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final web extension: can education fix inequality?

Ann Lemieux's picture

Feminism deals with so many issues, and to me it seems that one of the main issues is inequality. Inequality among people of different sexes, gender identities, sexualities, race, class and levels of ability are all issues that feminism aims to combat. I’m an education minor, and in two of my papers I write about education and its ability to overcome these issues of inequality and give children the same foundation and opportunities, as well as teach them not to discriminate and to continue fighting against inequality. In my last web event, I claim that education is “a relatively easy place to start” breaking gender norms and helping feminism achieve its objective of closing the gender wage gap. However, I feel the need to reevaluate that claim. Education certainly can be a good starting point for feminist activists, and it can have a huge effect on future generations and how the feminist agenda continues decades from now… but educational reform is a very complicated ordeal. Additionally, successful educational reform shouldn’t only target gender norms, but a whole range of inequalities that affect our society and our schools. In the public schools that I went to, and in the middle school that I’ve visited for the past two years as a field component of education classes I’m taking here, gender inequalities are not as apparent as inequalities among the students from different socioeconomic classes. In order for feminism to be accessible to everyone, as intersectional feminism and ecofeminism aim to be, there has to be class equality in schools.

How can education fix the inequalities that are so prevalent in this country? I went to public school in a wealthy suburban city in Massachusetts, and my school system makes many attempts to abolish class inequality. Several students at my school are part of the METCO program, which grants minority students in Boston the opportunity to get the excellent education that my school, and other suburban public schools, offered, even though their families cannot afford to live in the suburbs. The program not only aims to give economically disadvantaged students learning opportunities, but also to increase diversity in suburban schools and combat racism. My high school provided all students, including those from Boston, the same academic opportunities, and has a free college counseling service that helped students through the process of applying to colleges and applying for financial aid. Additionally, if any of these students have special needs or an IEP, they are entitled to the same extra help programs and accommodations as other students at the school. In large part, the program meets its goals, especially when students enroll in the program when they are very young and continue until the end of high school; as a Boston Globe article states, “Metco students regularly scored proficient or advanced on reading and language arts, the report said. The achievement gap between METCO and suburban students shrinks as students get older.” Many of these efforts are successful in providing students from lower class families and areas with academic and financial support, and make a huge difference in the lives of students who are part of the METCO program. As a Boston Globe article explains, 90 percent of METCO students graduate high school and attend college afterwards, which is much higher than the number of minority students in Boston public schools who go on to college. They also have higher SAT scores than students in Boston public schools do.

Despite these successes, there is still a visible difference at the school between students of different economic classes. The students from Boston often stay together, are less likely to take honors and AP classes, and are less likely to stay after school to get help from teachers. Although many METCO students go to college after graduating, several go to state schools or two year colleges, even though their peers at the suburban school often go to highly selective liberal arts colleges and universities. Other lower class students have trouble paying for AP books and exams, as well as SAT tutors, and often go to state schools because the tuition is lower, even if they applied to and were accepted to more selective colleges. Some students choose to go to community college so that they can stay at home and work part-time.

What I’ve come to realize is that education happens in the home as much as it does at school, and simply sending economically disadvantaged students to the same school as privileged students does not erase their disadvantage; For a program such as METCO to be successful, it must provide stronger college counseling, and more after-school activities and help tailored to the needs of students with low socioeconomic status, such as free tutoring services (and transportation to and from these activities that fits students’ schedules). Stronger college counseling is especially important because many lower class students aren’t pushed by their counselors to apply to more selective colleges and seek out scholarships. Students in the program who were surveyed by the Globe said that “while their classes prepared them for college-level work, their high school counselors did not urge them to consider a broad range of colleges”, and that often, “they were unaware they were eligible for substantial financial aid to defray the cost of a four-year college.”

One such scholarship opportunity, which in a way can be compared to the METCO program, is the Posse foundation, in which dozens of colleges and universities (as well as several graduate schools) participate. The Posse foundation gives eligible students support that high school programs such as METCO lack but desperately need. Posse doesn’t simply give economically disadvantaged students a chance to attend prestigious colleges and universities; it provides them with a support group and teaches them the skills that are necessary to succeed in college and afterwards. The New York Times praises the success of the program at Bryn Mawr College: “There are only 40 Posse Scholars among Bryn Mawr’s 1,300 students, but a Posse student has won the school’s best all-around student award three times in the past seven years. Posse is changing the way universities look at qualifications for college, and what makes for college success.” The program is successful because it is aware of the obstacles facing students from lower class families when they enter college, such as lack of training in writing at a college level, and stereotype threat, and helps students to get over these obstacles.Not only does Posse provide academic support for these students, but the students in the group encourage one another and provide emotional support for when they get overwhelmed by the experience of college. If the program at my high school had weekly support groups for students of lower SES, these students probably would be much more likely to challenge themselves to more AP and honors courses, and apply to (and attend) more selective colleges.

Education can combat inequality and begin to close the class achievement gap, but in order to do so schools have to do more than just give equal opportunity to students from different backgrounds. Economically disadvantaged students need more support (academic and financial) than other students might, because they lack such support at home. More metropolitan areas should adapt a program that allows students in urban school districts to attend suburban schools, and these programs should offer weekly support groups, modeled after those in the Posse foundation, and college counseling that informs students of all of the financial aid and scholarships available to them, and encourages them to take advantage of such programs and apply to reach schools. Even within school systems that don’t have special programs available, free tutoring and support groups would help all students, regardless of SES. Additionally, teachers at all schools can avoid perpetuating racial and class stereotypes, which connects back to the idea of “queering” classrooms to avoid bias, and the issue of stereotype threat that I mentioned in my third web event. Stereotype threat isn’t only relevant for women, but also for people in racial minorities and financial need. Teachers can apply this idea in the classroom by avoiding making assumptions about the socioeconomic status of students, such as assuming that all students have a computer with internet and certain programs at home, and giving an assignment that requires said computer programs and internet access. Finally, schools should provide financial support and student access for things that are often  forgotten about, but essential for success in education: computers with internet (schools can have their libraries and computer labs open longer so that students can work there after school), textbooks and books that help students prepare for SAT and AP exams (extra copies of these can also be available at the schools’ libraries), as well as the exams themselves (schools should help pay exam fees for students who have trouble paying them). These methods can build upon programs that already exist at many schools, and have already begun to lesson the achievement gap, and if similar programs were more widely implemented, class inequalities in education and achievement could really decrease across the country.


article on successes of Posse foundation:

article on successes of METCO program:

article on faults of METCO program: