From My Clothes to My Pedagogy: They Almost Walked Off With All My Stuff

(I can claim credit for neither clause of the title of this post. The former was stated by a friend and colleague during a discussion about preservation of self in academia; the latter is of course referencing a well-known poem by Ntozake Shange. The poem, in its entirety, follows in italics.)

somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff
not my poems or a dance i gave up in the street
but somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff
like a kleptomaniac workin hard & forgettin while stealin
this is mine/this aint yr stuff/
now why don’t you put me back & let me hang out in my own self

I’ve hit a point, in my 3rd year in my position as Assistant Professor of Social and Political Issues in Education where I feel like I am fighting for myself. For the past 6 months I’ve watched others encroach on my intellectual property and steal. Yes, they asked, but still…in  my subjugated position as “Assistant” Professor and “Junior” Faculty, a request made of me is more like a demand. All I want is for them to put me back and let me hang out in my own self.

somebody almost walked off wit alla my stuff
& didn’t care enuf to send a note home sayin
i was late for my solo conversation
or two sizes to small for my own tacky skirts
what can anybody do wit somethin of no value on
a open market/ did you getta dime for my things/
hey man/ where are you goin wid alla my stuff/
to ohh & ahh abt/ daddy/ i gotta mainline number
from my own shit/ now wontcha put me back/ & let
me play this duet/ wit silver ring in my nose/

Your email ‘requests’ for my syllabi, my readings, my classroom activities. For the synopses of my past and future ideas. For all of this, I wonder—where are you going with all of my stuff?

Because it is my stuff. Borne of me. My passions, my ideas, my interactions with life. Mine. Why do you feel entitled to me?

honest to god/ somebody almost run off wit alla my stuff/
& i didnt bring anythin but the kick & sway of it
the perfect ass for my man & none of it is theirs
this is mine/ juanita sims/ that’s my name
now give me my stuff/ i see ya hidin my laugh/ & how i
sit wif my legs open sometimes/ to give my crotch
some sunlight/ & there goes my love my toes my chewed
up finger nails/ niggah/ wif the curls in yr hair/
mr. louisiana hot link/ i want my stuff back/
my rhytums & my voice/ open my mouth/ & let me talk ya
outta/ throwin my shit in the sewar/ this is some delicate
leg & whimsical kiss/ i gotta have to give to my choice/
without you runnin off wit alla my shit/
now you cant have me less i give me away/ & i waz
doin all that/ til ya run off on a good thing/

For real though. Why do I have to fight for what is mine? If I were a man or white or better yet, a white man, you would never have the audacity to ask for my things. What’s worse is that you can’t do with them what I can do with them. You might as well throw them in the sewer. Disposable.  Of no value. None of it is theirs. This is mine.

who is this you left me wit/ some simple bitch
widda bad attitude/ i wants my things/
i want my arm wit the hot iron scar/ & my leg wit the
flea bite/ i want my calloused feet & quik language back
in my mouth/ fried plantains/ pineapple pear juice/
sun-ra & joseph & jules/ i want my own things/ how i lived them/
& give me my memories/ how i waz when i waz there/
you cant have them or do nothin wit them/
stealin my shit from me/ dont make it yrs/ makes it stolen/

Yes, I want my things. They are mine. You think you can leave me with your leftovers after I’ve prepared the meal you’re eating. Stealing my shit from me doesn’t make it yours; it makes it stolen. Inauthentic. Inorganic. Wrong. They know.

somebody almost run off wit alla my stuff/ & i waz standin
there/ lookin at myself/ the whole time
& it waznt a spirit took my stuff/ waz a man whose
ego walked round like Rodan’s shadow/ waz a man faster
n my innocence/ waz a lover/ i made too much
room for/ almost run off wit alla my stuff/
& i didnt know i’d give it up so quik/ & the one runnin wit it/
don’t know he got it/ & i’m shoutin this is mine/ & he dont
know he got it/ my stuff is the anonymous ripped off treasure
of the year/ did you know somebody almost got away wit me/

