Thursday, October 7, 2010

Money Talks: How Affluent Families Have the Advantage in Today's Public Education

"Your services are no longer necessary..."

The six words that no employee wants to hear. They're the words that sting the soul, words that indicate that despite our best efforts, for some reason or another, we failed. I've heard those words twice before: Once when I was sixteen and working at the local gym. The other time was this past year when my long-term substitute position terminated at the end of the year and there was no permanent position available to me. Each time I could see the logic behind the removal. At the gym, they couldn't afford to keep providing me with a free membership for my otherwise non-paid work. For my previous school, the truth was that staff with seniority were placed ahead of me and there was nothing for me beyond the school year. This past Monday, I heard those nonmagical words for the third time from a woman whose son I was tutoring. The reasons behind my dismal this time are not as clear cut as in previous situations.

Let's start with economics 101. As I often talk about in my blog, there is a tremendous discrepancy between the haves and the have-nots in education. The truth is that money can't buy you happiness, but in this day and age it can buy you opportunity. And nowhere is this opportunity more apparent than in the education field. Think about how many opportunities money can buy you in education. Transportation to and from school and extracurricular activities. Transportation on the weekend to sports events that might earn you a scholarship. Money for field trips, both local and long distance. Computer access at home. SAT prep books, classes, and tutors. College guide books. Money for multiple college applications. And the list goes on.

Despite dedicating my life to helping those students who have had their lives stacked against them by society, I also feel the need to work with those who are more affluent and who do have those opportunities I have mentioned. The reasons for this are twofold. First, it is important for a classroom teacher to be able to work with all students in his or her classroom. I know that working at a start-up charter school, I will be working with the whole spectrum of students, especially this first year. Secondly, I'll be honest: I enjoy making money. Working with the more affluent students outside of school in a tutoring situation gives me the chance to not only enhance by teaching bu also to make a few dollars on the side. Simple theory of supply and demand: There is a demand for language teachers in Southern California and I am part of the supply of teachers in that field. Who am I to argue with basic theories of economics?

So, with that logic in mind I decided to take a tutoring job with a local high school junior. This student was enrolled at a private school about 30 minutes north of his home. The family lived in a nice home in an area that overlooked San Diego Harbor. This student had struggled in Spanish the year before and his teacher recommended that he continue studying the language only if he got a tutor for the upcoming school year. Knowing that competitive University of California colleges and state universities expect three years of foreign language in high school, the student's parents asked around for assistance in Spanish. Fortunately for me, I went to Kenya with another graduate student who is friends of the family and she recommended me. The rest, as they say, is history.

I worked with this student for an hour a week for 4 weeks. There was no question he was bright. Despite "struggling" in Spanish as his mom told me, he still had a B-average. However, that wasn't cutting it and so I was brought in to help raise that B to an A. In working with the student, I noticed he lacked a lot of the foundation needed to be successful in a third year high school Spanish class. We spent a lot of time reviewing material from the previous school year. The structure of the class was one that required a lot of outside studying. I had to convince the student that vocabulary flash cards would help him learn the material in preparation for the weekly quizzes. We went to the classroom website and he learned how to use the links to practice with material that was presented in the notes for the previous day. After 4 weeks, the student still had a B, but his needs had been analyzed and we were ready to move into a positive direction for his upcoming assessments.

Then, I got the ax.

On Monday morning, the student's mother told me that his grade wasn't improving at the rate at which she would have liked. She thanked me for my efforts and told me that the student would take it upon himself to work with the teacher during lunch and after school to try and bring up his grade. This news hit me like a ton of bricks. I knew that we had turned a corner and that the student was on his way to steadily improve. I also found him to be an interesting case study, and in my working with him I was hoping to help lay the foundation for my action research project that I had to do next semester for my last graduate course. I also was disappointed to lose out on the added income that tutoring was bring me. It wasn't a tremendous amount, but in this economy each and every dollar matters and I enjoyed the fact that my gas would be paid for monthly thanks to my new tutoring endeavor.

So why did I get canned? Simple. I didn't live up to the ridiculously high expectations of this family. They assumed that I could somehow and some way make their child an A-student in Spanish class, a class that he had barely passed the year before. This same student also had tutors for both chemistry and algebra as well. Do I blame the family? No. Why not? Because they expect their child to do well. The parents both did well in school and graduated from college. During one of the tutoring sessions, the mother informed me that the tutoring session had to be done in exactly an hour because it was junior college night and they had to return to school for it. That meant two hour-long trips to and from school in the same day, a sacrifice that mom was willing to make. These parents fully expected their child to succeed and end up at a top tier university.

This family is not unique. Not in San Diego, not anywhere. I do not fault this family for trying to help their only child succeed. It's what we all want for our children. It's why my twenty-five year old self has a financial planner as a way to start saving money now so that my children will have all the opportunities I had as a child. And those opportunities were given to me thanks to a super hard-working father. Thanks to his efforts, I had many of the same opportunities that the student I tutored had. I went on the field trips throughout school. I traveled all over New England to play sports. I took an SAT Prep course that raised my score by 150 points. I applied to eleven colleges and universities, writing multiple college essays on the desktop computer in my room. It was never a question of if I was going to college, it was a question of where I would end up. The same can be said for the student I tutored.

I leave you with these thoughts: How can someone from a less affluent home be expected to compete against someone who has had all these advantages? How does a struggling student stay after school if he or she has no ride home? How does the high school athlete with no transportation compete year round against those who travel all over the region for tournaments? How does the elementary school student go to the art museum if his single parent hasn't yet gotten her paycheck for the month? How does the middle school student type up his social studies report if he doesn't have a computer at home? How does the high school student apply to multiple schools if she doesn't have that much money available and doesn't qualify or know about scholarships? How does she get into college with low SAT scores? Does she have any hope for her future?

You tell me.

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