Educators tackle leveling playing field
Anthony S. Chen, an Associate Professor of Sociology, speaks about affirmative action at the "Academic Achievement in a Global Society - A Panel Discussion with Northwestern University Experts on the Future of Education" on Jan. 23 in the Upstairs Theater
WHAT: ETHS panel
ON: Academic achievement
Updated: February 12, 2013 4:53PM
EVANSTON — High school and university students can walk into classrooms as statistical equals, and still be permanently hobbled by cultural isolation or stereotypes.
But there are ways to fight those discrepancies, if schools and universities are willing to use them.
The reward will be more diverse college campuses, richer interplay between schools and universities, as well as students free from doubt about their abilities, unafraid to fail, learn and achieve.
Four Northwestern University academics brought that message to about 100 listeners at Evanston Township High School Jan. 23. The four – David Figlio, Anthony Chen, Jenn Richeson and Kemi Jona – outlined findings in psychology, cultural and economic statistics, sociological history, and science and technology education.
They also talked about how poor (or even simply non-rich) and non-white students fare in the academic world, and suggested ways to help them succeed at ETHS, Northwestern and beyond.
“Academic Achievement in a Global Society” was billed as a discussion with Northwestern experts about the future of education. The evening revolved around the challenge of providing students of all ethnicities and socio-economic status as level a playing field as possible at every school and university level.
Chen, a political sociologist who studies affirmative action programs, argued their history, from beginnings in the 1950s and early 1960s, through current court cases attempting to dismantle them, doesn’t obscure the importance of keeping campuses diverse.
Moderator David Figlio, director of Northwestern’s Institute for Policy Studies and a professor of economics said, “(K-12) schools can do a lot. We have these structural problems, but schools can help.”
Even the best-motivated and prepared young people start to lose confidence if they feel they are alone on college campuses, said Richeson, a professor of psychology and African American studies. She called the effect “social identity threat,” citing studies that show test scores differ based on how students see themselves, and brain studies showing that students worried about their place in education don’t use their brains effectively.
“Race doesn’t change this, gender doesn’t,” she said. “It’s socio-economic status, even though it’s not about money, it’s about the culture (of socio-economics).”
Cutting identity threat can be as simple as actively being or pointing out role models for students, or providing money and specific encouragement to fill out college forms or coaching to help with SATs and ACTs Richeson said. It helps remind culturally different students that they share their insecurities with other students, and that they share strengths, too.
It can be as sophisticated as teaching young children to talk about their own values, she added: “Just by the recursive process of them feeling like they have values … helps them do better.”
Jona, a computer science researcher whose Office of STEM Education Partnership focuses on enriching science ,technology, engineering and mathematics for both students and teachers, said teaching children to dare to fail, and to work with others, helps them succeed in life and help the nation. Technology education goes beyond transforming blackboards to smart boards, he said, to encouraging students by tailoring education to their strengths and needs.
“To what extent do the current structures and practices of school support these traits … or do they actively suppress them,” he asked.
The panel grew from a larger symposium last September, ETHS community liaison David Futransky said last week. It was organized by ETHS and Northwestern University and brought together speakers and officials from numerous colleges and universities.
“We came out of that meeting and said, ‘Wow, we should be sharing these ideas with the broader community,’” he said.