To add insult to injury you think it’s okay to do this. You think it’s perfectly acceptable to take what I earned, what I created, and call it yours. Sometimes I don’t think you know you have it. But I am shouting, THIS IS MINE! My named treasure. Followed by three letters. I almost let it go.

me in a plastic bag under their arm/ me
danglin on a string of personal carelessness/ i’m spattered wit
mud & city rain/ & no i didnt get a chance to take a douche/
hey man/ this is not your perogative/ i gotta have me in my
pocket/ to get round like a good woman shd/ & make the poem
in the pot or the chicken in the dance/ what i got to do/
i gotta get my stuff to do it to/

I stopped. Not again. Once because I didn’t know any better. Twice because I trusted you. But now I have me in my pocket and I know what I have to do.

why dont ya find yr own things/ & leave this package
of me for my destiny/ what ya got to get from me/
i’ll give it to ya/ yeh/ i’ll give it to ya/
round 5:00 in the winter/ when the sky is blue-red/
& Dew City is gettin pressed/ if it’s really my stuff/
ya gotta give it to me/ if ya really want it/ i’m
the only one/ can handle it

You almost walked away with all of my stuff.

Then you couldn’t.

iconic black women

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Voting NO for [Faux] Reform. Money Won’t Fix Our Education System.

Now that we are a little over a week beyond the defeat of Amendment 66 in Colorado, I think it’s a good time to talk about it. Surprisingly to some—most notably those who have not read my blog carefully—I voted against Amendment 66. This may seem odd because yes, I am an advocate for education reform and staunchly support equitable learning opportunities. But what I am not is someone who believes money will fix our broken education system. Do not get me wrong, many public schools are sorely lacking in financial resources; however, money is a band aid for systemic inequalities. I am more interested in addressing housing segregation, teacher preparation, standardization, music/art/PE in school, and academic rigor. These, more than anything, are what I believe will affect sustainable change.

*****

For those who do not live in Colorado, let me overview Amendment 66:

“Had it been approved, Amendment 66 would have increased the state’s income tax to raise the amount of state tax revenue spent on public school districts by about 16.6%, from $5.5 billion under the current law, to a little over $6.4 billion. Once the increases for charter school funding were added, this would have amounted to a $950 million increase.[2] Amendment 66 would also have allowed for the implementation of the new Public School Finance Act Senate Bill 213. The new tax and education funding formulas found in SB 13-213 would have gone into effect in the 2015-16 fiscal year. At the time of the November 2013 vote the statewide per-pupil funding was $6,652 and was projected to rise to $7,426 under SB 13-213.[3][4][5] The organization “Colorado Commits to Kids” sponsored the initiative.[6]

Colorado’s current personal income tax rate is a flat 4.63%.[7] Amendment 66 would have imposed a graduated income tax with rate increases according to the following income criteria:[8]

  • Any taxable income of up to $75,000 would be taxed at a rate of 5%.
  • Any taxable income surpassing $75,000 would be taxed at a rate of 5.9%.

The proposed increases represented an 8% increase in income tax on those making less than $75,000 per year and a 26.6% increase in income tax on any taxable income over $75,000 per year.”

Colorado Commits to Kids campaigned that Amendment 66 would have allowed for the following:

  • Schools can hire thousands of new teachers to reduce class sizes
  • Teachers can provide students with the one-on-one time they need
  • Taxpayers will have confidence that new money is used only for education reforms or enhancements to existing programs
  • Districts will have more flexibility to restore funding for art and music classes, sports programs and transportation

*****

Now, this all looks great to someone who is not engaged with social and political issues in education. My biggest concerns here are twofold: first, who is tracking the spending of this money? What guarantees do we have that these funds would go toward hiring more qualified (notice that this word is absent from campaign promises) teachers and implementing art programs? There is no guarantee. This piece of legislation merely provides local government boards with the option to spend the money as they see fit. Second, where is the evidence that more money directly contributes to higher achievement?

