Wednesday, February 19, 2014

What if it's More About the Zipcode than the Test Score?

I once overheard a lunch conversation at a diversity conference between a seemingly affluent white man and a very poised black woman.  He said, "So, I live in a nice house in the suburbs, my children go to good schools, should I not want those things for my family?  Am I perpetuating racism by wanting what is best for my family?"  I was horrified and extremely intrigued at the same time and waited with baited breath to see how the black woman would respond to such a dramatic statement.  She very calmly replied, "I think you're confusing financial affluence with race."  The table got very quiet (and people became intensely focused on their salads) and it was clear the man was now thinking very hard - honestly I was too.  The reality is that the average US resident associates affluent neighborhoods as white, and poor ones as black, Latino or any color but white.  This is highlighted in this article in the Washington Post, "Washington: A World Apart."  The article describes the phenomenon of "Super Zips" - those areas ranking highest in income and education.

The yellow areas denote the highest income and education Super Zips.  Click on the article link to see a really cool interactive graphic and put in different zipcodes to see how the area ranks with income and education levels.

Long ago I saw Alfie Kohn present at a conference and he stated that test scores were important....(wait for the punchline...) they told us the zipcode of the students we were testing!  It's no secret that students who live in high poverty areas often have lower test scores and educational attainment than those living in higher income areas.  The majority of EL students I've taught have lived in lower income areas with little ability to interact with peers in middle or higher income levels.  In fact the article points out that our crucial middle class is shrinking, "In 1970, 65 percent of families lived in middle-income neighborhoods; four decades later, 42 percent did."  The middle class has always been important for connecting the lower and upper classes.  Our EL students need more than a quality education to succeed, they need to make connections with people in middle and upper income networks and experience the social aspects many take for granted.  I still remember bringing a group of high school ELs to tour the University of Minnesota.  One of the students, a Kurdish girl (who until that day had steadfastly refused to go on the trip because she would never go to college) jumped excitedly down the stairs of the the building shouting, "Miss Kristina, I understood everything they said in that classroom.  I can do it!!  I'm going to college!!"  That student didn't lack the optimism, potential or academic ability to attend college.  What she lacked was confidence and exposure to a college network that would help her understand expectations around college and introduce her to successful college students.

The article states, "As the affluent become more isolated, the working class and the poor become confined "to communities where no one has a college education and no one has connections to the world,"Klineberg said.  "The social capital that's so necessary for upward mobility is more difficult to come by than it was in the old days when there was broad-based prosperity."

So - as educators we may not be able to reverse the testing culture that impacts our students so heavily, but what if we were able to do something about their networks and the impact of their zipcode?  What would that look like in elementary, middle and high school?  How would school cultures and attitudes shift?

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