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Learning curves, but without shortcuts
I have been somebody’s mama for twenty-two years.
I thought deeply about this fact while nestled in a booth at Pullman with my oldest child, his nervous knee tapping a steady thump into the red leather. It wasn’t the stubble on his chin that gave me pause, and it wasn’t the way he towers over me at six foot five — it was the ease with which he ordered a Dark and Stormy from the drink menu. When did this kid get so comfortable with rum?
He joined the National Guard a couple of years ago, and to put my mind at ease, assured me that higher education is now taken care of. He would no longer have to pay his way through school a class or two at a time, or be saddled with the student debt that made his sister wary of seeking a degree at all.
This week, someone leaned in earnestly and asked me my most pressing concern as a parent. Without hesitation, I said “Education.”
For which child?
“All of them.”
As I suspect is the case for many parents, much of my adult life has been impacted significantly by my efforts to ensure my children have access to the best education and opportunities I can offer them. I lived in a specific school district, sought extracurriculars within my means, brought them along to civic and social engagements, found them volunteer opportunities. For my youngest, I spent hours researching elementary school math and reading scores before choosing a home — terrified that her kindergarten year (spent learning virtually at the kitchen table) had set her back and she would struggle to keep up academically. How would she ever get into the Ivy League, make me a proud Space Force mother, enjoy an illustrious career with NASA, and become Madam President now?
All of this centering life around education has an economic impact. Property taxes were higher. My commute was longer as I lived further from work to accommodate what I perceived they would gain at a better resourced institution. Sacrifices were made for their benefit. Because of this, my expectations of them and for them were incredibly high — and that has had an impact on them.
A 2019 Pew Research study found that seven in 10 K-12 students identified anxiety and depression as a major problem among their peers. Three quarters of kids in households bringing in less than $75,000 per year worry about how to cover the cost of higher education. More than half of the group also noted that pressure to achieve good grades is a major stressor — in fact, they felt more pressure to maintain a high GPA than to look good or even to fit in socially.
Certainly, my youngest child has had a far different experience than my older two. As a teen mother entering my twenties as they entered elementary school I had far less resources, less agency and less access to information about how to support them. I was also a college student studying in another county, and the commute ate up precious time I could have spent working with them, volunteering on field trips, or making muffins for the PTA bake sale. I really tried — I showed up to the parent teacher conferences, did my best to check on their homework, and told them to apply themselves when they got a C on the math test.
Even so, I was stunned by what I heard from another mother from the same school district a few months after my oldest received his high school diploma. We sat across from each other at a cafe table on a sunny day at the downtown Cedar Rapids Public Library, she talking about her children’s accomplishments and I marveling at the soaring GPAs I had heard from the graduation stage. “Well, you know how they do that … they take their classes pass/fail, and then take AP classes. That way the other classes don’t bring the GPA down as long as they pass, and the AP classes raise the number above 4.0”
My mouth hung agape.
“I — what?!”
“Oh yeah, my kids and all their friends got high GPAs that way.”
To this day, it is unclear to me how widely this practice is known. However, in that moment, I understood the cost of being under-resourced in a way that I hadn’t before. The students with astronomical grade-point averages are far more likely to receive academic scholarships freeing them from college debt, far more likely to get into the kind of institutions that raise eyebrows among the hiring team, and far more likely to obtain high paying careers that offer them the kind of economically abundant lifestyle many of us dream of for our kids.
For those of us in poverty hoping our kids could chart a path to a better life by working hard at school, there was a barrier in the way we didn’t know about. It wasn’t just a lack of access to adequate nutrition, it wasn’t just barriers to stable housing, it wasn’t simply having a low income or transportation or child care — these issues we know all too well. We were literally playing the game on the most challenging setting without the cheat code.
Growing up, I remember Iowa’s pride in the education system. The Iowan identity is tied to education in a way that feeds into a bootstrap rhetoric — apply yourself, do your best, work hard, you will win in the end. However, like those bootstraps, the narrative falls flat when you shine a light on the inequities that provide some with shortcuts to the top and puts others on the shortlist for alternative school where despite the best efforts of some phenomenal educators, they do not receive the same resources as the main student body.
Horace Mann called education the “great equalizer of the conditions of men.” It’s a great day to build some equity into public education.
Sofia DeMartino is a Gazette editorial fellow. Comments: email@example.com
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