Allow me to answer: there is none.

What we have is evidence that money spent in ways that would benefit student learning results in higher achievement. Given the unique needs of individual students, communities and schools, there is far too much trust in our local government to a) know what students in their district need to achieve and b) to actually spend the money accordingly.  If you’ve never researched your local school board members I encourage you to do so now. You will find that very few of them have any experience in education from a practitioner’s perspective or a policy perspective. Most school board members are parents, retirees, or people looking to boost their community reputation to increase the customer base for their primary occupation. These people are not trained to investigate issues of education reform, to read educational data, nor to create educational policies. Yet, this Amendment would’ve increased their power to do so.

Decades of educational data tell us there are dozens of mediators between money and academic achievement. Here are a few:

  • food programs
  • healthcare in schools
  • extracurriculars
  • qualified teachers
  • more rigorous course offerings (e.g., AP and IB courses)
  • new school buildings
  • up to date textbooks
  • transportation to and from school
  • more diverse course offerings

Can money help implement all of those? Absolutely. Then why hasn’t it? (See above statement about unqualified and under-informed people making decisions about educational spending) Race to the Top is an excellent example of how throwing money at schools will not affect reform. I thoroughly discuss this in a previous post, so let’s look at some other evidence.

I want to look at the correlation between per pupil expenditure (since this was 66’s primary point—Colorado is under-spending per pupil) and district performance. The top spenders in 2011 were New York ($19,076), the District of Columbia ($18,475), Alaska ($16,674), New Jersey ($15,968) and Vermont ($15,925).

If we look at it by enrollment, New York City School District in New York ($19,770) had the highest current spending per student in 2011, followed by Boston Public Schools in Massachusetts ($19,181), Baltimore City Public Schools in Maryland ($15,483), Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland ($15,421), and Howard County Schools in Maryland ($15,139).

Using 2011 data from the Dept of Education, we can see that across math, reading, science and writing, those high spenders have between 8%-58% of their students performing at or above proficiency levels. Here is the state by state breakdown:

New York: 29%-36%; DC: 8%-22%; Alaska: 26%-37%; New Jersey: 34%-51%; Vermont: 41%-49%; Massachusetts: 44%-58%; Maryland: 32%-48%

Conversely, states spending the least per student in 2011 were Mississippi ($7,928), Arizona ($7,666), Oklahoma ($7,587), Idaho ($6,824) and Utah ($6,212). The percent of students performing at or above proficiency in 2011 was as follows:

Mississippi: 19%-25%; Arizona: 23%-34%; Oklahoma: 26%-33%; Idaho: 33%-39%; Utah: 33%-43

Now, without comparing mean test scores, I would hazard a guess that the performance of New York, DC and Alaska is not significantly different from the performance of the low-spending states. The remaining four high spenders are probably doing statistically significantly better but with that many students taking a test, it won’t take much to meet statistical significance. That said, having only 15% more students performing at or above proficiency does not warrant spending 3 times as much per pupil. What effect is all that money having???

Under Amendment 66, Colorado’s per pupil expenditure was expected to rise from $6,652 to $7,426. Following the trend of other states, this marginal increase would not have affected performance bands at all. In 2011, 39%-47% of CO students performed at or above proficiency across subject matters. This is already higher than Mississippi, Arizona, Oklahoma and Idaho’s performance results—all of whom have higher per pupil expenditures than Colorado.

While these are admittedly very rough comparisons, the point is clear: more money does not equate higher performance.

I continue to be baffled by the American people who believe so strongly in throwing money at problems. That strategy has not been successful (long-term) in any sector of society yet we continue to stand by our capitalist ideals.  Money, in the hands of the American people, is a divisive tool and until we figure out how to use it for good, I will always vote NO.

No Ticket, No Entry: Cultural Capital in College Degree Attainment

golden-ticketI am all a dither because today, Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce released their report entitled “Separate & Unequal: How Higher Education Reinforces the Intergenerational Reproduction of White Racial Privilege”.

