In an article called “When the Rules are Fair, but the Game isn’t” (from Multicultural Education, v13 n1 p14 Fall 2005), authors Muktha Jost, Edward L. Whitfield, and Mark Jost discuss the assumption that the “game” of public education is now fair and equal for everyone due to the more than 60 years since the Brown v. Board of Education ruling which desegregated American public schools. For instance, they discuss how
“the division of children into various types of exceptional classes has effectively segregated classrooms where those with gifted and talented programs tend to be mostly White and those with emphasis on learning difficulties or emotional and behavioral problems remain overwhelmingly Black. These divisions have been defended as either being the natural result of innate differences in the aptitudes of the children or the result of inadequate experiences in the home…”
Both of these stances in effect lay blame on the students themselves or their families for a perceived inadequacy. But the authors, in their workshops, ask teachers to examine the idea of parental involvement in education, and the assumption that families living in poverty are “less involved” than middle-class families:
“We ask them whether it’s fair to say that parental involvement is the same for everyone. For low-income parents with three jobs, or living with the stress of searching for jobs, isn’t struggling to take care of the necessities for the family also an important part of parental involvement, particularly in lieu of showing up at school and neglecting those family responsibilities?”
This shift in perspective “helps [teachers] shift their perspective from one of ‘laying blame’ to analyzing power and poverty in their communities.”
Another interesting exercise the authors engage in with teachers is the familiar board game of Monopoly, but with a twist: the rules are the same, except that players enter the game in staggered intervals. You can read the article for the exact way the game is set up, but the authors note that the game has consistent results:
“◆ The group that begins the game first always produces the winner.
◆ Winners typically are in the same sequence as the order of the players entering the game.
◆ The subsequent groups seldom build assets that equal those of the first group; the initial stages are very frustrating for late-entering groups.
◆ Discouraged by their inability to get a lead in the game, the groups that start late often roll their die wishing to land in jail, so they could just “be” and not have to pay out.
◆ Groups that start later often lose their motivation to continue to play the game.”
This “historical and cumulative privilege” is one reason societal advantages and disadvantages are echoed in schools and education, yet teachers and schools are thought to be able to produce equal educational results in an unfair social system that allows more than 16 million children to live in poverty, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics quoted in a 2012 Frontline story called “By the Numbers: Childhood Poverty in the U.S.” –with all its concomitant ills such as food insecurity; lack of safe, secure, or adequate housing; and lack of regular medical care.
According to an analysis cited in the same article from Columbia University’s National Center for Children in Poverty, “The longer a child lives in poverty, the tougher it can be for them to climb out later in life…45 percent of people who spent at least half of their childhood in poverty were poor at age 35… [while] among those who spent less than half of their childhood in poverty, just 8 percent were poor at age 35.”
So according the rules, all children in this country are entitled to a free K-12 public education in desegregated schools, and that’s fair; but the game is far from being played on a level field. Until we address the larger issue of societal inequity, the “game” will remain unfair.