“No, I don’t think that is necessary”

Our readings about the sociocultural role of schooling make me think about who decides who gets to go to college.

In community college, open enrollment makes higher education available to almost everyone, at least in theory. Inadequate preparation from grade school can be overcome, to some extent. In a community college engineering program, students typically begin their math with intermediate algebra. An extra year of math before Calculus I allows students who were not on the engineering track in high school to catch up. This was not always the case, and even now, it’s not a perfect solution.

Here’s my story. In the sixth grade, I transferred to public school. Coming from outside the public school system, my placement was determined by testing, and I was assigned to “6-1,” the top academically ranked sixth-grade class. The other nine sixth-grade classes were numbered “6-2” through “6-10,” in descending order of academic ranking from college-bound to remedial instruction.

The middle school had three or four elementary feeder schools. That’s why I was surprised and confused to find that every member of my “6-1” class, except me, not only already knew one another, but had been in the same fifth grade class together. I also found it odd that every student in our class was white. Through three years of middle school, there was some limited mixing between the top two classes. Halfway through the seventh grade, the two top math classes re-mixed, with one group preparing for 8th grade algebra and the other taking regular 8th grade math. The former would be favorably positioned for 12th grade calculus. Students who missed 8th grade algebra could catch up to the calculus class by doubling up on 10th grade math. A few students from the original “6-1” dropped down to lower ranked placements, but no students from “6-3” or below ever rose to the upper academic rankings.

Many years later, it dawned on me that “6-1” was simply the top fifth grade class from the whitest elementary feeder school selected wholesale, without evidence to support placement. The “6-2” class came from the largely Hispanic elementary school, which would have been my school had I attended public school in fifth grade.

There were many black students at my middle school, probably a majority of the school, but almost none were in the college-bound classes. I did not take classes with black students until high school. Even then, with only one public high school in a racially diverse community, black students were a small minority in the college-bound classes.

At that time, community college was not a realistic path for engineering students. To be accepted into an engineering program, one needed to at least be ready for Calculus I as a college freshman. This means that the person or policy responsible for selecting “6-1” from the most privileged effectively chose who would and who would not have a chance to become an engineer seven years before those students finished high school.

Thirty years later, I advocated for my son to be in the algebra-bound seventh grade math class, to no avail. There was no justification for my son’s placement on the non-algebra track except convenience for school administration, apparently. I was told that the first week of school was “too busy” a time to reconsider placements, then in the second week, it was “too late to change.” My son got a lucky break by getting transferred to a small special education school, where his placements were determined by testing. Halfway through the 8th grade, my son was told that he should rightly be placed in algebra, and he was given an opportunity to join an online class and complete the course in half a year, which he did. He did not become an engineer, but he had the opportunity to do so, and more importantly, his school helped instill in him an attitude and expectation that he could achieve academic success, which he did in high school and college. Unfortunately, the hundreds of students in the mainstream middle school did not all have this advantage.

The most shocking example of “power related dynamics” that “undermine social mobility” (as described in Critical Pedagogy in School) happened to me in high school. My parents went through the process of requesting my high school principal for permission for me to enroll in a single elective course at the community college in summer school, just to give me something to do. The principal’s response: “No, I don’t think that is necessary.” Obviously to me, the principal was threatened by the idea that I was not getting all the education I needed from public school and felt it necessary to supplement. At the time, I did not actually know what engineering was or that I should want to study it. The community college course that my parents suggested for me would have exposed me to engineering. So it was not really “elective” but an important part of my development. I am fortunate that I happened to find engineering another way, in time to matriculate into a university engineering program upon high school graduation.

From my perspective, it appears that little has changed in public schools since my school days. We in higher education are left to correct deficiencies through catch-up programs in community colleges, for a price which is largely borne by the students. Remedial classes tend to have heavy billable hours and may not get the same financial aid coverage as regular academic courses. The presence of these courses on the transcript may not be well regarded by the transfer schools that engineering students must get accepted into to become graduate engineers. It’s no wonder that the engineering profession has suffered from the same lack of diversity for decades. Selection, or non-selection, of who gets to go to college is built into the primary education system, and students are potentially crippled by arbitrary decisions made by others years before. They may never realize the impact upon their own lives; being unaware is part of the lack of agency promoted by the system.

For more information:
Critical Pedagogy in School. (2005). Critical Pedagogy Primer, 97-114.