As an educational scholar I get excited when I see these reports for multiple reasons: a) it’s a text I can use in many of my courses; b) national scale data is hard to come by; c) the quality of the research done is fairly solid given the origin of the work; d) this contributes to, and may advance, discourse on equity in education.

The executive summary is clearly written and organized. It begins with a very clear thesis: “In theory, the education system is colorblind; but, in fact, it is racially polarized and exacerbates the intergenerational reproduction of white racial privilege.” I can dig it. They follow this assertion with clear data points, some of which I share here:

  • Between 1995 and 2009, postsecondary enrollment rose 107% for Hispanics, 73% for African Americans and 15% for Whites
    • However, 82% of new white freshman in that time frame enrolled at one of the top 468 most selective four-year colleges, compared to 13% of Hispanics and 9% of African Americans.
      • 72% of Hispanics and 68% of African Americans enrolled in open-access two and four year colleges

Let me stop you here: These enrollment trends are not a function of college readiness. In fact, the report states that even though high scoring Hispanic and African American students attend college at the same rates as whites, 30% of African American students attend community college compared to 22% of academically comparable whites.

Aaaaand once these students get to college, whites are more likely to complete college. After controlling for prior achievement, 51% of Hispanics and 49% of African Americans drop out of college compared to 30% of whites.

Why?

Here is where I diverge from the report whose primary purpose is to relay long-term life outcomes associated with disparate college enrollment patterns. That story is not new. What I want to discuss is why all students (but especially Hispanic and African American students) who attend the top 468 selective institutions are nearly twice as likely to graduate and have a greater likelihood of attending graduate school as those who attend open-access institutions.

I argue that our conversation should be about college completion, not enrollment. And in that conversation we must acknowledge the critical role cultural capital plays in degree attainment.

Let’s review some more data:

  • Among high scoring Hispanics and African Americans at the top 468 institutions, 73% of them complete a degree compared to 40% of Hispanic and African Americans at open-access schools.
    • Of the 73% of Hispanic and African Americans who complete a degree, 33% of them attend graduate school, compared to 23% who attended an open-access institution.

There are obvious explanations for the different success rates between selective and open-access colleges. The report points to greater financial resources as measured by per pupil spending. The 82 most selective colleges spend almost 5 times as much on instruction as open-access schools. In dollars this is $27,900 compared to $6000 per pupil per year. The top 468 schools fall between spending an average of $13,400 per pupil.

I do not disagree. Yes, financial capital is essential when we talk about quality of education. Money buys students more qualified professors (who demand higher pay), extensive technological support, smaller classes, more opportunities for enhanced learning (study abroad, community-based learning, participation in research) and higher quality food (linked to cognitive functioning), among other assets.

But focusing solely on economic differences masks what I believe to be the true driver of stratification in higher education: access to cultural capital.

Our postsecondary institutions have been and continue to be structured around the white male norm. White men still dominate academia, occupying higher positions and receiving higher pay than equally qualified women. This discrimination is furthered when one happens to be a woman and of color. Women of color occupy the lowest position in the Academy, marginally outranked by men of color. The curriculum—especially at elite schools—is driven by what the power culture deems important. We glorify pre-med, pre-law, and business under traditional academic models, and encourage exploration of many fields under the liberal arts model. Both of these are direct representations of white middle and upper class expectations. To be successful at the collegiate level on a pre-professional track, one must first have taken the requisite courses in high school and possess the self-regulatory learning skills and content knowledge to be competitive in such courses. For many white middle and upper class students, this is a given. Of course you’ve taken pre-calculus in high school. Of course you know how to write. Of course you have a context in which to place and a schema through which to make sense of course content. I don’t need to give you any of that.

