Schooling Squared

by Julian Fefer, Editor in Chief, Carrie Ryter, Editor in Chief & Donny Tou, Features Contributor
graphic by Kaila Hanna and Emily Zhang

From writing petitions to speaking at School Committee meetings to contacting politicians, South parent Josh Feinberg* braced to do whatever it took to get his daughters back to in-person learning this year. When South’s in-person prospects looked less-than-promising, he surveyed his daughter junior Olivia Feinberg’s* options, including repeating a grade at another school or studying abroad.

Resigned to continuing at South, Olivia started the year taking an online AP U.S. History course and working with a private math and biology tutor to supplement the South curriculum. When these proved insufficient, Olivia made a mid-year switch to a local private school, where she is in person four days a week.

“They had one spot, and my parents were just like, ‘this is insane that we could even find a spot for you, that they were willing to take you in the middle of the year in a pandemic and catch you up,’” Olivia said. “They were like, ‘you kind of need to do this.’ And so I went.” 

Olivia is not alone. Public education thrown into upheaval amidst the pandemic, affluent families have turned to supplemental educational opportunities, exacerbating socioeconomic and racial educational inequities and highlighting the tension between communal benefit and individual gain.

One-on-one tutoring, cost-prohibitive extracurriculars and outside-of-school academic programs — supplemental educational opportunities coined “second schooling” — are just the newest strategies employed by affluent families to enhance their children’s learning. 

Assistant Professor of Education at the University of Maryland Campbell Scribner said Supreme Court decisions, coupled with state-level policies, fundamentally limit individual- or school-level efforts to equalize educational outcomes.

Richard Weissbourd, a Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) senior lecturer and the founder of Making Caring Common, a HGSE project dedicated to raising justice-seeking over success-oriented youth, said that parents’ rationale is understandable but precludes progress.

“People want to do what’s best for their kids, but in some communities, there’s not a lot of thinking about other people’s kids,” he said. “What can we do in this moment to reduce these disparities? There’s a lot of talk about it, but there’s not a lot of action.”

Pawan Dhingra, professor of sociology at Amherst College, found that parents seeking second-schooling opportunities for their children triggers a vicious cycle in which each parent feels the need to propel their child ahead. 

Director of guidance Dan Rubin said the ultimate goal is often to differentiate oneself or one’s child in the college admissions process. 

  “I will always lead with ‘To what end? What’s your purpose of doing this? Are you doing this because it’s something that you are truly, genuinely excited to learn about and your motivation is learning, or are you doing this because you think it will “look good” to someone?’” he said. He said the responses are often disheartening.

The prevalence of second schooling has set the standard in public schools, history teacher Kyle Stark said.

“[A student] will write something for me. I’ll give feedback. Next paper is completely different, really huge improvement,” he said. “And then the next paper goes back to the way it was before. And you’re like, ‘Okay, I guess the tutor was on vacation for this one.’”

Rubin said some coursework is practically structured around the assumption that all students receive extra help.

“I have heard over and over and over again, the perception of parents in the community is — [and] it’s possibly a reality — that if you do not do supplemental math work … our honors math sequence feels really inaccessible,” he said.

When the pandemic hit, the base level of public school education across the country plummeted. At South, this meant a decreased workload and a shift toward social-emotional learning and anti-racist pedagogy, Olivia said, adding that she had forgotten how to write an essay. And in less affluent districts, the effects were even more dire, Weissbourd said, noting that health and economic crises have compounded schooling disruptions.

“[In] a lot of communities, particularly low-income communities and communities of color, people are dealing with terribles stresses and losses. They’re dealing with grief of loss of loved ones; they’re dealing with job losses, so families are under stress, a lot of stress, which has big effects on educational outcomes,” he said.

Myrtha Chang, owner of local Mathnasium centers, said in an email that families with the means to do so have found an antidote to a net loss of learning: second schooling

The National Center for Education Statistics found that white students receive paid private tutoring services at a rate quadruple that of Hispanic students and double that of Black students. 

It seems that the increased prevalence of second schooling is here to stay, at least while personal benefit drives individuals’ decisions.

“I sound insane. I sound, I am, privileged,” Olivia said. “I agree it was extremely privileged, but I think when I was given an opportunity, I didn’t want to make myself suffer.”

The scariest part? These disparities won’t go away with the pandemic. When zip codes can predict SAT scores, doors remain perpetually open for some demographics and forever locked for others, fueling a negative feedback loop that all-but ensures inequitable outcomes split along socioeconomic and racial lines.

Change cannot come from those oppressed by the system; rather, it must come as a result of government-led efforts, educational equity activist Lana Perice said in writing.

“This burden of America’s educational faults lies with the leaders of our democracy — not with the children who suffer through America’s education — who fail to recognize the real value education could create if we chose to try to honor our nation’s youth for their empowering advocacy and potential,” she wrote.

For Scribner, when identifying solutions to the disparate access to second schooling, the idea of supplemental educational resources is not as clear-cut as it might seem. He said that it’s time to broaden the definition of education.

“When you say seeking an additional education, if what you mean is that people are going to go volunteer at their local community garden — great,” he said. “If what you mean is they’re going to get a crash course in how to game the SAT and raise their SAT score to get into a better college … I don’t want that.” 

Due to his positive experience with a private debate coach, junior Jasper Datta said that rather than removing second-schooling opportunities from those with privilege, the goal should be to expand such opportunities to those without. 

In this vein, math teacher Vittoria Macadino-Francois is involved in two initiatives — Homework Club and the Calculus Project. Homework Club typically offers an in-school space and teacher support for any student to work on assignments after school but is not running this year. Macadino-Francois said that such efforts seek to counter cost-prohibitive second schooling. The Calculus Project, which is running in a modified, virtual form this year, seeks specifically to close the race-based achievement gap within Newton.

The anticipated post-pandemic educational disparities are staggering. However, Weissbourd is not ready to forego all pedagogical changes that stemmed from the need to reimagine schooling last March. He said that the pandemic has forced educators to rapidly develop virtual schooling models and forge pathways for collaboration that can be used across geographic divides, both of which can be applied upon returning to school to develop strategies to combat educational inequities.

Specifically, he cited the potential for pooling counseling resources among affluent schools, where student-to-counselor ratios are low, and poorly funded schools, where one counselor might be responsible for as many as 500 students; virtually bringing top-tier educators to support teachers in struggling schools; and using virtual learning platforms to radically expand access to higher education for young people unable to attend traditional colleges.

Rubin said he’s hearing more and more conversations surrounding educational equity, making him optimistic that change is on the horizon. 

“There was a period of time when I think there was a widespread belief that if you had the wealth to create those opportunities for your children … you’d be sort of foolish not to flex those muscles and take advantage of opportunities where you can,” he said. “As a society, we’ve gotten better at talking about issues about equity and challenging where wealth and privilege [are] serving as a proxy for merit and achievement.”

While calls for a return to “normalcy” abound, Weissbourd said that post-pandemic schooling poses a unique opportunity for much-needed change.

“None of these things are going to be easy. … The pull of the status quo is going to be very strong. It’s going to be very easy to fall back into the old patterns and routines,” he said. “If [we] are really strategic and thoughtful and push, we can make some really significant changes that advance equity.”