Designer Learning Experiences: Bridging the Gap for Low-Income and Minority Students

The number of minority students outweighs the number of white students—yet underrepresented minorities still often face a worse quality education than their white counterparts. It’s prime time to meet the needs of a rapidly growing population, and fortunately, as a society, we are actively looking for ways to do just that.

As of 2014, minorities have been projected to be over 50 percent of the K-12 student population, according to the U.S. Education Department’s Nation Center for Education Statistics.

In the fall of 2014, about 49.8 million students attended public elementary and secondary schools. Of these students, 35.1 million were in prekindergarten through grade 8, and 14.7 million will be in grades 9 through 12. Another 5 million students attend private schools.

Out of these 49.8 million students, White students account for just under half at 24.8 million. The other 25 million are composed of 7.7 million African American students, 12.8 million Hispanic students, 2.6 million Asian/Pacific Islander students, 0.5 million American Indian/Alaska Native students, and 1.4 million students of two or more races.

Taking this even further, the percentage of White students is predicted to continue decreasing the next several years as enrollments of Hispanics and Asians/Pacific Islanders increase through 2023.

Of course, I am pleased to see the numbers of minorities attending school on the rise this year. In the best interest of our country’s future, I believe that all Americans should attend school. These projections show that our nation is on the way to decreasing the education gap, and that makes me proud.

That said, even though we have a growing number of minority students attending school, we are still facing some racial, ethnic, and income-based inequities. Poor schools see less funding than their more affluent counterparts in 23 states, according to data reported in The Washington Post. On average, states and localities spend 15 percent less per pupil in the poorest districts than in the most affluent ones—but in states like Pennsylvania, this difference is even more pronounced (33 percent)!

The issues are not just income related. They are most certainly racial and ethnic in nature as well. For example, in Illinois School District U-46, over 40 percent of the student population is Latino, but only 2 percent of the gifted program is from this demographic. In July, a federal district court judge found that the school system had discriminated against its gifted Latino students by placing them in a program separate from white peers. The judge also ruled that the policies in place to identify gifted students had a “disparate impact” on the Latino school population. The lawsuit was spearheaded by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

In this particular case, the Latino students who were placed in separate gifted programs had English as a second language or were bilingual at least. In this case, the language barrier appears to be the excuse used by district leaders for separating Latino students from their white counterparts.

Another sign that not all is well is the school-to-prison pipeline.

Perhaps a great illustration of this phenomenon is the story of Ahmed Mohamed.

In September 2015, officers detained Ahmed Mohamed from the Irving Police Department for bringing in a homemade clock to school. His teacher had mistaken it for a bomb, and as a result, Ahmed was arrested for bringing a “hoax bomb” to school.

Officials later learned that Ahmed’s faux bomb was just a homemade clock and he had no intention of harming anyone. It was all, as stated by the police, just a misunderstanding.

If only it were that simple.

Since the melee, Ahmed has been invited to the White House, MIT, and Facebook for his creativity. Each organization or group has shown support for Ahmed due to his unfair arrest.

But the unfairness tagged to his arrest has more to do with Ahmed’s culture and skin color than safety.

Ahmed Mohamed was born in America, is Muslim, and his parents aren’t native. The stereotypes associated with Ahmed’s existence led to his arrest, not a clock misidentified as a bomb.

According to a study by the University of Pennsylvania, students of color, specifically black students, are suspended at a much higher rate than white students. While Ahmed isn’t black, he is considered to be a student of color.

The study also notes that in 84 districts within the 13 states studied, “Blacks were 100 percent of students suspended from school.”

This perpetuates an unfortunate theory that students of color are pushed towards prison instead of higher education.

We need to push more kids like Ahmed to advance boundaries—but this will not happen as long as we punish their ability to blow by them.

That’s not all.

Minorities are not college ready. While the high school graduation rate has increased to around 80 percent, this hasn’t translated into college readiness for students. A report from the College of Education at the University of Arizona found that less than 1 in 10 minority high school graduates in the state are adequately prepared for college. Granted, non-minority students are doing much better. Only 2 in 10 are prepared for college after graduating high school.

These are just a few things to be concerned about. It’s not all doom and gloom, though. In fact, in this chapter, we’ll be looking at yet another emerging trend—specifically technology as the great equalizer of education for low-income and minority students.

Technology: The Great Equalizer?

The National Center for Education Statistics reported in 2009 that 97 percent of K-12 teachers had computers in their classrooms every day. Also, 54 percent were able to bring a computer into the classroom. The overall ratio of students to classroom computers was 5.3 to 1.

Well that was then, and this is now. Since 2009, teachers have made the shift to include mobile devices like tablets and Smartphones as part of the classroom culture. Computers are still there but are quickly playing second fiddle to smaller, faster and just-plain-cooler pieces of technology.