Similar scenarios play out at elite liberal arts colleges. There is little guidance about what courses to take beyond making sure students satisfy distributive requirements. There are no vocational tracks because the idea is that you are qualified and informed enough to construct that path yourself. You have a long term vision of who you want to become and you have all the supports and information you need to get there. So four years from now you will walk across that stage empowered and prepared to pursue your chosen career. Congratulations!

What I know to be true from my own experiences as a student at elite institutions (one liberal arts and one more traditional), as a faculty member at a selective liberal arts institution, and as a scholar whose work centers on the function of social factors in educational attainment, is that students from low income and racial minority groups begin their college career without the cultural capital needed for success in such an environment.

How do I know? It’s obvious. These are students who have never written a paper in any other format than a five paragraph essay. Who have never taken an AP or IB course because their district didn’t offer them. Who have been given step-by-step instructions on every assignment because their teachers did not trust their decision-making. Who have never left their state (or in some cases their city) so are unaware of how different people in different settings live. Who have never had choice in their education because choice implies a school with academic options. Who don’t understand the necessary courses to take if you want to become a veterinarian because you do not know any veterinarians—or anyone who went to graduate school for that matter. Who don’t know that summers should be spent networking at internships instead of working for the necessary pay to continue to your education. Who don’t have a safety net of a job, space at home, and financial support from parents and family members in case you make a mistake and all of this was for naught.

Given all of these barriers, one would think that students of color at the top 468 selective institutions would graduate at lower rates than their counterparts at open-access schools. This is what they want us to believe. This is what they sell us. They paint a picture of an environment where our students can’t succeed. They tell us our babies will feel ‘out of place’ and ‘lost’ and would be more ‘comfortable’ at a less rigorous school. Or they dissuade us with hefty price tags, never mentioning that elite schools carry higher endowments which enable them to provide more need-based aid than do open-access schools. And this aid is often in the form of scholarship, not loans. They do not tell us that our children, who are qualified to attend an Ivy League school, could afford to do so even if their family income is less than $75,000 per year because now, at many of the Ivies, these students can go tuition-free. They hesitate to mention that President Obama has vastly increased access to Pell Grant funds for families whose income is less than $30,000 per year. No. They don’t want us to know any of that. Because if we knew, if we enrolled in the top 468 schools, we would graduate at much higher rates and consequently occupy a higher social position in society. What a threat that would be to their happy existence of privilege and power.

Students of color who enroll in selective schools do succeed. And they do so despite a lack of explicit instructional and social supports. They succeed at higher rates than their peers in open-access schools because they have access to cultural capital their peers do not. No matter how you spin it, the elite schools are elite because they function in an insular bubble where cultural capital begets more capital begetting power. Students of color enrolled at such schools are privy to a whole new world, a new way of being. They are given access to information that has been kept close to white chests throughout time. Slowly, they can become a fringe member of the most esteemed society in our country: white society.

Don’t get me wrong: you are indeed a fringe member as your skin will never give you full entry. But we don’t need full entry. We don’t need to be white or wealthy to succeed in life. We just need to be informed. We need to know the game and the players. We need to recognize and accept the fact that cultural capital is our ticket in.

And once we are in…think of what we can do.

Private Schools Have Problems, Too

It’s human nature to complain about things. Even when situations are great, we complain. Here are some examples of ridiculous things that have been said in conversations (some of them said by me) around campus:

Classroom Chatter

  • I am so upset! I hate teaching in a classroom with only blackboards. I need a full wall of white boards and an overhead projector connected to DVD, VCR, and a Computer.
  • I hate when there are only a couple of colored markers for the board. I need at least 8 colors. So I just buy my own and leave them in the classroom for the year.
  • I don’t know how those professors teach in those upscale conference rooms. The wooden tables don’t even move. What do you do when you want to work in small groups?
  • It’s about time we had a workshop on flipped classrooms.
  • I hate it when the custodian washes my board. Sometimes I want to keep stuff up for the next day.
  • I have 25 students in my class??? *sigh* I really prefer having 14 max.
  • Oh I can’t teach in that room. There isn’t enough cabinetry.

