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.
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