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Disenfranchised: The buzz in education reform

By Nancy Salvato
web posted January 1, 2007

The word that most aptly describes the momentum behind education reform going into 2007 is disenfranchised.  This can be applied to students in grades P all the way to 16.  It can also be applied to adults who want to go back to school, who never completed school, or who are learning English as a second language.  It can be used to describe those who find themselves on the wrong side of the law.  This word can be mixed and matched with pretty much any type of person that is deserving of more opportunity; and who isn't?  To be sure, the word disenfranchised will inevitably be used to call for more education funding, to fight for more equitable education and to appeal for universal education.  Disenfranchised is the sort of descriptor that can be mixed and matched by any education reformer for any type of reform because it appeals to the conscience; it begs the decent person to look out for those amongst us who might need a little action on their behalf.  "It is the right thing to do."  But be forewarned; those whose heartstrings are being pushed and pulled in every direction must try and be discerning about the various offerings and work through the maze of rhetoric so that the disenfranchised are truly helped by our efforts. Like it or not, sometimes the solutions can become part of the problem.

The effort behind universal pre-school stems from the notion that some children are better prepared for Kindergarten than others.  For a multitude of reasons, underprivileged children are not accumulating as much practice playing with the English language and they are not exposed to the types of concrete experiences which lay the foundation for learning abstract mathematical concepts.  In my own observations with "disenfranchised" children, I've discovered that they are lacking at a much more basic level. 

Some are not used to interactions where they are expected to listen, and conversely, they don't expect others to hear them. Accustomed to this deficit, and having their needs met by Power Rangers and X-Men, they tune out people and events and succumb to the symptoms of having insufficient relationships with caring responsible adults, these being stunted curiosity about the world and lack of civility.  This type of child most definitely benefits from a preschool that offers opportunities for exploration and language development.  But this child profits more from the consistency offered from caring adults who teach them social skills and provide them with the most basic of needs.  Conversely, children growing up in homes rich in one-on-one interaction with one or two parents with the time and resources to devote to raising a child will not benefit more from the experience of preschool where a teacher's time is divided between 18 needy children.  Children, whose needs can be met at home, gain much more tumbling and swimming at the local park district than if placed in universal pre-school.   

Children are disenfranchised when expectations are lowered for their potential.  Whether or not a child is labeled ADD, EL, LD, Gifted, or anything else, really doesn't matter if in any given situation the child isn't pushed to his or her maximum ability.  When a label is used as an excuse for not meeting needs, this is when the solution has become the problem.  If mainstreaming prevents some students from making optimum academic gains, the solution has become the problem.  The bottom line is that while everyone is not equal, everyone should be given equal opportunity.  This might not always look the same in every given situation.  In sports, one child might be learning to sink or swim while another is practicing Butterfly.  While the two students would not be expected to be treated the same way, this isn't the case in academics.  Some serious rethinking must take place in our elementary and middle schools.  In these circumstances, it must be, "one "hellava reality check" to suddenly find one self competing and placed in leveled classes upon reaching high school in this day and age. How about when it comes to looking for a job? 

It used to be that everything important could be learned by the end of 8th grade.  Now, colleges are finding many students cannot read or write at an 8th grade level.  How is it that some students are accepted into college when they haven't met the requirements of the preceding grades?  Community colleges are expected to remediate students who are not prepared for college level courses yet at the same time are awarding more and more course credits to record numbers of students who are testing out of classes because of prior AP or IB programs. How can that be?  Is it because everyone is not equal but everyone should be given equal opportunity? 

I used to joke that I went to college on an 8th grade education because I did the absolute minimum to get by in high school, much more concerned with socializing and rebelling than in my future.  But I also tested at the 11th grade level in many areas when I was still a preteen. This is because students were grouped and challenged according to their ability in the elementary and middle grades.  Perhaps I was disenfranchised in high school, for whatever the reason. One of 125 students per teacher, maybe I needed larger amounts of attention which I couldn't receive under those circumstances.  Smaller class sizes and a smaller school might have made all the difference in the world, or not.  On the other hand, would I have been better off in single sex classes, where I wasn't so concerned with boys?  This is not a universal rule applicable for everyone. Some students thrive amongst large numbers of people and unimaginable opportunities. This is why there should be choice in education.  One size does not apply to all.  One universal rule does not always benefit everyone. Beware of equalizing instead of equal opportunity.  This has the effect of disenfranchising some groups while ensuring rule of the majority or minority. 

Colleges should be kept affordable but not if those who can afford to supplement the cost of an education are given the responsibility of this burden.  As long as there are student grants and loans and scholarships to offset tuition costs, colleges will not have the incentive to streamline their offerings and keep costs down.  If colleges are not held accountable for the relevancy of their course offerings, for the quality of their teaching, and for the success of their graduates, they will not have to be held to the same standards as other businesses that must satisfy a customer base. When the government has to supplement or bail out a business, in the long run it isn't doing the economy any favors. What disenfranchises students is graduating with no appreciable skills and with a lot of debt. 

Disenfranchised is a very powerful word.  It can be used to further equalize everyone or it can be used to provide everyone with equal opportunity.  Be careful when deciding which educational reforms to get behind in 2007. ESR

Nancy Salvato is the President of The Basics Project, a non-profit, non-partisan 501 (C) (3) research and educational project whose mission is to promote the education of the American public on the basic elements of relevant political, legal and social issues important to our country. She is also a Staff Writer, for the New Media Alliance, Inc., a non-profit (501c3) coalition of writers and grass-roots media outlets, where she contributes on matters of education policy. Copyright © Nancy Salvato 2006




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