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Give Kids a Chance – They Might Surprise You

October 7, 2011

I read an article in the New York Times the other day about the National Math and Science Initiative, a program operating in several states designed to promote college level advanced placement courses for high school students.  The purpose of the program was to combine incentives along with additional supports to encourage students who traditionally didn’t think of themselves as capable of advanced coursework to take these courses and succeed.  The program offered financial incentives to both the students and the teacher for passing the Advanced Placement exam along with afternoon and weekend tutoring sessions and active recruitment of students who typically did not enroll in these courses.  The results, according to the article, were extraordinary with dramatic increases in the number of students enrolling in AP courses and passage rates of the college level exam significantly higher than the national average.

The article in part focuses on which of the specific interventions contributed to the success of the program.  Is it the money?  Is it the dynamic teachers?  Is it the extra tutoring?  Is it the recruitment?  What struck me however after reading the article was not so much the question of what worked (although that certainly is an important question in terms of replicating its success) but rather the shift in mentality described by one of the teachers interviewed. He is quoted as saying that he previously though that “only a tiny group of students – the ‘smart kids’ – were capable of advanced coursework.”  Now at his school many who he previously wouldn’t have considered as capable, including large numbers of Hispanic and African American students, have proven him wrong and given him a whole new perspective.

The issue of expectations is clearly a factor in the educational achievement levels of disadvantaged youth.   The Institute for Higher Education Policy, in a 2005 report found that foster youth often do not attend college because they lack adult mentor who can provide them with the necessary motivation and information to attend college.  The report author concluded that “The primary recommendation to improve this situation is for those responsible for the care and education of foster youth to have high expectations for the educational attainment of these youth.”  Under AB 12, more young people who enter adulthood in the foster care system will have the opportunity to pursue higher education than ever before.  But will this promise be realized?  Stories like the one in the NYT serve as reminder that our assumptions about an individual young person’s capacity based on their history, the statistics and our own biases should be routinely questioned.  To me the most important piece of this story is not what helped these kids to succeed, but rather the mere fact that they did – despite their low incomes, troubled backgrounds and previous lack of experience with academically rigorous coursework.  How many more young people are there out there that could do just as well given the right support, incentives and encouragement?  I hope that over the next several years as AB 12 rolls out, we have a chance to find out.

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