Julie Coles Explains How We Can Address Inequalities in Education

Julie Coles Explains How We Can Address Inequalities in Education

Education is one of the most important tools we have to address inequality. Providing high-quality education to all students is our best chance of helping them achieve their full potential. Julie Coles, an author from Massachusetts, will discuss some ways we can address educational inequality. We will look at both the challenges and the opportunities that lie ahead.

The Problem

The socio-economic background of students in the United States is vastly diverse. The current scholastic structure not only fails to acknowledge and welcome the diversity, it also stigmatizes people of color who attend schools in low socio-economic communities. This creates an incredible gap in the academic opportunities available to students at the lower end of the economic spectrum. In the current public school structure, students from wealthier families receive an abundance of quality educational resources. Predictably, those provided a better education out-perform children of lower-income status families.

The inequity must be addressed if a truly inclusive and open society is to be fully realized.

Julie Coles, author and educator, clarifies the impact of this educational inequality, pointing out several negative consequences as she does. First, this imbalance leads to a workforce with varying levels of ability. Typically those least educated occupy positions that pay the lowest incomes. Second, those earning low wages are also likely to remain employed at entry level positions due to their level of education. Absent a college degree, employees with or without a high school diploma have little chance of ascending up the socioeconomic ladder of social mobility. Lack of upward mobility further inhibits forward economic progress which then exacerbates social inequalities. Fourth, it makes those at the low end of socioeconomic levels politically powerless to advocate for changes they need to improve their overall quality of life. The inequities; politically, economically and socially, are tied to the inequitable barriers in our education system. Until the inequitable education barriers are removed and replaced with quality educational resources equitably accessible to everyone, our society will remain stagnate; normalizing the status quo of inequalities into the future.

The problem of educational inequality must be addressed because schools remain the most essential pathway for leveling the playing field. When all students prosper in schools our entire society benefits. Educational prosperity leads to a more productive workforce. A more productive workforce, with high income earners will reduce our currently strained economy. Increasing the size of high income earning employees capable of contributing to, instead of being dependent on financial assistance from the government, can help boost our overall economy. Well educated citizens are needed to to fill high level employment positions currently available. Filling high level positions that provide high incomes will lead to stabilizing our country and economically contribute to a more robust society.   

Causes of Educational Inequality

Many factors contribute to and/or are the direct result of educational inequality. One important contributing factor is socioeconomic status. Students who come from poverty are more likely to attend underfunded schools, have fewer resources at home, and face a variety health and other challenges. Poverty, hunger and poor health accompany students to school and often interfer with their ability to learn. This has lead to significant learning deficiences. Over time learning deficiences are manifested in academic achievement gaps between poor students and their more affluent peers. Another undeniable factor is racism. Racism has led to a wide disparity in educational attainment. Degree of education influences employment opportunities linked with high income earning potential. Higher income levels would allow for longterm equitable investments, such as the purchase of a home, which can be passed on to future generations.  Economic inequality prevents opportunities for low income earners to plant seeds that could lead to generational wealth.

Every individual’s potential of achieving future prosperity is dependent on the quality of education received. Quality of education is influenced by availability of resources, funding decisions and teacher expectations. For example, studies have shown that teachers who have lower expectations for Black and Latino students, tend to produce lower academic performance outcomes among those student populations. It is a well known fact that the powerful ways teachers can impact the lives of their students is immeasurable. In addition to providing adequate funding for quality educational resources, teachers setting higher expectations for all students also matters. Years of research have unequivocally proven that when inequitable barriers are replaced with equal access to high quality educational resources students from across culturally diverse populations perform at the highest standards. Clearly skin color, ethnicity and socio-economic status are no indication of what all students are truly capable of achieving. Providing access to equitable resources to all students, regardless of what zip code they reside in, is their best opportunity to prove they too possess the ability to learn at the highest academic standards.

We cannot have a discussion of inequality without acknowledging that inspite of how far we have come there are still schools segregated by race and income; which exacerbates educational disparities. Addressing the multitude of disparities is complicated, but we can at least begin by removing several of the obvious impediments that contribute to inequalities in our education system. Replacing old and unsafe schools with new facilities with modernized classrooms, updated curriculum and instructional practices that reflect the 21st century is long overdue. Installing bandwidth capable of expanding digital capacity in all schools is one of the most overlooked but  essential educational resources of modern schools. How is it possible that we live in a digital age, but technology has not been made a priority in all public schools? Federally funded school budgets can specify technology standards required for every public school and allocate the necessary funds to support upgrades. 