Resources

  • Since we don’t get paid extra for all of this service, I make sure my Chair knows that when I place orders for texts and DVDs for my courses, he better approve them. Last week I ordered almost $2000 worth of instructional material.
  • The library sent the faculty in my department ‘choice cards’. They give us index cards with descriptions of new books in our area and ask if they should purchase them for the library. I just don’t have time to fill these out right now.
  • After 8pm, I have an automatic reply on my email for students. It directs them to contact the 18 hour a day librarian on call. I put the link right in the reply.
  • I use a purchasing card all the time so I might as well get my own. But then I have to sit through the 45 minute training. I don’t know if it’s worth it.

In the Cafeteria

  • Can you believe they raised the price of faculty meal cards from $50 to $60??? I mean, 15 all you can eat meals was a deal for fifty bucks, but sixty….
  • All of the food is natural so you don’t have to worry about hormones and stuff like that.
  • Of course there are gluten free options at the dessert station. Vegan too.
  • What happened to the fresh salmon they used to have at the salad bar?
  • They only have 3 blends of Starbucks coffee. I wish there was a barista to make a Mocha for me.
  • What’s going on today? Where are the real plates and silverware? Is the power out or something? I don’t eat with plastic utensils.
  • They never put out the cucumber water anymore.
  • THE ICE CREAM MACHINE IS BROKEN?!?!
  • Why don’t they have flavored ice cream cones?
  • I wish they’d have more than just 4 pie options.

In the Office

  • Who is catering the lunch meeting?
  • Soup and salad does not constitute ‘lunch’. And continental breakfasts belong in motels, not in academic departments.
  • Dang! My department is almost out of wine. I better let the assistant know.
  • The printer in my office is out of ink. Now I have to print to one of the machines downstairs.
  • WHERE IS THE CORKSCREW?
  • The retreat was nice and all, but it would’ve been better if they’d given us spa gift certificates as well.
  • I used to have an upright piano in my office but now I have a baby grand piano. It’d be nice to have a grand piano, but this works.
  • There aren’t enough windows in my office so they tried to put up transoms on the doors to allow for some light. It just doesn’t work.
  • This furniture is just not my style. *orders contemporary furniture*
  • Who do I contact to get built-ins put up? Is it the same office who would get rid of this rug?
  • No I don’t want that printer. I need one that prints in color and is duplex.
  • Why didn’t they install my statistics software on my computer when they assembled it? I had to wait until the next day.

Private school problems.

 

Disclaimer: This list was comprised in jest. Private colleges have legitimate problems, but today I felt like focusing on the superficial ones 🙂

The Price of Pedagogy: Professors’ (Modest) Salaries Explained

Every bit counts

After years of explaining this phenomenon to family and friends, I need to say it publicly: Professors do not make a lot of money. *Putting the (ab)use of adjuncts aside for the time being, allow me to briefly explain.

I am well aware that because of the prestige of the career, people assume professors make a lot of money. Alas, this is untrue—especially when you are beginning your career as an assistant professor. I explained in my post Tick Tock: Love or Learning? the timeline for promotions in academia. Allow me to explain salary. It’s simple: your salary increases with your rank. When your rank doesn’t change (it changes once, maybe twice in your career), you receive modest salary increases per year (as is common in most fields). By modest, I mean around 2-3% (unless we are in a freeze, which is what happened when the economy crashed). The specifics vary by institution and type of college/university. There are four types of colleges: Doctoral, Masters, Baccalaureate, and Associates. They are obviously labeled according to the highest degree offered by the institution. Schools that offer Doctoral degrees tend to pay more because they generally have more money since their professors produce research and earn grants (it’s much more complicated than that, but for my purposes the point is that Doctoral institutions pay more). The correlation is clear: the higher the degree offered, the higher professor salaries. This is unfortunate for professors like myself that value teaching above research and are thus employed at institutions that do not grant Doctoral or (in a lot of cases) Masters degrees (my institution has 1 Masters program).

