Equity in Education: Devoted teachers challenged me to succeed


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This blog is a guest post by Nadja Young, Senior Manager for Education Industry Consulting at SAS, that originally appeared on the SAS blog as part of a series – What Equity Means to Me.

Two colleagues and I, all former educators, have dealt with education equity gaps both as children and professionally. This is the second post in a series about our experiences. I encourage you to read the first entry, Equity in education: I was a statistic

Many people think of education equity issues as only affecting urban and rural school settings. But there are often overlooked inequities within wealthier suburban districts and schools. I was raised in Fairfax County, Virginia, a suburb of Washington D.C. and one of our nation’s wealthiest counties. But even within largely affluent counties sizable economic disparities can exist. My family was on the lower end of the income gap. Parental instability, financial, and emotional stress took a toll on my development and led me to miss a lot of school. In the 4th grade, a judge even removed me from my home for six months after I missed 35 days of school, among other reasons.

Early data painted a picture of a girl with odds stacked against her who probably should have been low achieving. I had all of these labels:

  • Low income
  • Chronically absent
  • Fatherless home
  • Parents without college degrees
  • Parent in prison
  • Parent with mental illness

I had parents who loved me, but who were ill-prepared and ill-equipped to provide the life structure needed for academic success. My traumatic home removal clued me into the fact that this school thing matters, I returned to Lake Ann Elementary School with a resolve to take ownership over my daily routine, my schooling, and my future.

As fortune would have it, I was simultaneously dealt a strong hand of quality teachers who did not allow out-of-school data factors to serve as excuses for low performance. I was not written off. Instead, strong teachers and principals used in-school performance data to see my potential. They used data to insist upon academic excellence, providing a stairway out of the circumstances in which I was born. Education changed my life and that’s why I went on to become a teacher for seven years before coming to SAS to try to improve schools on a larger scale.

Unfortunately, for too many children, schools are not able to fulfill this same promise like they did for me. While educators saw my disadvantages and helped me “beat the odds,” my siblings did not fare as well. My older brother never graduated from high school.  My younger sister was passed along and promoted when she was actually 3 years behind in math. We found out in the 8th grade and had to move her to an alternative school to get her back on course.

Many parents in America don’t know what they don’t know about education. They rely on experts in schools to manage their children’s learning and alert them if something is wrong. Inequities in educational experiences, like the ones my own family lived through, are inexcusable. The course of a child’s life can be irrevocably damaged.

Educators believe in their hearts that all students can learn, yet inequities in educational experiences persist. I have seen educators allow out-of-school data factors to serve as excuses for underachievement or to influence perceptions about students, thereby limiting rigor and opportunity. To me, educational equity means that all students receive support and access to rigorous academic opportunities that prepare them, not just to be proficient on a state test, but for college and the world of work. And for those students who are disadvantaged at home, they should get even more support and rigor in school.

If our nation’s schools cannot address educational inequities, they will potentially leave millions of kids behind. My story resembles big data on millions of real children in America.

  • 4 million children live in fatherless homes.[i]
  • 16 million children live in poverty.[ii]
  • 7 million children have a parent in prison.[iii]

I believe our school systems can better use equity data to begin to address the issue. Tune into the rest of this blog series to explore ideas for how data and analytic insights can be used to uncover and address equity gaps in our schools.

[i]“Living arrangements of children under 18 years and marital status of parents, by age, sex, race and Hispanic origin and selected characteristics of this child for all children: 2014.” Washington, D.C.: U.S. Census Bureau. http://www.census.gov/hhes/families/data/cps2014C.html.

[ii] Breslow, Jason M. (2012). “By the Numbers: Childhood Poverty in the U.S.” Retrieved from PBS Online. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/article/by-the-numbers-childhood-poverty-in-the-u-s/.

[iii] Glaze, Lauren E. and Laura M. Maruschak. (August 2008). “Parents in Prison and Their Minor Children.” U.S Department of Justice. Bureau of Justice Statistics. https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/pptmc.pdf.  

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