Last week I attended the joint meeting of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) and the New England Commission on Higher Education (NECHE). At this gathering there are K-12 educators and higher education administrators, and most of our sessions were separate. One that was not was a plenary session featuring Ta-Nehisi Coates. In front of a standing room only crowd, he reflected on his life as a writer, the taking down of statues linked to our ugliest of histories, the complicity of the Ivy League universities in those ugly histories, and most of all, the unbearable inequities in access to education.
Much of the conversation focused on K-12, but we in higher education are not unfamiliar with the main points of his argument. To sum up, it is unreasonable to measure a teacher’s or school district’s success by a simple test score, when many teachers are serving as educators, social workers, therapists, and security officers. Measuring the test scores in a district where the students are hungry, living in unsafe neighborhoods, and lacking in access to basic educational supports (books at home, paper at home, parents who are able to support homework), as if those scores can be in any way similar to the test scores in Greenwich, CT is beyond destructive. The conditions created by this notion that tests are objective measures of anything almost inevitably lead to environments with high turnover, low morale, and predictable desperate measures.
In higher education, the parallel experience comes in the rankings of schools. Blunt measures of retention and graduation rates tell us very little, when not placed in the context of the students we serve. Increasingly, universities like mine, serve students who have graduated from the most challenging K-12 districts. Our students are doing their best to make the leap to higher education, without having had enough support in their prior education to develop some of the skills necessary for success in college. They are also burdened with the need to work too many hours, are often food insecure, and on occasion, homeless.
At WCSU, we serve these students in the same classrooms as those who did have adequate preparation and support. This is our mission and we are committed to it. But you can see where there may be challenges. As we work to meet the needs of all of our students, adopting new pedagogies, developing robust support systems, and always searching for more funding for our neediest students, we are consistently aware that we are being judged by measurements that do not tell our story. We strive for equity and equity doesn’t live on a four-year, primarily residential campus. We should strive to do better, but our attention is squarely on the students in the room, not on those blunt measures. If we attended to those other measures too closely, we would have to change who we are designed to serve.
I took the opportunity to ask Mr. Coates for advice and he issued a very specific challenge. He turned to the room full of educators and said we had to become active in advocating not just for education, but for the supporting systems whose absences are at the root of the social inequities we are then tasked with curing. It was an aha moment for me.
Or perhaps I should say, it was a duh moment for me. Mr. Coates is so right. Education has long been seen as this country’s equalizer. It is meant to provide access to the social mobility at the heart of what we think being an American means. This is a heavy burden. It is no accident that we have had to continuously fight to make education a true equalizer, fighting to allow everyone to pursue it. We have a horrible history of denying access, to be sure, but access has grown none-the-less. We continue to segregate, by laws and by funds, the quality of education available to the many, and we battle to cure those inequities in fits and starts, but battle we do. Through it all, we continue to look to education as a cure for all society’s ills. It continues to be what Henry Perkinson called an “imperfect panacea.”
But here, in higher education, perhaps we do need to broaden our advocacy. We need to change national formulas created by Title IV funding guidelines, to be sure, and fight for better measures of the diversity of colleges and universities, not just the elite schools. But what about the rest of it? We know that college would be better if students didn’t arrive under-prepared. But the conditions in K-12 are not always conducive to that preparation. So, I’m starting my advocacy to-do list: 1. We need universal pre-K. 2. All schools should have free breakfast and lunch. 3. All education funding formulas need to be re-imagined to balance the inequities that arise from de facto segregation. 4. We need sane housing policies that undermine that segregation and put an end to homelessness.
This list is just a start, but taking these steps has the potential to change the higher education environment significantly. By addressing root causes of the uneven preparation of our students, we might be able to really focus on measures that reflect learning instead of just socio-economic contexts. This would be real access to education, instead of the band-aid system we now have in place.