Here is some data on (non-unionized) average Assistant Professor salaries from the “Annual Report of the Economic Status of the Profession” (AAUP) dated April 2012. The data are from the 2010-2011 academic year. ( Here is the Link to the Document for Full Data –medians are available here) I focus on assistant professors because that is where I am in my career and the tenure/promotion processes are highly variable across institutions. In the beginning, we are all assistant professors (those of us blessed to have tenure-track positions).

*n= number of institutions in the sample

Doctoral Institutions

Public: $70,093 (n= 50)

Private: $83,332 (n= 66)

Masters Institutions

Public: $57,735 (n= 110)

Private: $61,374 (n= 176)

Baccalaureate

Public: $55,729 (n= 32)

Private: $55,726 (n= 358)

Associates

Public: $51,189 (n= 57)

(there aren’t enough schools to gather information on private community colleges)

So you see, even those teaching at doctoral institutions are by no means making ‘a lot’ in terms of wealth in this country. The average salary in the country in 2010 was $41,673.83 (Government’s Data ), so I acknowledge that faculty do earn more than the average worker in the US; however, our salaries as Assistant Professors render us middle class. We are not even upper middle class (many qualify for lower middle class). And once you take taxes out of that, well…we are hard workers, whom like most of the country, are not making nearly as much as we deserve (except that 2% who earn over $250,000—I’m looking at generations of your family Mitt Romney!).

So to my friends—a lot of whom make 6 figures, please stop asking me to go on cruises or to come visit you three times a year. Mostly, please stop getting engaged, married, and having babies.

I can’t afford the gifts.

*P.S. I do want to state that the majority of higher education faculty is comprised of adjuncts whose data are not included in these surveys. Sadly, adjuncts comprise 67-75% of faculty now. And their pay is awful. Check out this site for more on the plight of many PhDs: http://www.adjunctproject.com/

College is Not a Yard Sale

There’s no way around it: going to college costs. But who said you have to pay out of pocket? Almost NO ONE can afford to do that these days. Ever heard of loans, work study, grants, and scholarships? Millions of dollars in grants and scholarships go unclaimed every year because we are too lazy or too ignorant to search and apply for them. People act like going in debt for college is a terrible thing. It breaks my heart to hear high school students (especially those of color) use finances as the reason for not even trying to go to college. Who is teaching our children there’s a price cap on their futures?

In this country, we love to rank everything. We feel that if we are paying more for something, it is of better quality. In general, I question that logic. But when it comes to higher education, it’s usually true (discounting for-profit schools).

So let’s talk about what constitutes a quality education:

  • Qualified instructors. This means professors with PhDs because in fact, they are experts in their areas. Masters programs are generally 9 months to 2 years. PhD programs average 7 years across disciplines. Simple math assures us that spending 7 years studying something allows you more time to become knowledgeable than does 2 years.
  • Small class sizes. Top ranked schools boast about their classes with a 1:10 teacher-student ratio. This matters because with smaller classes, professors are better able to differentiate the curriculum to meet the unique needs of the students (here is that equity vs equality issue). We are also better able to incorporate small group activities, projects, creative assessments, field trips, and other instructional methods beyond lecture and multiple choice tests. Research consistently shows the benefits of multimodal teaching on long term learning outcomes.
  • Unlimited resources. We require our students to do tons of research these days. The days of Encarta and encyclopedias are over. Everything is online. Colleges/Universities must pay for access to databases. If your school doesn’t have the resources to pay those high fees, then you are effectively cut off from those databases. This extends to all sources of media/technology and resources, including qualified personnel in campus libraries (yes, the library staff should have advanced degrees in Library Science or similar fields).
  • Student diversity. I’m not just talking about ethnic and cultural diversity. Students spend more time with their friends in college than they do in class. This means that many learning opportunities arise in the dorms, cafeteria, sports arena, and definitely at parties. Students need to be exposed to others from different socioeconomic, religious, political, geographical, and linguistic backgrounds. College is not just about content knowledge; it’s about knowing when and how to effectively apply it. You learn that from others.
  • Extracurriculars. Part of the college experience is trying things for the first time. Joining an outing club, a dance group, student government, a club sport, or engaging in any novel activity enhances students’ overall college experience. Why? Because they’ve learned to challenge themselves. To step outside the box. To work with people with whom they would never have had cause to interact otherwise. These are things we can’t teach in the classroom.

