The Civil Rights Issue of Our Generation: Equal Educational Opportunity

By Junior Associate: Grace Lee

Education reform is the civil rights issue of our generation. Only 9 percent[1] of students from the lowest income quartile in the United States will complete college. To address this issue, President Obama spoke at the White House Summit on College Opportunity [2] about the need to expand college accessibility for low-income minority students and claimed,” The premise that we’re all created equal is the opening line in our American story.  And we don’t promise equal outcomes; we’ve strived to deliver equal opportunity — the idea that success does not depend on being born into wealth or privilege, it depends on effort and merit. ”

The idea that we must provide equal opportunity to all students received a wide-range of support at The White House Summit, which concluded with over 100 new commitments[3] made by college and university presidents and leaders of businesses and nonprofits to expand college opportunity.

Passionate about educational justice and community engagement, I directed a conference at Claremont McKenna College in February 2014 for low-income high school students on leadership and college preparation. I recruited students through contacting local high schools in low-income and high-minority areas, asking for nominations of students who possess excellent leadership potential and passion but lack the resources and support to grow as leaders and prepare for college.

President Hiram Chodosh of Claremont McKenna, the keynote speaker of the conference, addressed many of the students’ concerns about college, including its affordability. He explained the college’s Student Imperative Initiative of raising $100 million to reduce the cost for low-and moderate-income families.

On the day of the conference, I was speaking in front of a room full of students who are from neighborhoods where drive-by shootings, gang violence, and single parent families are far too common. Some of the students grew up in South Central Los Angeles, which has neighborhoods where as few as three percent[4] of residents graduate from college. Many of the students were not even exposed to the idea of a college education until later on in high school. I was, however, inspired by the students’ dreams and hopes for the future and their determined and resilient character. I became convicted that these students, given the resources along with hard work, could realize their full potential despite the negative stereotypes.

The lack of educational support and resources available for students in low-income areas compared to that of their counterparts in more affluent neighborhoods can be heartbreaking. I am optimistic, however, that there are methods to collectively achieve the goal of providing these students with more opportunity to obtain quality education for future success.

Increasing school choice is one step in the right direction to improve educational outcomes for all students. Whether it is through charter schools, vouchers, or career and technical education programs after high school, parents and students’ ability to choose their educational path is crucial. Though enrollment competition may arise between charter schools and traditional public schools, a healthy competition can motivate low-performing districts to improve their practice. It is necessary, therefore, for charters and traditional public schools to have learning and working relationships in order to assess the need of each community when opening and closing schools, as the ultimate end goal is to ensure that every student receives a quality education, not just a select few.

In 2009, DC Public Schools developed IMPACT, a system that rates teachers based on factors including student achievement. All school-based personnel are evaluated through the system, and it has helped staff become more effective through clarifying expectations, providing feedback and support, and retaining great people. A study[5] conducted by Stanford University and University of Virginia researchers concluded that IMPACT has caused teachers in the district to improve their performance and encourage low-performing teachers to voluntarily leave. There is a national need to reform teacher evaluations in order to better distinguish an effective teacher from an ineffective teacher, always keeping students’ best interests in mind.

As the conference came to an end, one of the high school students came up to me and spoke with such sincerity, “Grace, thank you so much- you made me realize that my dream of becoming a nurse can become a reality” and gave me a hug. Knowing that I helped spark something within him that gave him greater confidence for his future was incredibly rewarding. Moments like this drive me towards achieving equal opportunity for all students because, for me, it comes down to impacting one life at a time.

[1] http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2013/03/the-miserable-odds-of-a-poor-student-graduating-from-college-in-2-graphs/274250/

[2] http://www.whitehouse.gov/photos-and-video/video/2014/01/16/president-obama-speaks-expanding-college-opportunity

[3] http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/01/16/fact-sheet-president-and-first-lady-s-call-action-college-opportunity

[4] http://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/local/2013/11/09/washington-a-world-apart/

[5] http://cepa.stanford.edu/sites/default/files/w19529.pdf

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