Editor’s Note: Rebecca Shafer is a program associate with New America’s Bernard Schwartz Fellows Program. Previously, she taught at a public charter school in Washington, D.C. and a public school in Maryland.
For two years, I taught eighth grade at a high-needs middle school in Prince George’s County, Maryland, just a few miles from Washington, D.C. The student body was nearly 90% African American, and over half of students qualified for free and reduced price lunch. (That didn’t include the cafeteria food one principal often bought out-of-pocket for other hungry kids.) Math scores hovered around 33% proficiency, and reading around 65%. The statewide average is about 69% proficiency in math and 80% in reading. Especially at the start of my teaching career, I struggled to motivate my classes in the face of classroom disruptions, lagging reading levels, and pressures on students with unstable home situations.
Unfortunately, these issues aren’t unique to Maryland. There is an active conversation about how to reduce the disparities in education quality between K-12 schools in high- and low- income neighborhoods. Programs like Teach For America, which placed me (and some 38,000 other young college graduates over the past twenty years) in low-performing schools, and Obama’s Race to the Top program, which provided funding to my school, aim to fix this problem. If change is going to come, we need to set high goals for students.
My mentors and supervisors at my teaching jobs urged me to link my students’ academic growth with success in life. I pushed the idea to my students that college would reward them for their hard work, bringing opportunities and, further down the line, potentially lucrative careers. However, as Jason DeParle, a Bernard L. Schwartz Fellow, articulates in a recent New York Times piece, the path both to and through college to economic stability is often fraught with challenges particularly for lower-income students. For example, we see a widening socioeconomic gap in college attendance levels, graduation rates, and student loan burdens.