In its widest definition, technology has always been associated with the creation of a level playing field for students. Bernard John Poole of the University of Pittsburgh wrote ten pillars of technology integration in K-12 schools, and his final point reads: Recognize that technology is for all, and involves all, in the process of lifelong learning.

At the public school level, all students have equal access to classroom computers and mobile devices. This is even for these youngsters who have no electronic access at home. (In this day and age, this is more prevalent than it should be. For example, a survey done in Madison, Wisconsin found that one-quarter to one-fifth of low-income, black, and Latino students in the city’s school districts do not have access to the Internet. ) Upon entering a classroom they can interact with technology and keep up with their peers.

Make no mistake, though—I do not think that technology itself is a panacea. It is the implementation of the technology that matters. Let’s talk a bit more about exactly what this implementation entails.

How to Use Technology to Transform Education

Students in urban schools are often seen as lost causes. They tend to have stereotypes attached to them and are not seen as individual learners. Then there are problems like deteriorating buildings and overcrowding, which often become too overwhelming for well-meaning reformers.

In a 2009 article in the Harvard Political Review, writers Tiffany Wen and Jyoti Jasrasaria discuss the “myths of urban education.” The article points out that many people are quick to label urban schools as lost causes without actually investigating individual issues or how they can be resolved. The authors also shed light on the juxtaposition of the basic American ideal that anyone from anywhere can make it big with some hard work and the reality of urban schools. If urban students are truly not at a disadvantage, per the American dream, then why do they graduate from high school at a rate of nearly 20 percent lower than their suburban counterparts?

In an Education Week guest blog post, urban music teacher Mike Albertson said that “overcrowded classrooms are one of the most common qualities of urban schools.”

He went on to say that the students themselves are not the actual problem in urban schools but that the overcrowded conditions are to blame for many perceived behavior issues and academic disengagement. More likely, it is a combination of high student-to-teacher ratios and behavior problems.

Studies have found a correlation between overcrowding and lower math and reading scores. Teachers also cite overcrowding as a definite contributor to student behavior problems. Too many kids in classrooms means too little individual instruction. It also means that academic time is spent dealing with issues that distract from education. Overcrowding is only one problem that contributes to urban student disadvantages but one that deserves the spotlight.

As with all aspects of K-12 improvement, finding the answers to higher achievement for urban students is a complicated process. I believe that technology can work to teacher and student advantages, though. The implications of mobile technology in K-12 classrooms are still being realized, but one thing is certain: more individualized learning is now possible. In cases where overcrowding is detrimental to learning experiences, mobile technology can serve as a placeholder teacher regarding directing students and keeping them engaged in learning when the physical teacher is unavailable.

Fortunately, it seems like most people get this—from teachers to the government

One D.C. school integrated technology into their school with a significant homeless student population. Ketcham Elementary school saw an 11 percent bump in math proficiency this past spring and a 4.5 percent rise in reading proficiency after less than two years implementing a computer-learning model that combines face-to-face teacher instruction with personalized online learning paths for students. To put those numbers in perspective, other test scores in the District barely moved in the same time frame.

Under these blended learning models, the computers serve as complements to the teachers. Teachers can set up one student on a customized learning task on a computer while working one-on-one with another group of students, for example. The blended learning allows for more personalization that is strengthened with educator insight.

As a former public school teacher, I do have my doubts. Proponents of blended learning say that it will never replace actual in-person instruction, but I worry that too much reliance on technology could lead to students who skate by but do not comprehend what they are learning. A computer can never replace the insight an educator gleans by working directly with a student.

On the other hand, I completely understand that teachers simply do not have enough hours in a school day to meet the individual needs of every student and technology can help bridge that gap. On that level, I think blended learning programs can make a positive difference when it comes to students getting more practice in areas where they need it and on an individual level.

On the national level, President Obama has acted to ensure a better education for disadvantaged minority groups as well. In particular, his budget request has included $1 billion for Native American schools. Obama wanted to help restore crumbling buildings and connect classrooms via broadband Internet.

Administrative officials said the President was inspired to increase funds to better serve this population partially as a result of last year’s visit to the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. He and the First Lady traveled to North Dakota and met with young people who shared how drugs, violence, and poverty impacted their lives.

The federal government reports that around one-third of Bureau of Indian Education schools were in poor condition last year. This has forced students to learn in classrooms that fail to meet health and safety standards.

The BIE oversees 23 states and serves over 40,000 children in nearly 200 schools

In addition to renovations, Obama’s budget includes funds to expand broadband access at BIE schools, expand scholarships for post-secondary education and help tribes deliver their education programs.

Young people in Indian Country are some of the most at-risk in the United States. Many grow up in communities suffering from poverty, unemployment, and substance abuse. More than one-fifth of Native Americans over 25 years of age never earned a high school diploma. Of those who attend college, only 39 percent earn a bachelor’s degree within six years.

