Get out

August 16, 2010

This post is wholly unscientific but I plan to study this phenomenon in a more systematic manner this semester.

Education reform is such a complicated debate, if only because an easy solution eludes us. Why do the richest students tend to do better than the poorest students? All reasonable answers seem to point to parental involvement in the students’ lives. Poor students have to deal with parents who work multiple jobs, living in areas where being part of a gang is a safety mechanism, submerged under the the soft bigotry of low expectations. The only reasoned mainstream solution seems to be a more comprehensive approach that aims for higher living standards so the poor don’t have apathy and neglect of their children’s future forced upon them.

A recent study indicates that the recession, terrible as it is, is much more pronounced among those without a college degree. The unemployment rate among college graduates is 1/3 that of non-college graduates and, shockingly, the college graduate unemployment rate is not alarmingly high. I suspect this is because those students who graduate college share a particular trait that enables them to cope with life better.

I polled some of my undergraduate freshmen the last few semesters for openness to new experience. I asked them how far they’d travelled, whether they would like to, whether they grew up in a small closed community, what their parents did for a living, and so forth. Do they like to try unfamiliar food? Do their parents? How long had they lived in the same town? Then I compared this data to my class’ final grades and it seems, with only one exception, those students who lived in an isolated system scored the lowest grades. Now, mind you, the low achievers work extremely hard, certainly as hard in most cases as the achievers, more in some cases, but they invariably lived without seeing themselves as part of a cosmopolitan society, which is one of the aims of liberal education. Many of those kids expected to live in the same town as their parents. They weren’t disdainful of new experiences but they did not think they would like them. They preferred safety, a constant constantness, if you will, over the joyous rough and tumble of the modern world. It is this attitude, I suspect, that keeps them down. It has much to do with lack of parental involvement. Their parents are trapped not knowing the outside world and are unable to provide these students with a sense of their possibilities, even as they view college education as an unalloyed good.

What is the solution then? Surely, we can’t fix parents’ work environments for them. We can’t make them care. We can’t stop them from being alcoholics or addicts. We can’t make them not get divorced. We can’t change the circumstances that created them.

So can there be a solution?

Mine is a simple one. Incentivize every student going to school outside their school district. Outside of the net positives this will bring in re: property values, it will force ghettoized children (not in the urban sense but in terms of ethnic enclaves that exist even in small towns) to eat food they would not otherwise eat, to learn that there is life, fulfilling, stimulating life, outside their little bubbles. When they get to college, they’ll be more equipped than they are now. After all, my unscientific poll revealed what is common sense: the rich have more opportunity to travel, to expose their children to various things, to set aside time for them. Therein lies a key part of the achievement gap.

So go on, get out of your small towns, your enclaves, your narrow circle of 16 blocks. Go! Get out!

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