  • FIN 370 Financial Institutions
  • JLA 100 Introduction to Criminal Justice I
  • MGT 251 Human Resources Management
  • MIS 307 Social Media in Business
  • MKT 200 Principles of Marketing
  • AS The American Dream: Visions & Revisions
  • ANT/SOC 204 Culture and Personality
  • AST/ENV 134 Extraterrestrial Environments and Intelligence
  • BIO 200 Ecology
  • CHE 102 Everyday Chemistry I
  • COM 190 Introduction to Mass Communication
  • CS 110 Website Production
  • DIMA 200 Storytelling for Digital and Interactive Media
  • ECO 211 Principles of Macroeconomics
  • ENG 108 Introduction to Literature
  • HIS 148 American History: To 1877
  • HUM 110 Moral Issues in Modern Society
  • MAT 110 Great Ideas in Mathematics
  • MTR 240 Climatology
  • PHI 100 Introduction Philosophy
  • NWC/HIS 115 Latin American and Caribbean Civilization
  • PSY 202 Abnormal Psychology
  • SS 201 Researching Social Issues
  • SOC 100 Introduction to Sociology
  • WS 200 Introduction to Women’s Studies
  • WRT 171W Craft of Writing I: Conversations with Predecessors
  • ART 101 History and Appreciation of Western Art: Renaissance to the Present
  • MUS 100 History & Appreciation of Music
  • THR 180 Introduction to Theater Arts
  • All introductory language courses

In some cases, the debate should be, “why is this a category?” (Non-Western Cultures and  Women’s Studies come to mind).  In all cases, the debate topic should include some question of equity and students should be required to find evidence for their arguments from a body of literature that represents a diverse group of contributors.  This will require us to consider evidence from marginalized voices and people who do not have access to the traditional scholarly outlets associated with higher education, but I think we can do that.

The value of this approach is that it allows us to guide challenging conversations without taking a position on the topic.  This is important because our positions frequently leave our students feeling like they can’t disagree. Instead, we can focus on teaching about asking good questions, finding follow-up lines of inquiry, discovering contradictions, and evaluating evidence. Our students will take the lead in the debates, learning about the contributors to their position and anticipating the arguments of those who disagree. It’s a great approach for developing knowledge of a discipline and the structure of argument. It also helps us all become better listeners.

As students and faculty dive into this curriculum, we will be cultivating a habit of listening. We will be hearing points of view we have never considered.  We will be considering diverse bodies of evidence that we may not have encountered before.  And we will be discussing questions of equity as a regular practice, not as an add-on to our courses.

Learning with our students, about all of things we forgot to consider as we shaped our understandings of our disciplines and of education more generally, seems to me to be the best path to reconciling the gap between who we thought we were and who we want to be.  This step toward resolving our cognitive dissonance will be imperfect and require further review, but it is does offer a way forward and I’m ready for the first step.

Banaji, M. and Greenwald, A. (2013). Blind Spot. U.S.: Delacorte Press.

equity, Higher Education, Inclusion

Adjusting for Equity

It is Martin Luther King Day and as I paused to reflect on the meaning of the day, I noticed yet another challenge to admissions policies that factor in race has been launched. Inside Higher Ed reported that Students for Fair Admissions (the same group suing Harvard) is suing University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill over differential admissions standards based on race.  In part, they note that the ACT scores required of white and Asian students are higher than those required of African-American and Latino students.  Sigh.

This is just one of the many challenges to affirmative action that have taken place over  the years.  Before we focused on differences in test scores, folks complained about quotas.  I recall discussing this in classes 20 years ago.  Many of my students were angered by the very notion of a quota. It seemed to fly in the face of their assumptions about merit and equality.  At that time, I had a Jamaican-American student who raised her hand and stated simply: “So, you’re upset about 2% of the spots being saved for me.  What about the 98% being saved for you?” This simple argument revealed the difference  between equity and equality.

Twenty years later and we’re still struggling with those distinctions.  Deep in the values of the United States is a notion that upward mobility is within our grasp if we only work for it.  But it is hard for us to grasp the difference in levels of work required depending on where we start on that economic ladder.

Add to this the discomfort we feel about racial categories.  We have managed to make them complicated and multi-dimensional, which is to the good, and these efforts have left many people feeling that we should be moving away from simplistic categories. Our discomfort may be a sign of progress, but the experiences and opportunities we have are still tied up in the biases we carry toward people who do not look the same as us.  And those biases still skew towards those who aren’t white.

Still, sorting admissions by race nags at us.  It doesn’t feel quite right.  So, how about we shift the conversation.  Since K-12 environments have a very strong impact on our likelihood of attending college, why not adjust the admissions process with that in mind?  Instead of looking at race, let’s adjust SAT (or ACT) scores based on K-12 context.

Here are three things that are regularly reported on K-12 school districts in CT that could be used to adjust SAT scores: Percent of students who qualify for free lunch, percent of students who are English Language Learners, and the  percent of students who attend college after graduation.  Districts with higher numbers of students who qualify for free lunch and who are English Language Learners tend to have lower average SAT scores than districts with less need in these areas. These two variables are associated with all sorts of barriers to achieving high SAT scores. ELL students, for example, usually don’t have family members who can help with homework because folks at home don’t speak English.  Students who qualify for free lunch rarely have access to summers at academic camps, or tutors, etc. Districts addressing these needs are likely to have fewer resources available for the niceties of field trips, SAT test-prep classes, or robust academic extra-curriculars. These two issues are then likely to impact the percent of graduates in a district that attend college.

Here is my proposed adjustment.  Take the difference between a perfect SAT score (1600) and the district average.  Multiply that difference first by the percentage of students who receive free lunch and then by the percentage who are English Language Learners. Then  determine the percentage of students who don’t attend college from the district and multiply that by the same number as the other two variables.  Add these three numbers to the SAT scores for an equity adjustment.

Here’s how it looks.

District 1 District 2 District 3
Base combined SAT Scores 968 1076 1227
Difference from 1600 632 524 373
District ELL Percentage 14.4 1.5 0
District Free Lunch Percentage 44.3 21.2 1.8
College Attendance Percentage 69.9 79 90.7
ELL Adjustment 91 8 0
Free Lunch Adjustment 280 111 7
College attendance adjustment 190 110 37
Total Points Added 561 229 44
Adjusted Average SAT Score 1529 1305 1271

Now, I’m sure it won’t surprise you that District 1 is more ethnically diverse than District 3 and obviously the free lunch numbers point to families in need of support.  But, the focus here is on a holistic experience that results from being in a less advantaged school district.  As a general rule, all students in District 1 will have less opportunity to participate in the enrichment opportunities that lead to high SAT scores, so everyone attending that school should be awarded the additional points.

This takes race out of the admissions questions while at the same time addressing the structural racism that results from economic segregation everywhere.

We could go farther.  For example, only 16% of the students in District 1 will have successfully earn AP credit, 70% of the students in District 3 will.  Should we make an adjustment? Students from poor families will not be able to go to summer enrichment programs because they will be working. Should we make an adjustment?  Students attending schools in neighborhoods with high levels of crime will have difficulty fully focusing on their studies because they are dealing with trauma. Should we make an adjustment?  And there are many more variables we might consider.

But if we just start with these three, perhaps we can achieve what we hoped to achieve when we starting asking questions about our admissions policies in the first place. Because equality will never be reached without some level of equity.