The Opportunity Gap in Education

The Washington Post has a very interesting story about the challenges that Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, an elite high school in Virginia, has in admitting a diverse student population.

Money quote:

Like other public schools with competitive admissions, TJ screens applicants through grades and test scores. A key requirement is that students take Algebra 1 by eighth grade. Many disadvantaged students don’t clear that threshold, which presents a national challenge for science and math instruction.

This jumped out at me because the article inevitably – unavoidably, it would seem *sigh* – brought up affirmative action.

In 2003, the Supreme Court struck down a race-based undergraduate admissions policy at the University of Michigan but narrowly upheld a policy at the University of Michigan Law School that allowed the consideration of race as part of a comprehensive examination of an applicant. The majority agreed that the law school had an interest in “the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body.”

In response, Fairfax officials tweaked the TJ admissions policy in 2004 to allow race to be considered as a factor. The change drew an outcry from some parents, who said the policy discriminated against qualified white students. Even so, the admissions rates for black and Hispanic students have been falling.

Under the policy, applicants are screened first on admissions test scores and grades. Then admissions panels, mostly teachers and administrators from other area schools, consider subjective criteria such as essays and teacher recommendations. At that point, race and ethnicity can come into play. But generally they don’t.

Often when we talk about affirmative action folks focus on the results – whether or not an undeserving Black or Latino or female student got something that someone else more deserving didn’t.  But we almost never talk about the pool of applicants that schools have to choose from in the first place.

In this case, Thomas Jefferson has a requirement across the board that applicants take algebra by 8th grade.  I couldn’t find disaggregated enrollment data for the counties that feed into Thomas Jefferson, but an October 2010 National Center for Education Statistics study found that while about 39 percent of all 8th graders nationally take algebra or a more advanced math course, only 19 percent of Black students and 38 percent of Latino students take algebra or a more advanced math course.

So right there Thomas Jefferson is automatically decreasing the pool of Black and Latino kids that they are even able to consider.  Even if it is true that there are Black and Latino kids who take Algebra and do poorly, the majority of Black and Latino kids aren’t taking Algebra so there is no real way for Thomas Jefferson to even look at a diverse pool of candidates for admission without considering race because significant numbers of minority kids aren’t getting the same opportunity to even be prepared to compete.

This is what is missing from our discussion of affirmative action and education.  We have a K-12 education system that doesn’t give equal opportunities to all children.  And then we have a system of advanced or elite institutions layered on top of that, which is forced to treat all students that they are considering like they all received the same educational opportunities because people think to do otherwise is unfair to children who were lucky enough to have better opportunities in the first place.

White kids aren’t necessarily smarter – and thus, being discriminated against if they have to compete against “dumber’ Black and Latino kids – they are just more likely to have the access to the kind of education that makes them better prepared to meet arbitrary requirements for more competitive schools.

Absent consideration of race, we are essentially punishing Black and Latino children for not having taken a class or learned something that they don’t have access to.

How’s that fair?