I live in one of those high-achieving school districts that is well known to every selective-college admissions director in the country. With average SAT scores above 1250, a 98 percent graduation rate and 95 percent of graduates attending four-year colleges, my northern New Jersey district boasts excellence.
Parents boast, too. College stickers on the back windshields of BMWs are brag sheets for winning families. Everybody seems to have a kid on the fast track to success, with internships, semesters abroad and academic honors. My husband likes to say that we live in “Magic Town,” because every kid seems perfect.
But on a recent evening in the aging administrative building, the guidance counselors and administrators leading a presentation on “Alternatives to College” took one look at the parents packing the room and ran out to make extra copies of their handouts.
Almost 30 years ago, I walked into my class of 12 teenagers with acute disabilities in a District 75 school in the South Bronx feeling young and nervous. I had no formal training as a special education teacher, just a master’s degree in political theory and an emergency teaching certificate from New York City.
My students included Jason and Jorge, both of whom had learning disabilities and degenerative neurological disorders. They have likely passed away by now. Vanessa was a sassy 18-year-old with Down syndrome. Nearly blind and in a wheelchair, Robert loved to show off his autistic splinter skill of calculating which day of the week your birthday would fall on in five or 10 years. Sharonne, who wore a helmet, was so rattled by daily grand mal seizures that she was never able to remember my name.
My class was the highest functioning in the school.
On top of severe neurological, cognitive, and physical disabilities, my students also had all the challenges that go along with living in a high-poverty urban community. Every Monday morning, we fed children bowls of cereal we brought from home because many didn’t get enough food over the weekend. Classroom books and supplies were decades-old hand-me-downs from the previous teacher. Sometimes Jorge, who was in a wheelchair, couldn’t come to school because drug dealers had knocked out the elevators in his high-rise public housing building.
In January, two small liberal arts colleges, Green Mountain College in Vermont and Hampshire College in Massachusetts, announced that they were going to close or merge with other schools. They joined the ranks of other small schools that have closed in recent years, such as Mount Ida College in Massachusetts, St. Gregory’s University in Oklahoma, and Marygrove College in Detroit. Sweet Briar College in Virginia was flatlining in 2015 before being resuscitated from certain death, thanks to extreme fundraising efforts by alumnae.
Small private schools suffer from a multitude of problems, including endowments that are tangled in strings, a declining interest in liberal arts, a decreasing pool of college-age kids, competition from online education, and growing administrative expenses. But most importantly, they can’t get families like mine to send their kids to their schools. They don’t have enough students who can pay full freight and are interested in the slower pace of a small liberal arts campus.
With a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Rutgers University, New Jersey’s flagship public college, 22-year-old Rachel Van Dyks expected to have a good job by now. A professional job with a proper salary and benefits would enable her to move out of her grandfather’s house, where she lives with her parents and her brother. Instead, the 2017 graduate works 46 hours per week at two jobs — scooping maple walnut ice cream at the local ice cream parlor and taking orders at a high-end steakhouse — while paying for an associate’s degree in cardiovascular sonography at a for-profit technical school.
Van Dyks is not alone, according to Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. A majority of college graduates require additional education in order to qualify for a good-paying job, Carnevale said — though many might not find that out until after commencement exercises are over. While colleges are expanding their career development offices and providing students with opportunities for internships, few students take advantage of those resources. For those young graduates, the realities of the job market come as a surprise.
It was a frigid morning, but throngs of well-wishers lined the sidewalks of Audubon Avenue on the northern tip of Manhattan in early December anyway, cheering for seniors from Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School (WHEELS). Waving to their supporters, the high school students proudly marched—some danced—past Amore’s Beauty Salon and the Esmeraldo Bakery on their way to the post office on 180th Street.
They were going to do something that many of their parents never got the chance to do: mail out their first college applications.
Known as the College March, this education celebration began in 2011 at WHEELS, a pre-K to 12 public school in New York City that serves 100 percent low-income students, 90 percent of whom will be the first in their families to go to college. Since then, the march has been replicated by thousands of seniors around the country.
Earlier this year, after noticing that someone with a Senate email was looking at my LinkedIn page, I received an invitation from Sen. Cory Booker’s press secretary to talk about new research showing enormous progress in Newark schools, which he attributed to reforms implemented when Booker was mayor. I gathered up copies of the studies and drafted a few questions for a short January interview with a busy senator.
Rather than a quick question-and-answer session, the senator talked for nearly 90 minutes about his high-profileefforts to turn around Newark’s failing schools with a $100 million grant from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and its spectacular rollout on Oprah Winfrey’s TV show. He spoke about why he decided to tackle education reform and the difficult politics around reforming urban schools.
Frustrated by the negative coverage of the city that came out of Dale Russakoff’s 2015 book The Prize, he said Newark’s rising English and math test scores in grades 3-8, a shrinking achievement gap, and improved graduation rates — up nearly 20 percentage points since 2010 — prove that Newark’s reform efforts were very much a success.
He said he hoped these studies would help turn around the persistent negative narrative.
Back in the 1990s, a team of researchers spent two and a half years visiting the homes of close to four dozen families with young children, starting when the kids were 7 months old. Equipped with tape recorders and notebooks, the researchers—led by two Kansas psychologists named Betty Hart and Todd Risley—spent an hour per week in each home, recording every word a child’s primary caregiver said to the child during the sessions. After transcribing each conversation and then analyzing the exchanges as a whole, the researchers (who have both since passed away) discovered major differences in the number of words spoken in middle-class families and in lower-income ones.
The result of their research was a landmark study published in 1995, which maintained that a typical child whose parents are highly educated and working professionals is exposed to roughly 1,540 more spoken words per hour than a typical child on welfare. Over time, they concluded, this word gap snowballs so much that by age 4, children in rich families have been exposed to 32 million more words than children in poorer ones.
Now, a new study has failed to replicate Hart and Risley’s findings, further complicating the legacy of this body of research and renewing a long-standing debate among researchers about just how large disparities of language and vocabulary are among different social classes—and how much those differences matter, if at all.