Sunday, October 18, 2015

STEM education and equality of opportunity

Friday evening I went to the Katy Independent School District's Robert R. Shaw Center for STEAM, where they were having a Science Movie Night (pdf).  The science and technology policy part of Rice's Baker Institute for Public Policy had put the organizers in touch with me.  It was a very fun time.   On a night when there were two (!) homecoming high school football games next door, the movie night drew about 80 highly engaged students.  After the film, they stayed and we talked about the science of the film (what it got right and what they fudged) for another half an hour.  It was a great time.

The Shaw Center is amazing - it's a fantastic space, something like 10000 sq ft of reconfigurable maker-space, with a shop, immersive labs, and it provides a home to more than one of Katy ISD's robotics teams.  Frankly, this place rivals or exceeds the available undergrad lab facilities at many universities.  Katy is a reasonably affluent suburb of Houston, and I was floored to learn that this great science/engineering facility was built with district money, not donations or corporate sponsorship/underwriting.  This is a case where public school funding has been deliberately and consciously dedicated to providing a district-wide resource for hands-on science and engineering learning.

In a study in contrasts, my sons and I then volunteered Saturday morning at the Teachers Aid facility run by the Houston Food Bank.  At the Teachers Aid facility, teachers from qualifying schools (where 70+% of the enrollment is sufficiently low-income that they qualify for free lunches) can arrive, by appointment, and pick up basic school supplies (pencils, pens, notebooks) for their students.  In three hours we helped about 70 teachers who serve more than 3000 students.  These are teachers who chose to come in on their own time, to get basic supplies that neither their schools nor the students themselves can afford.  

It's appalling to see the divergence in basic educational opportunities between the more affluent school districts and the economically disadvantaged.  We have to do better.  Making sure that children, regardless of their background, have access to a good education should be a guiding principle of our society, not something viewed as pie-in-the-sky or politically tainted.  It amazes me that some people seem to disagree with this.

7 comments:

Anzel said...

Which is, honestly, why I donate to my local community college instead of Rice.

Anonymous said...

Doug, I can all but guarantee that most people agree with you, but in my view, the problem runs much deeper and requires a cultural shift that is far easier said than done. Frankly, it is not respectable, prestigious, or financially secure to donate one's time and energy to helping those of a lower socioeconomic status reach their highest level. If given a choice between a faculty position at a prestigious, well-endowed private research university, or an urban university serving low income students in the inner city, what is a typical postdoc going to choose 95% of the time? Those who do work for such institutions are often viewed as 'failures' by those at more 'elite' places. I applaud you and your sons for being an example of those who are successful yet do not let it get to your head, but I fear that people like you are far too small a minority right now.

Douglas Natelson said...

Thanks for the comments. Anon., I was not particularly driving at the issue of where people choose to work. Rather, there are people in the state legislature here, for example, who simply do not believe in the value of public education, who see public schools as a money-pit and public school teachers as lazy, and who seem to think that economically disadvantaged children should just grab those bootstraps and pull harder (though they would not agree with that characterization). I was trying to stop myself before turning the blog post into a screed about public education, since that's not what most of my readers come here to see.

Don Monroe said...

Although money isn't everything, the model in which local taxes determine local K-12 funding is a major driver of inequality of opportunity and of segregation. When people are so mobile, how can anyone argue that the public good of education stops at the city limits?

Anonymous said...

Doug, AMEN. And thanks for being a good citizen.

Don, I agree with your money remark. Your mobility remark is I think not entirely correct though; mobility is much, MUCH lower for lower socio-economic classes.

Douglas Natelson said...

Don, Texas actually has an inherent conflict in its state constitution (as amended) and associated laws. On the one hand, article 7 sec 1 of the Texas constitution says "General diffusion of knowledge being essential to the preservation of the liberties and rights of the people, it shall be the duty of the Legislature of the State to establish and make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools." On the other hand (see here), the state constitution prohibits state-level property taxes, and people have litigated that funding plans that transfer resources (for education) from wealthy areas to poor areas are de facto property taxes and thus forbidden. They've been trying to fix this mess for decades, and it's not clear how it's solvable if there is an influential bunch of people willing to sue to prevent wealthier communities from subsidizing the education of poorer communities.

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