But Does Technology Improve Educational Outcomes?

As you can see, getting technology in the classroom is a priority in many cases. However, according to the founder of the popular Blackboard software, we are still in the “really early days” of truly integrated technology. Furthermore, Troy Williams of Macmillan New Ventures pointed out during a technology summit that companies like his do not “have the outcomes yet to say what leads to a true learning moment.” He added that it would still be another three to five years before those numbers can truly be analyzed.

The data is not quite there yet for K-12 schools, but if the positive trends related to college graduation rates is any indicator, there is a lot of reason to be encouraged.

The availability of online course options is a large reason for the increase in the graduation rates of many different types of people. With less red tape than the traditional college format, online students can earn credits while still working full time, maintaining families and dealing with illnesses. Whether students take just one course remotely or obtain an entire degree, they can take on the demands of college life more readily – leading to a student population with more variety.

The flexibility and convenience of online learning is talked about, but the diversity of the college population that results from it is not.

The Babson Survey Research Group recently revealed that while online college student enrollment is on the rise, traditional colleges and universities saw their first drop in enrollment in the ten years the survey has been conducted. This drop is small – less than a tenth of one percent – but its significance is big. A trend toward the educational equality of online curriculum is being realized by students, institutions, and employers across the board. The benefits of a college education through quality online initiatives are now becoming more accessible to students that simply cannot commit to the constraints of a traditional campus setting.

Similar benefits can be passed onto K-12 students as well—flexibility, convenience, and personalization. It will be interesting to see if technology will help education equity improve over the next few years.


One Reply to “Designer Learning Experiences: Bridging the Gap for Low-Income and Minority Students”

  1. Thank you for the research you have done and the time you have taken to write articles highlighting these issues. As a former teacher in both a city public and charter school, I have found that one of the greatest issues that perpetuates continued racial inequity in education is the lack of developed curriculum across grades. For the most part, teachers are inventing their curriculum, buying it offline or being given a curriculum in one grade that is not connected or built upon curriculum developed in prior grades. (this, of course may not be all districts in the country, but given the frequent use from teachers all over the country on websites like Teachers Pay Teachers, and my experience, I can safely say that there is an active trend toward teacher responsibility for the development of curriculum. The charter school where I taught, furthermore, was filled with inexperienced teachers who did not have years of knowledge about the mandatory tests students take that influence both their futures and the future of the schools. Even in a classroom where a teacher might be given a curriculum, the curriculum, as in my experience, is not always highly developed. For example, students were not taught grammar at either of my schools, but were expected to answer grammatical questions on state exams. Furthermore, a lot of curriculum is still presented in a manner in which students are required to sit at desks for 60 to 80 minutes almost the entire day as well as to remain silent for directed periods (not silent because the teacher is talking and the students are showing respect, but silent because those are the rules of the first five minutes of class, for example and are in place for the school’s discipline policy). The problem with a lot of rigid rules around discipline is that for a teacher to enforce the school’s disciplinary requirements (most notably I would say this was the case in my experience at a “traditional” charter school), the teacher must make her lesson activities passive. Students must be sitting and writing, pencils in hand, or the teacher is given a negative evaluation. Students in my classes that were pegged as the problem kids, did really well when I put books in my classroom and allowed them to stand up and choose a book to read. This is because they were given some freedom of movement and choice which was so attractive to kids who are required to walk on the middle hallway tile, stay silent for certain periods of the day, and are being harassed for uniform violations like an untucked shirt. One brilliant and incredibly respectful student (he was one of those adults in a kid’s body) was not allowed to participate in our school relay race day because he had lost points on his behavioral tracker every week for not tucking in his shirt. He had no other violations except for the untucked shirt, and he kept it untucked because his classmates harassed him when he tucked it in. At the school, students were taught compliance and dependency, and, in turn, some of them resented this (while a large majority still focused on the classwork because they were hungry for whatever stimulation they could receive!) However, the greatest problem of all is simply that we are still racially segregated as a society. I went to a “white” school and learned NOTHING about African history, and have had no idea what influence it has had on my culture. The only philosophy and history I really learned was European. I was taught to glorify Rome and Greece. Even when we discussed race in America through books and movies, we always were exposed to stories centered around white protagonists who learned racism was bad and decided to “help” black people. That, in and of itself, is a condescension. Further legal action needs to be taken to demand strong and diverse curriculum that necessarily includes African and Native American history etc. as well as advocacy that pressures and embarrasses people until they realize their complacency in racism is as simple as sending their kids to the “good” schools, which is really a term to indicate ” white schools.” My children will be attending an integrated school. Period. These white schools aren’t good schools because they are teaching children to be racist by glorifying European history and the white narrative of American history as well. Shame on us.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *