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Experts: Math, Science Underemphasized in College Prep for Minorities

BALTIMORE — Some of the most cherished ideas about what it takes to get more low-income and minority students on the path to college were shattered Wednesday at a conference meant to celebrate and build upon the 50-year-old legacy of a groundbreaking report about inequality in America’s public education.

Among the ideas that were overturned is the notion that mere exposure to “college knowledge” will make a meaningful difference in closing racial gaps in college enrollment.

Guan Saw says that “college exposure” interventions won’t get more low-income and minority students on the path to college.Guan Saw says that “college exposure” interventions won’t get more low-income and minority students on the path to college.

Guan Saw, an assistant professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas at San Antonio, argued that many of the “college exposure” interventions that populate the education landscape today won’t do the job. Instead, he said, it’s going to take teachers who are able to teach more advanced courses in math and science, which he said are more predictive of college enrollment than simply meeting with school counselors and admission officers or sending college guides and the like to students and their families.

“We argue in this paper that policy has been failing to focus on core preparation that is crucial for college-going,” Saw said.

While minority and low-income students have high college aspirations, they are being shortchanged when it comes to the advanced-level math and science instruction that makes a difference, Saw’s paper states.

“We have found that in many low-income and minority schools, there are fewer teachers who are able to teach the more advanced courses in subjects such as math and science,” states the paper, titled “Racial and Ethnic Gaps in Postsecondary Aspirations, Preparation and Enrollment.”

“Moreover, teachers in these schools are more likely to be inexperienced and to leave after one or two years, creating an unstable school environment,” the paper states.

Saw presented the paper at “The Coleman Report at 50,” a conference meant to celebrate and build upon the legacy of the Equality of Educational Opportunity report, more commonly known in academic circles as the Coleman Report after the lead investigator of the research team, James S. Coleman.

James McPartland, a co-author of the report and a professor of sociology and director of the Center for Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins, expounded on the legacy of the report — commissioned by Congress in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The purpose of the report to the president and Congress was to focus on the “lack of availability of equal educational opportunity for individuals by reason of race, color, religion or national origin in public institutions at all levels in the United States.”

“The Coleman Report was not only used in public policy thinking as is often acknowledged, but it also was useful for developing practical reforms in school organization and classroom instruction, which is often not appreciated,” McPartland said. “Indeed, soon after the report’s publication, Coleman won a federal grant to start a Research and Development Center here at Johns Hopkins.”

He was referring to the center he directs and that he said is “still going strong today.”

One of the aims of the conference was to build upon the findings of the Coleman Report and to take the research in new directions that could not have been foreseen at the time.

While Coleman was right to examine the importance of “college knowledge” in explaining disparities in college enrollment, he “overlooked the possibility that the curriculum would become so diversified by race and social class,” Saw’s paper states.

“What Coleman did not foresee was that variation in school quality, especially on issues of college preparation, would continue to remain so stratified among schools serving predominantly low-income black students and those serving mostly middle- and upper-class Whites,” the paper states.

Despite having high aspirations for college, only about one-third of the Black population between 18 and 24 were enrolled in college in 2012, whereas for Whites and Asians, the figure stood at 42.1 and 59.8 percent, respectively, the paper notes.

Angel L. Harris, a sociology professor at Duke University, presented research that contradicts the widely embraced notion that simply increasing parental involvement will make a positive impact on educational outcomes.

Quite the contrary, Harris said, the punitive measures favored by African-American parents over Whites — at 62 percent versus 29 percent, respectively — have been shown to have a negative effect on reading.

“Punitive responses hurt,” Harris said in presenting a paper titled “A New Framework for Understanding Parental Involvement: Setting the Stage for Academic Success.”

“Non-punitive helps.”

But Many Black parents are doing more of what hurts, inadvertently, and less of what helps, Harris said.

“Black parents say, ‘Oh, I’m gonna fix it,’” Harris said, referring to punitive disciplinary measures. But when Black parents are contacted by educators to deal with their children’s poor performance, Harris said, “Chances are the parent is pulling in the opposite direction because they’re ‘fixing’ the problem in their minds.”

Instead of punitive measures, the paper argues for the importance of “stage-setting” for academic success — in part by simply maintaining a “positive space conducive to academic success.”

Stephen Morgan, Bloomberg Distinguished Professor of Sociology and Education at Johns Hopkins, upended the notion that simply increasing per pupil spending will improve educational disparities.

“The challenges our struggling schools face are deeper and it’s irresponsible to claim that simply raising per pupil expenditures across school district will do much to alleviate them,” Morgan said. “The problems are deeper.”

In discussing his paper, titled “Still No Effect of Resources, Even in the New Gilded Age?” Morgan presented data that showed 10th grade math test scores were essentially the same irrespective of whether $2,000 or $7,000 was spent on per pupil expenditures for instructional salaries. What made a difference, according to Morgan’s data, was the socioeconomic status of the students.

Morgan cautioned against interpreting his findings to mean that money doesn’t matter when it comes to education.

“It matters,” Morgan said. “And if there’s something that works and we have the money, we should do it.”

Ruth López Turley, a sociology professor at Rice University, challenged researchers to break the mold of academic research and to do research that reaches policymakers and decision-makers in a timely manner instead of writing for their fellow academics in academic journals that are hard to access.

“If your goal is to have an impact on policy and in particular policy that reduces inequality, that research model is at best inefficient and at worse ineffective,” López Turley said. “We need to consider altering the way we do research.”

Jamaal Abdul-Alim can be reached at [email protected] or you can follow him on Twitter @dcwriter360.


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