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What playing field?

S. Yaeger's picture

In thinking about whether education levels the playing field, I’m drawn to the experiences of my closest friend and her students.  My friend, Christy, works for the School District of Philadelphia in a disciplinary school.  Before she was assigned to her current school, she worked in more traditional Philly high schools, including Simon Gratz and Kensington Business.  These schools are all in deeply impoverished areas and all have student bodies that are primarily black or Hispanic. 

I mention this because, as we discuss education, we seem to all look at college as the end of the road, but for students like my friend’s, college is not even a possibility.  Many of her students are far behind where standardized tests say they should be in all subjects.  Some of them, high school students, can’t read or write.  They have been passed upward, from grade to grade, based on their age. Their schools have no books, no computers, and no climate control.  They are forced into overcrowded classrooms;  their lives are dictated by budget cuts and teacher lay-offs.  When they leave school for the day, they exit back into a city that doesn’t want them, doesn’t keep them safe, and sees them as criminals.  They are the living embodiment of a citywide tradition of racism and oppression. 

These students, not much different in age from many of us, live in neighborhoods where crime not only pays but is sometimes the only thing that pays.  They wonder where their next meal is coming from, how they will get home safely, how they will make enough money for winter clothes, more food, a place to live.  The only models they have for their future are those right in front of them.  The drug dealers and prostitutes are often the only people in their immediate lives who appear to have any money at all.  Their parents and grandparents are often too poor to do anything to help them.  These kids are at the bottom of a long chain of oppression, and there is no boot strap sturdy enough to help them pull themselves up. 

Knowing this, the idea of education leveling the playing field seems absurd to me.  How could it?  For the students above, there is usually no hope of college, no hope of a job that pays more than minimum wage, and no hope of a future beyond what they see right in front of them.  Forget scholarships or financial aid, because they don’t even have the resources needed to begin the application process, let alone be accepted into any college outside of a Community College, and even their acceptance there is contingent upon them gaining access to a computer, being able to read and write, and being able to list income. 

Even if they are accepted to a college, many of them won’t be able to afford books, computers, paper and other supplies.  Many of them will have to figure out childcare in a system that assumes they are childless.  They will be asked to assimilate into an environment that assumes that all of its residents have access to technology.  At the same time, they will be cut off from the people they have known their whole lives.  They will be missing a support system.

So, does education level the playing field?  Maybe, but only when the incline is not so steep to begin with.