Schools Treat Some Families Differently Than Others. What Do We Do about It?

Inequity in public education is nothing new. We’ve known for a long time that students from lower-income families, for instance, are more likely to get less effective teachers, attend underfunded schools, and have limited access to advanced courses. These are the shameful, large-scale inequities that exacerbate deeper social injustices and contort the lives of millions of kids year after year.

But there are small-scale inequities too, in the day-to-day experiences of individual students and parents with schools. Simply put, some families are treated differently than others, even when schools are following policies that are intended to be fair and universal.

How students are assigned to teachers is a great example; every year, parents in many schools lobby behind the scenes for their kids to be placed with particular teachers. Some of these efforts are successful, some aren’t, but if you’re a parent who doesn’t know you can even try, you’re already out of luck—and your child might be the one bumped from that classroom to accommodate someone else’s.

Another good example comes from Florida, which established a policy in 2002 that all third graders must be able to read on grade level or repeat the third grade again. Regardless of what you think of the policy itself, we can all agree that it is meant to affect all students equally.

As it turns out, the policy did not affect all students equally. You see, even when students failed the state reading test, they could get an “exemption” and still be promoted to the next grade. Researchers looking at what happened to students who just barely missed the test score cutoff found that those whose mothers had less than a high school diploma were substantially less likely to be granted an exemption than those who had parents with higher levels of education.

How did this happen? The devil was in the details. One way to gain an exemption was to have a student’s teacher review a portfolio of work. If the teacher agreed that the portfolio showed sufficient reading mastery, the student could be promoted. This was a very subjective process—one that could easily be influenced by a parent’s relationship with a teacher or willingness to speak up. In the words of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s Amber Northern, “Better-educated moms are working the system in Florida.”

There’s nothing wrong with moms and dads advocating for their kids. That’s our right and responsibility as parents. The problem is that some families—generally, more affluent, privileged families—are better situated to advocate for their children, and they’re getting what they want while other families don’t. If this is happening with third grade promotion, isn’t it happening with other policies?

For instance, are parents of greater means getting their children into gifted and talented programs or advanced coursework? (This study says yes.) Securing seats in the classrooms of the very best teachers? (This book says yes.) Securing lighter discipline when their children commit an infraction that might earn a suspension for another student? (This story documents troubling results from Portland.)

This is how institutions work. They have a written set of policies… and then those policies are executed by human beings. It’s not just schools. Consider a new study which finds that NFL referees are influenced by players and coaches yelling at them. Sports fans know this. You want your team to work the refs. It gets results.

So what’s the solution? Part of it is surely to pursue better, fairer policies that increase the chances that all students and families will be treated equitably, like assessing every child for gifted-and-talented potential rather than deferring to educator recommendations (which are susceptible not just to parental lobbying but unconscious bias). However, setting and enforcing ironclad, inflexible policies that can never be adapted based on real-world situations would be unwise and unrealistic, to say the least. Human behavior and judgment will always play a role.

Since that’s the case, the other part of the solution is to be transparent with families that their children need them to advocate, help those families advocate, and accept that advocacy. Instead of prohibiting parent requests for specific teachers altogether, for instance, give ALL parents a formal way to offer input on classroom assignments (while being clear that nothing is guaranteed). Schools probably won’t like it, at least some of the time. So far as I can tell, referees don’t like being chased by irate coaches. But if that’s how the system works, how can we ask families not to work the system?

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