This list could go on, but I want to make my major point: Quality costs. PhDs earn higher salaries than Masters. Smaller classes mean more classrooms and more professors. Access to up to date technology is pricy. Recruiting globally requires staff and the funds to send them around the world. Extracurricular activities require constant funds, equipment, coaches/advisors.

We like to complain about schools that cost $50,000 a year, but we don’t complain nearly as much when a car, which depreciates in value with each passing day, costs that amount. Yes, *$200,000 is a lot to spend. But education is the only investment you can never lose.

Let’s teach our children to invest in themselves because no matter the cost, they are worth it.

*Note. Schools that cost a lot are often the schools with endowments large enough to offer in-house financial aid. What that means is that just because the price tag is larger, doesn’t mean you pay more. In many cases, you pay less because the school itself can afford to award you grants and scholarships, whereas most public colleges/universities cannot. In public schools, you rely solely on external funds. Example: Many of the Ivy League institutions have policies in place wherein if your family income is less than $75,000 a year, you attend tuition free.

Why Isn’t My Money as Good as Theirs?

Not many people understand how public schools (not including Charter schools) are funded. The simplest and most direct answer is through property taxes (yes, money comes from other avenues, but the ‘surplus’ that is not decided by state per pupil expenditures is from property taxes). So, individual states have the power to determine their education budget. Each state uses a different formula, but in the end, they decide that each school district will receive a certain amount of money per pupil. This seems fair since each district is getting the same amount per pupil. But wait—because education functions on a federal, state, city, and district level, money is added and taken away by each subordinate level. In local elections (and sometimes also at other levels), community members vote on such things as what percentage of their property taxes go toward education.

Let’s do an example together: In the suburban community of Glen Hill there are 100 households. These community members voted that property taxes should be 2% of the home value and half of that 2% should go to schools in the district. Let’s say the average home value in Glen Hill is $300,000. That means that $6000 is what a family would pay per year, with $3000 of it slotted for schools. If each family in the community of Glen Hill is doing this, then every year, the district receives $300,000 extra to add to the already decided education budget. If there are 1000 students in this district, they are now adding an extra $300 per pupil to the budget. If there are 10,000 students in this district, they are still adding $30 per pupil to the budget. Get it?

Let’s outline a few more important points on this subject:

  • You only pay property taxes when you own property
  • Property taxes are always a percentage of the value of the home/land
  • Property taxes are paid once a year in a full lump sum (in most cities)

Why does this matter? (this is always the most important question I challenge my students to answer) It matters because on average, students who are performing below grade level are more likely to come from families whose yearly income does not facilitate property ownership. This means that these renters do not pay property taxes. They do not have the opportunity to ‘add money’ onto state per pupil expenditure budgets. So while students in Glen Hill are getting an extra $30 each, students in Freedom Heights are not.

And even if the parents in Freedom Heights owned property, if their property is not valued as highly as the property in Glen Hill, their 2% will not go as far. Freedom Heights parents know this so they vote to raise property taxes to 3%. But still, even paying a higher percentage rarely closes the gap in property value between social classes. All it does is take more money out of the pockets of families whose budgets are always stretched thin.

Parent of a 5th grader in a middle class school: I want the best for my child so I’m willing to pay a higher percentage than my neighbor to ensure my child receives a high quality education. But why does my money never seem to be as good as theirs? Why doesn’t it go as far?

Me: It’s not that it doesn’t go as far; it’s that it started in a different place.