Image credit: mohoni

7 Replies to ““No, I don’t think that is necessary””

  1. Thanks for the detailed description of how things have been for you. It allows to imagine a perspective about your particular experience. In the USA colleges are in business of getting money from students (thus as you described remedial courses may cost more; you have to take them in order to proceed…). You wrote: “At the time, I did not actually know what engineering was or that I should want to study it.” And then argue that had you have been allowed to get a college summer class you would have been exposed to engineering earlier. Since engineering has been a critical factor in your life, it seems that it would have been very important for you to get that summer class. We can’t really know what your experience would have been though. Overall, I wonder how much of an difference is to plan on going to study a certain discipline in college since middle-school as opposed to high-school.

  2. Wow! Reading your post really opened my eyes to stuff that I think I inadvertently knew, but never stood face to face with. It is amazing the encounters you have gone through in your education and your child’s. The whole principal anecdote is particularly disheartening, and I kind of hope is an exception and not the rule, but I fear it is the latter.

  3. Thanks so much for sharing Monica. I can relate to your story quite a bit, I left traditional high school in favor of an alternative program (still technically a public school, free from the state) which allowed me to enroll in online courses, community college classes (I wanted to be a doctor at the time), and work during the day. I was able to work all day and take my classes in the evenings and it was great for where I was as a teenager, I even held two jobs at the time, using my work experience as high school credit.
    I then enrolled in community college, a bit behind the curve with math, but as you mentioned the remedial courses were there to boost me up to where I needed to be. My family didn’t really plan for me to go to college, but I saved enough from being able to work during high school that I was able to afford tuition for winter session at University of Delaware and summer session at Cecil College and I got my basic calculus taken care of at community college before going away to a four-year university.
    I switched to engineering after getting to WVU, but my unique experiences in high school and college put me in a position financially and academically to be able to succeed.

  4. This post reminds me of many of the struggles that I faced in my own high school experience. I don’t know how many times I had a guidance counselor tell me that I wouldn’t be accepted to Virginia Tech despite being in the top of my class. I will never understand how people who dedicate such a large portion of their life to education by working in a school can discourage students from pushing themselves and doing the best that they can.

  5. “At the time, I did not actually know what engineering was or that I should want to study it. The community college course that my parents suggested for me would have exposed me to engineering. So it was not really “elective” but an important part of my development. I am fortunate that I happened to find engineering another way, in time to matriculate into a university engineering program upon high school graduation.”

    This really hit home for me because I didn’t even realize just how many engineering majors were available until I came here to VT. Of course, I’m in English, so my exposure to engineering came randomly as a result of my GTA position here. It’s actually very easy to look back and see that even though I had the good fortune of ending up in advanced English classes in high school, I missed out on a lot of math and science opportunities because they simply weren’t encouraged. “Oh, you like writing and you are on track to graduate ahead of schedule? Let’s put you in [insert non-science related elective needed to fulfill graduation requirements]. No, not a dual enrollment course that would require you to head over to community college. How about something at the high school. Have you taken art? Oh, you took art at your other school? How about drama?”

    I can’t speak to factors at play beyond my being female, but it makes me sad to see these same problems replicated for students, over and over again.

  6. It has been a long time people criticize the education system in China, especially the National Examination (an extremely important examination for high school students of the whole country which determine the ability for one to go to college/university). I was among those people who disavow the crucial role of the National Examination for a kid’s future. Now, I don’t think in this way anymore. I acknowledge all the disadvantages of the National Examination. However, it is at least, if not at most, fair for students who put efforts to achieve high scores as compared to those who just idle outside for fun and ignore study. Students can determine whether they can go to the college they yearn for by their own efforts (scores). Because scores show themselves.

    I know that the university application process in most of the Western countries depends more on a combination of self-statement, recommendation letters from others, and GPA. However, this is so not fair for those kids in rural, remote areas where they would never have people to help them on recommendation letters or provide them with summer camp opportunities, despite that they are so diligent in study.

    I understand that there is no fair way that can balance everyone on everything. However, if we selves can’t determine fairly who can go to school for education, I’d feel so disappointed.

  7. This is a fabulous post! A couple of years back folks in my High School had this exact same conversation… It turns out that if you were a) white and b) rich/on the PTA then your child would be in all of the “advanced” classes even if (to be blunt) they were the laziest student on the planet. In contrast, the only students of color (I can recall) in any AP, honors, or dual enrollment programs were from very well off backgrounds. Other students were explicitly told by guidance that they “should take average courses” or that “the class is full” when everyone knew that it was a lie.

    It’s interesting to see that so many folks have encountered similar situations in their respective schools.

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