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Educational Inequity: Trying for a Globalized Perspective

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Getting an education on this planet is no easy matter. Despite my cautious optimism about the state of affairs in the U.S. after enjoying an instructive Fourth of July parade last week, the news in other parts of the world is often nothing short of appalling.

To wit:

According to the New York Times, Roma children in the Czech Republic are vastly and suspiciously overrepresented in that country's "special ed" system--a situation that smacks of segregation and seems to focus on the Romas' "otherness," and long-time social exclusion, to perpetuate an especially pernicious, opportunity-denying underclass status for these kids. Earlier this year the Times published a similar report on the status of Slovakia's elementary-age Roma.

In northeastern Nigeria, members of an Islamic extremist group whose name, Boko Haram, translates roughly as "Western education is sacrilege," are thought to be behind a night-time assault on a boarding school that ended in the shooting or burning deaths of at least 22 students. This is the latest and worst in a series of such attacks aimed at deterring parents and children from attending state-sponsored schools.

In other parts of the world stories of violence aimed at keeping children, and especially girls, from an education are increasingly commonplace. The world groaned in frustrated outrage last year when then-14-year-old Malala Yousafzai, an advocate for girls' education in Pakistan, was shot by the Taliban, although no perpetrator has yet been brought to justice.

Crazily, there is some state or at least political "purpose" to these depredations, and from our transoceanic perspective we can see and deplore them as representative (or worse, stereotypical) ills of whole societies, assigning blame and at least imagining in our readerly minds some policies that might bring them to an end. These stories satisfy a kind of crude geopolitical logic that is necessarily absent, for all but the most cynical of us, from our frustrated analysis of periodic slaughters of the innocents carried out by maniacs. Better gun laws might help, we know, but in our hearts we fear that madness knows no bounds and is likely to have its cruel way.

But I couldn't help reading the stories of the Roma children and thinking of things much closer to home, to schools and schoolchildren assigned to a kind of perpetual underperformance by uneven funding of schools and even more by the growing economic and educational inequality in U.S. society. We think we have passed well beyond the era of state intentionality behind inequities in the educational system, and we can proudly point to decades of programmatic attempts to close the racial and socioeconomic achievement gap. We can even point to some progress.

Yet the gap persists, in multiple manifestations, and I wonder how a Czech journalist might go about reviewing a comprehensive and data-based report on the variegated American educational landscape like that presented by Uri Treisman at this year's the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics annual conference (click here for links and commentary) earlier this year. Would a Czech investigative reporter, looking at numbers showing a disproportion of low achievement at the lowest ends of the American socioeconomic spectrum, discern a government "war on the poor"? Would he or she see a kind of state intention behind the numbers, a systematic management of the economically disadvantaged designed to keep them that way? Add the rates of incarceration and violence that often parallel the educational statistics for underresourced communities, and some very bitter conclusions might be drawn.

I'm not cynical enough to suggest that this is so, and no doubt some readers are limbering up their fingers to point out that the independent school world from which I come could be seen as an arm of such a disadvantaging system. I can only respond that most of these schools work pretty hard to attract and support students from the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder (you may as well see the numbers here) and to take seriously a role as agents of social change on an individual level. I'd also put forward the rapidly expanding work that independent schools are doing to engage with their communities and in particular with their local public school systems to improve education for all students. (For example, there's the National Network of Schools in Partnership, an exemplary organization supporting this work.) No, it's not much in the great scale of things, but we're a tiny slice of the entire pre-college spectrum. Can we do more? Of course, and schools are working at it.

As an educator, a parent, and a human being, I'm sickened by the ways in which children around the world are made pawns in political and cultural battles. Headlines like those about of Malala Yousafzai or the Nigerian boarding schools make me weep, and reports like those on the Roma infuriate me. But when I go through the exercise of trying to "globalize" my own perspective, I see plenty of things at home to inspire tears and anger. If as a nation we're beginning to make progress in these, then we still have a very long way to go.


Engage with Peter on Twitter: @pgow

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