Living and Studying Issues of Educational Equity | Teachers College Columbia University

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Living and Studying Issues of Educational Equity

Living and Studying Issues of Educational Equity
Kathy Hill:  Master of Arts, Sociology and Education 
When she was in high school, Kathy Hill’s family moved from Los Angeles to Ventura County, one of the wealthiest in California, “so that my brother and I would have superior educational opportunities,” she says. They were right. Her friends in the city did not have access to Advanced Placement courses, whereas in the suburbs, Hill did, and she did well enough to get into Harvard. But it bothered her that, while her suburban town was “pretty diverse racially and socioeconomically, the schools were really tracked. I was one of the few students of color in the honors classes.”

Hill’s senior thesis at Harvard was about the school desegregation battles in Boston. That research, she says, “led me to want to be a part of social justice right now and to be involved in the educational system currently.” While working for Teach for America and then an after-school program in the South Bronx, she discovered the work of TC professors including Amy Stuart Wells, a professor of sociology and education who studies school desegregation and tracking. Hill entered the College two years ago, and this week she received her Master’s of Arts Degree in Sociology and Education. She likes TC so much, she’s staying, along with classmate Lauren Fox, to get her doctorate degree.

For her master’s thesis, Hill studied how students in gifted and talented programs in New York City defined intelligence and academic merit. “I asked the students how they define a smart kid,” Hill recalls. “A lot of them talked about doing well on specialized high school tests, and a lot of them talked about ‘good schools’ as consisting of students who score well on these standardized tests.”

This equation of intelligence with test scores is common but problematic, Hill discovered. Much of what the tests measure is tied to social class. Low income children, for example, often have issues at home that can adversely affect their scores. And yet, “we measure schools solely on these rather narrow standardized tests, and often we use that to determine whether or not a school is failing or a school is successful, whether students are failing or successful,” Hill says.

Moreover, many children in gifted and talented programs test into them at a very early age and stay on the gifted track through high school. Studies have shown that white, affluent children, who tend to have more resources at home, outperform minority children. “So while New York City has very large African American and Latino populations, gifted and talented programs are predominantly white and predominantly really affluent,” Hill says. “It becomes problematic, because we associate the most intelligent students with being of a certain social class and a certain race. It’s very important how students define their own intelligence and the intelligence of their peers.” Lauren Fox, Hill’s colleague on the project, represented the group when she delivered a paper on the research at the American Education Research Association in Denver in April.

Hill is working with Wells and the same team on another project, funded by the Ford Foundation, which examines inequality through the lenses of research, leadership, political movements and media. “All these pieces are tied in the end to trying to build knowledge around social justice and reframe the policy debate that we have around schools and issues of educational equity,” says Hill, who is staying at TC to complete this project and pursue her doctoral degree.

Though she may stay in academia, the most important thing to Hill is that her research gets used in policy and organizing discussions. She sees some signs that, in Washington and at the grassroots, education policy could shift away from its heavy reliance on standardized testing. “The timing of the Ford Foundation project is so relevant,” she says. “There does seem to be some fatigue at looking at educational policy solutions through the lens of standards and accountability.”

Published Thursday, May. 27, 2010


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