End of Affirmative Action? What you can do for your students today

Tomorrow the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on what many believe will be the case that ends affirmative action as we know it in higher education. For those of us who teach students of color this could be a game changer in terms of who will and will not be admitted to universities in the future. I think affirmative action has played a critical role as an equalizing force in our country over the past several decades. Additionally, I know from experience racial diversity increases the richness of any educational experience. However I wonder if affirmative action has been saddled with too much hope and attention. There was a great op-ed piece this week in the New York Times that suggested beginning the work of racial equally at the collegiate level is too late. The author suggested those of us interested in closing the achievement gap begin as early as possible and consider factors beyond education like healthcare, nutrition, and home life.

Given the potential loss of affirmative action, what can we as teachers do today to help our students of color and from low-income backgrounds gain access to college? One of the most popular ways is to splash college paraphernalia – banners, flags, t-shirts, names, mascots, etc. – all over a school. I think this can be helpful but a more authentic way to do this is to promote and talk about the actual college you attended. I hung my matted and framed diploma in my classroom. I made it a point to talk about the activities and clubs I was involved with during college. I kept a copy of my honors thesis in my classroom and often forced students to read a chapter of it. I wore a t-shirt from my college on informal Fridays.

All of the above is becoming more and more standard. One of the most powerful ways I’ve seen to connect students to college is to take them to an actual college campus. Set up a tour, let them do research in the library, ask a professor if they can sit in on a lecture.

Beyond all of these surface connects, the absolute most important thing we can do to get our students started in the direction of college is to demand they do rigorous, college-preparatory work. Conduct socratic seminars and discussions around various texts and problems (even in math!). Assign expository essays that require research (even in art!). Require students to read demanding non-fiction texts (even in everything!). In addition to rigorous work make sure to take some time to build college level organizational skills like time management, productive stress relief, and systems for keeping track of notes and materials. What good have we done if we elevate students expectations about attending college and then do not prepare them for what they will encounter?

How are you preparing students for college?

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