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All those concerned with higher education in Illinois have been following the “Admissions-Gate” investigation with great interest.  We are, quite naturally, appalled that unqualified candidates for admission to the undergraduate, graduate, and professional programs gained entrance to our public university through the unwarranted influence of politicians, trustees, and administrators.  We can all be thankful that public hearings devoted to this matter will certainly result in much needed reforms.  Unfortunately, the sad fact of the matter is that well-connected, affluent students too often receive all sorts of breaks up and down the educational ladder.  In higher education, this advantage manifests in preferences regarding admission; in the K-12 years, this advantage shows up in more subtle ways that, nonetheless, cause significant harm to the educations of our at-risk students.

Regarding favoritism at the primary and secondary school levels, one must point out right at the start that this problem does not come about because the adults in charge want to harm our children—educators work in education precisely because they want to see their students succeed.  However, the question of what is help and what is unwarranted advantage is important to consider.

For example, most would agree that it is perfectly right and proper for a high school teacher to write a glowing college recommendation for an excellent and hardworking student.  However, what should one do about the parent who complains to an administrator that a letter of recommendation is not quite glowing enough, particularly if the parent has some pull with the local Board of Education?

What happens if a group of middle school students misbehaves in class—perhaps more than once?  Should the teacher or administrator give the same punishment to all, or should we take the “overall citizenship” of individual students into account?  Should the “good” child receive a lesser punishment than the “bad” one for exactly the same offense?

If there is a slot available in an academic enrichment program in a elementary school, should the slot be given to the student whose mother is Vice President of the PTSA or the student whose mother, except on the night of the Open House, has never set foot in the school building because she works two jobs?  More to the point, which child is, given what we know about human nature and schoolhouse politics, more likely to receive the coveted placement?

It is, of course, a matter of fact that parents will typically angle for whatever advantage they can garner for their children—it would be exceedingly odd if they did not—and we likewise want to offer rewards for hard work and achievement.  However, there are two significant problems with allowing these factors to play out unchecked.  First of all, it is a plain fact that parents of a higher socio-economic status are generally going to be the ones sitting on the schoolhouse steps every day advocating for their child; they understand how the system of academic and social honors operates and have the time and casual affluence to work it to their child’s full advantage.  In addition, when it comes to academic achievement, it is a truism that good grades and academic honors tend to operate like the proverbial snowball rolling down a hill.  The students who find a way to perform well early tend to keep performing at a high level throughout their years in public school—and the low performers keep getting shunted into remedial classes that offer no chance to ever catch up and get back on track.

Fairness aside, the manner in which schools typically ladle out advantage and disadvantage based on parental pull and early (and often inaccurate) assessments of a child’s potential significantly de-motivates students who are not part of the “in group” and perpetuates a cycle of poor achievement for a significant segment of students.  If you do not believe that at-risk children and adolescents are keenly aware of the casual injustices around them, take the time to ask.  You may be surprised by just how aware they are of their “out group” status and how it influences their interest and effort.

The simple and direct solution is, of course, for teachers and administrators to make a special effort to teach—and treat—all students alike.  However, there is nothing simple and direct when it comes to stamping out a climate of favoritism—just ask the administrators at the University of Illinois if you have any doubts.  Nonetheless, school board members, administrators, and teachers must re-think the culture in which they operate in order to allow every child in our public schools the opportunity to reach their fullest potential.  Although pulling strings to help a “good” kid may seem benign on its face, the flip side is that a much larger group of children and adolescents is frozen out by these efforts.  If we want to see achievement across the board, we must commit ourselves to cherishing and nurturing every single student with the same fervor.  Failing this, we will see a cohort of our students continue to fall behind due to factors that are beyond their control because they simply have less access to the millions of small breaks other students take for granted.