What Does Educational Opportunity Mean?

Mike Rose, the education writer and professor of education at UCLA, has spent a good part of his life examining the meaning of educational opportunity.  In Why School? (2009 and expanded in 2014), Rose considers how students experience opportunity at school: “I’m especially interested in what opportunity feels like. Discussions of opportunity are often abstract—as in ideological debate—or conducted at a broad structural level—as in policy deliberation.  But what is the experience of opportunity?” (Why School?, p. 14)

In a much earlier exploration, the 1989, Lives on the Boundary, part of it biographical, Rose investigates the ways educators connect with students and the role of quality literacy and remedial education: “Lives on the Boundary concerns language and human connection, literacy and culture, and it focuses on those who have trouble reading and writing in the schools and the workplace. It is a book about the abilities hidden by class and cultural barriers. And it is a book about movement: about what happens as people who have failed begin to participate in the educational system that has seemed so harsh and distant to them. We are a nation obsessed with evaluating our children, with calibrating their exact distance from some ideal benchmark… All students cringe under the scrutiny, but those most harshly affected, least successful in the completion, possess some of our greatest unperceived riches.” (Lives on the Boundary, p. xi)

In the 2012, Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education, Rose explores the role of  community college programs to educate adults and provide technical training: “Equal opportunity is something every conservative affirms as a core American value. Yet in no realistic sense of the word does anything like equal opportunity exist toward the bottom of the income ladder… Recent studies show that parental income has a greater effect on children’s success in America than in other developed countries… Many of the students I’ve taught at UCLA who come from well-to-do families grew up in a world of museums, music lessons, tutoring, sports programs, travel, up-to-date educational technologies, after-school and summer programs geared toward the arts or sciences.  All this is a supplement to attending good to exceptional public or private schools.  Because their parents are educated, they can provide all kinds of assistance with homework, with navigating school, with advocacy.  These parents are doing everything possible to create maximum opportunity for their kids, often with considerable anxiety and expense… (P)oor parents would do the same if they could.  But it would require quite a distortion to see young people from affluent and poor backgrounds as having equal opportunity at academic and career success.” (Back to School, p. 21)

In a new blog post just last week, Rose, who has been studying educational opportunity for an entire career, describes how a recent experience expanded his own understanding of the fragility of the lives of the students whose needs are greatest.

A friend who has endowed a small education foundation invited Rose to read letters of appreciation, sent after applicants—students at a community college—were awarded very small, one time grants of $500 to $1000: “The letters provide a view into the lives of successful students, people who are close to completing a two-year degree, or about to transfer to a university, or are finishing a nursing program and preparing to take the licensing exam. The letters convey a detailed, vivid sense of how precarious these students’ lives are. Money for the bus or gas for the car is a big thing.  People don’t get their textbooks on time because they are searching for the lowest price. Balancing school, work, and family is intensely demanding, and more often than not, it is school that suffers. (An aside: A just-published report from the College Futures Foundation reveals that among students in California two-and four-year colleges, housing and food costs—not just tuition—are increasingly becoming barriers to college completion.) Almost all of the letters reveal a web of responsibilities to other family members beyond one’s own spouse and children. The letters are graceful, and brimming with gratitude, and exude drive and determination and immense strength, but they also reveal how one mishap, one piece of bad luck, an accident, a lost job, illness—can jeopardize what these people have worked so hard to attain. The evaporation of their American Dream.”

The emergency grants Rose describes cannot compensate for the depth of overall poverty challenging these students or the explosion these days of structural inequality: “The causes and scope of this economic insecurity, of course, are way beyond what can be remedied with a small grant. A few hundred bucks will not alleviate chronic housing or food insecurity. But a quick, targeted award can help in an emergency: can repair a car needed for school and work, replace a stolen computer, pay for food or rent during a time when a breadwinner is recuperating from surgery.  Or the funds can be used for one-time expenses that are crucial for students’ careers. A number of the letter writers will use their award to pay for their nursing licensing exam, several noting that without that award, their certification would be delayed.”

I grew up in northern Montana, and interested in Montana’s giant, end-of-September snowstorm this past week, I happened to look at my own hometown newspaper, the Havre Daily News.  Once on the newspaper’s website, I kept reading and discovered an obituary describing the life of the very kind of student Rose has written about. This student, Norma Jean King — He Mani Wi, “Mountain Walks”– lived all her life in Hays, Montana, in the Fort Belknap Indian Community. “Norma was a proud cultural member of the Little Shell Metis Tribe and embraced her husband’s Assiniboine culture also.” This woman epitomizes determination as well as the impact on the broader community of someone who, in very isolated and what might have been limited circumstances, pursued an education.  After her high school graduation in 1963, Norma Jean King, “worked as a clerk for Kerns store until 1969, when she began working as an aide at the old Hays School. It was there where she decided to extend her passion in education, so Norma worked and went to college all at the same time. She enrolled in the first-of-its-kind in the area ‘distance learning’ program called Urban Rural out of the College of Great Falls. The satellite classes were based at the old Hays School Campus in a trailer. In 1975, Norma graduated from College of Great Falls with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education. She applied at the Hays School and immediately started working as a teacher as she began her long career in education… In 1988, Norma earned her master’s degree in education administration from MSU (Montana State University) in Bozeman. Norma received many certificates in education and moved from teaching at the elementary level to the junior high and high school levels, eventually working her way up to principal, also in those three levels. She attained working at the highest level as superintendent.”

There is no evidence that Norma Jean King needed the kind of emergency financial help Mike Rose describes in his recent blog, but her life is a reminder that education can be a very complicated balancing act for people who do not come from backgrounds where parents can provide ample enrichment and funding. Her life exemplifies the significance of education not only for her but also for the many students she taught and the schools she led during her long and very important career in Hays, Montana.

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