Solutions to Educational Inequality

The solutions to educational inequality are as complex as the problem itself. One key solution, which bears repeating, is to immediately start investing in building new schools. That requires a funding commitment in poor communities where students currently, in 2022, are educated under very horrendous conditions. In many urban and rural communities students and school staff report to buildings that are so dilapidated and unsafe they need to be condemned and torn down. Yet, despite their obvious conditions they remain open; under the guise of “educational institutions that meet safety standards”. Over many decades there have been sporadic investments in new schools. The new schools included upgrades that resulted in improved academic performances. When we treat students as being deserving and worthy of the best, so often the rate of return is shown in improved academic performance. But an additonal benefit of new schools breeding academic success is the ways it tends to uplift and spread pride across entire communities. Measuring a school community’s sense of genuine gratitude for finally being seen as worthy of new facilities and educational resources, is impossible to quantify.

Another area of immense influence that is difficult to quantify is the presence of minority teachers in all schools, but especially in highly populated communities of color.   When students have access to teachers who understand their unique experiences it conveys a sense of pride.  For many students there is added comfort to seeing someone of their ethnicity ascend to a professional role. Students are proud to see themselves represented in adults who also serve as role models. Recent interest in promoting  Culturally Relevant Pedagogy in urban communities to improve student engagement in their education will need culturaly competent teachers who possess an authentic understanding of what their students experience.

A third solution is increasing parental involvement in education. This could be done through programs that help parents navigate the school system, connect with their son’s or daughter’s teachers, and learn how to become advocates for their child’s education. When parents and guardians pick up cues of not being welcomed at schools, it gives the false perception of them being disinterested in investing in their child’s education. If the distance between school staff and parents is not bridged by outreach efforts from school members it will perpetuate the widening achievement gaps. Separating parents from schools is one of the gaps in need of closing if we expect to gain parental support with closing achievement gaps.  Separations between families and school staff, which in some ways mirrors the segregation in our schools, are both representative of institutional relics from the past plaguing our schools today. Fortunately there are pragmatic resources available to help us break from relics that continue to separate and segregate citizens in and outside of schools.  In fact, readers can find innovative and practical ideas in Julie’s book, America’s Educational Crossroads, where the author identifies pathways for school staff to build collaborative partnerships with students and their families. The partnerships outline roles and responsibilities of all partners to advance each student’s education. Believing it truly does take a village, the author describes a plan designed to improve the quality of teacher, student and parental engagement.  Leveling the educational playing fields will require a way to reconfigure how parents and teachers can work on the same team towards achieving the same purpose. Parents and teachers partnering to equip students succeed in school is one way of addressing inequities in education. As a lifelong educator, turned author, Julie continues her commitment to improving the quality of education for every student by focusing attention on pragmatic and real solutions.

The Role Of The Government, Community, And Educators

Julie explicitly describes the role of the government in addressing educational inequality in America’s Educational Crossroads. Years of imploring those responsible for making funding decisions for public schools located in poor communities has been met with indifference or total disinterest. Julie decided a different tactic for getting their attention warrants some consideration. She proposes sending invitations to government leaders and representatives at the federal, state, local and district level to commit to weekly visits inside of schools contending with physical structure issues making those facilities unsafe. All visits should conclude with a detailed list of the conditions visitors encountered during their visit. Secondly, visitors need to be asked if the conditions they found would be acceptable for one of their children, grandchildren or a child of a family member. If the answer, is….and should be, an emphatic, “No!,” the coversation about improvements to education should begin there.

Investment in change has a greater chance of occuring through personal experience. Experiencing poor school conditions will help others understand the magnitude of the conditons that should be unacceptable to all people. It is also why other elected officials like mayors, city council and school committee members should hold meetings in run-down schools. In-person experiences will deepen every visitor’s understanding of just how deplorable those conditions truly are. In fact, dissimination of reports documenting unsafe conditions need to be replaced with in-person visits. Visitors who occupy seats of power, and the authority to render decisions impacting school staff and students, are likely to be better informed after occupying seats inside of run down schools. In-person visits will enable them to gain a better understanding of the substandard conditions negatively impacting the ability of teachers to teach, as well as students trying to focus on learning. 

Secondly, policies that either promote or ignore segregation in schools must be eradicated in all schools. But in new schools, once shovels enter the ground in the early stages of construction, ending discrimination must become one of the priorities. New schools are an opportunity to leave behind outdated, unfair and racially reprehensible baggage. If we want to ensure new generations of students are not burden with inheriting racially unjust educational policies that created current inequities, we can commit to preventing the continuation of those policies by banning them from new schools.  If allowed to exist in new facilities, students of color will continue to have their education impeded. If impedements are allowed to continue it will prevent students from pursuing their education unencumbered by obstacles from the past.

The role of the community in addressing educational inequality is also twofold. First, the district must support programs that help parents navigate the school system and connect with their child’s teachers. Second, the community must provide resources for students outside of school to get actively engaged in their communities. In addition to tutoring and mentoring, middle and high school students can give back to their communities by becoming Social Custodians or members of their Neighborhood Peace Corp; two community engagement initiatives described in Julie’s book, America’s Educational Crossroads. Recognizing the valueable role school’s can serve as anchors in communities, staff members can partner with community organizations to foster entrepreneurlal development and internship programs.

Community internships offer multiple opportunities for students to volunteer in support community organizations. Educational opportunities can strengthen links between student volunteers and community organizations. Students interested in using their artistic and creative skills as illustrators and messengers can support organizations dissimate public announcements about special events and other activities. Students can be tasked with creating community-based messaging assignments in English Language Arts and Digital Production classes. Organization’s can empower students by giving them meaningful roles to assist in efforts to improve safety, elevate pride in community identity and promote positive contributions reflecting the vibrancy in their neighborhoods.

Students-interns volunteering to assist organizations is another great way for schools to strengthen student engagment in their communities.  Schools located in neighborhoods deemed “unsafe” often, and unfairly, inherit negative reputations. The negative descriptions are generally intended to suit false and undeserving sterotypical narratives. It’s no coincidence that the majority of those schools are located in neighborhoods predominantly populated by low income residents who are also people of color. Changing minds about the public’s erroneous perceptions about schools and their neighborhoods is one example of how schools and communities can work collaboratively to achieve mutual goals.

Another example is creating community-based journalism projects in schools. Classes used to develop students’ writing skills to promote the mutual interests of their school and community organizations will generate genuine interest in learning. Students also need to experience active engagement tactics and models demonstrating how to become community advocates. Community organizations taking ownership of their own narratives to promote a more accurate profile of their community’s identity is an ideal represention of advocacy. It’s also a great media project for digitally savvy students. Overall, any opportunity that bridges skills learned in class with experiences based in reality helps students find purpose in their education. Application of any skills acquired in school, then transferred into the real world, is an ideal way to strengthen student investment in their education.   

The role educators can play in reversing perceptions; both real or imagined, about educational inequality in their schools can be achieved despite limited resources.  Engaging in community activities is a great way for educators of different races and ethnic backgrounds to bridge connections with their students. When students inform staff about local events in the community, staff should make an effort to attend. Community events that represent the cultural interests and customs of students and families who attend the school are an opportuntity for respectful exploration and discovery.

Biases that are often created from ignorance or sterotypes generally accepted and passed down through generations, need opportunities to be rexamined. Schools should be seen as safe places providing opportunities to learn about other’s cultural identity. If never given a chance to exchange ideas, cultural customs and diverse perspectives, which can influence perceptions and changes minds, students and teachers will never have the benefit of being whole persons while in school.

Both adults and students need safe conditions to openly explore the importance of treating students equally. Students also need safe spaces and guidance to learn how to treat their peers and teachers in respectful ways. Programs that promote opportunities for cultural and ethnic exchanges are likely to lead to more open and honest discussions about equality.  The chance for teachers to learn about and understand the unique experiences of all students is provided in and throughout the communities of every neighborhood’s school.

Julie believes addressing educational inequality, which is a complex problem, requires a multi-pronged approach. The government, community, and educators all have a role to play in ensuring that all students have an equal opportunity to succeed. As an educational author Julie is using her writing platform to bring awareness about the factors contributing to inequitable conditions. She is commited to examining how inequitiable barriers can be replaced with modern educational resources to promote learning at the highest standards across all communities.

Final Thoughts

There is much work to be done and Julie is aware she cannot do it alone. In fact, it is why she wrote America’s Educational Crossroads. It was intended to be a call to action to implore everyone to join the mission of the deinstitutionalization of subjecting poor and minority populations to educational inequalities across America. It’s an ambitious aspiration, but as always it often starts with someone willing to be an agent of change.

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