Equity and access in education are BIG topics, and for good reason. At a time when the achievement gap between rich and poor is close to an all time high in the United States, it's wise to assess access, opportunity, and will, then ask ourselves as educators, "Are we doing enough?"
Education has been at the forefront of efforts to eliminate the achievement gap between rich and poor since the days of the Common School Movement in the 1830s. Horace Mann, the father of the movement, and a politician committed to educational reform, put forth his six hugely influential but highly controversial main principles regarding public education at that time: (1) Citizens cannot maintain both ignorance and freedom; (2) This education should be paid for, controlled, and maintained by the public; (3) This education should be provided in schools that embrace children from varying backgrounds; (4) This education must be nonsectarian; (5) This education must be taught using tenets of a free society; and (6) This education must be provided by well-trained, professional teachers. Today, nearly two centuries later, his tenets are the foundation of our public education system, but the inequities he had hoped to largely eradicate through education persist, as does much of the controversy.
Two new reports illustrate this unfortunate fact, one released this April by the United Nations Children’s Fund, and another released this week by the Department of Education on the State of Education 2013. Both paint a painfully sad and declining state-of-affairs for children living at, and many significantly below, the US poverty line ($22,000 for a family of four). Another study by Sean Reardon, a professor of education at Stanford University, looked at the relationship between family socioeconomic characteristics and academic achievement, and how it has changed during the past 50 years. The evidence thus far indicates that as income inequality has grown substantially, so has academic achievement. In fact, Reardon notes that the income achievement gap has grown by roughly 40 to 50 percent across all populations of people within a mere twenty-five years. Because of this rapid growth, many see the statistics as proof of a "preparation" gap that can be improved by a national investment in programs such as high-quality early childhood education.
A related and growing area of concern on this topic is the digital divide. How could it not threaten to magnify the disparity between family economic status and academic achievement when it offers a means to knowledge and often jobs? Programs like California' Connect2Compete and New York's Computers for Youth are examples of programs that are putting access to technological devices and training into the hands of those without it to lessen this divide. Similarly, a national program called E-Rate expands high-speed internet to schools and libraries. Those involved with E-Rate also conducted a pilot study in 2011 that provided this same access to students who qualified for free and reduced lunch in 14 school districts. The results as reported by the participating districts include reduced dropout rates, increased student achievement, raised student interest in college and math-related careers, improved communication with second-language English speakers, and increased “student ownership in learning.”
This year the staff in the UCAR Center for Science Education's Field Trip and Public Programs has embraced virtual field trips through internet video connections with classrooms. Our goal is to reach a more diverse representation of students and learn as much from them as they do from our virtual STEM Learning Labs or STEM career discussions with scientists. What STEM educational needs are most helpful to offer? What are the best practices for ensuring student engagement and learning using today's (and tomorrow's) technological tools? How seamless is the technology and how can we reduce the learning curve if interactive video (think virtual field trip) proves to be effective? We have a lot to learn and we hope you'll learn with us if interested and able. We're not in a position to provide devises, but we can provide classrooms with engaging science learning using today's tools and possibilities.
Recently, I had the opportunity to attend the Internet2 Conference in Washington, DC. One of the workshops offered was a presentation titled Diversity in the Internet2 Community by Laurie Burns McRobbie, a technologist in higher education and first lady of Indiana University. Beyond ethnic diversity in computational science, McRobbie noted the need to attract more women to computer science, which now stands at a ratio of approximately 4 men to 1 woman for computer science degrees obtained. Change the Equation reports that for every person currently unemployed, there are two science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) jobs available but left unfilled. With stats like this, a ratio of women to men in computer science is worth working to change - for women and for the health and vitality of the field.
So, are we doing enough? Am I doing enough? Will there ever be an "enough" to solve educational inequalities? No. No. And most likely... No. But the necessity to try our best to reverse a potentially dangerous trend? A definitive, "Yes."
Time to get to work.