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Analyzing Equitable Education in Jane Margolis' Stuck in the Shallow End

Analyzing Equitable Education in Jane Margolis' Stuck in the Shallow End

Written by Laura Beth Fay
August 30, 2010

What John Dewey (1916) said almost a century ago is still true today: education will only prepare people for life in a democracy when the educational experience is also democratic. Unfortunately, Stuck in the Shallow End reveals how undemocratic our educational system still is in this technology age. (9)

In Stuck in the Shallow End, Jane Margolis, senior researcher at the Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access at UCLA, along with her team of researchers, report on a three-year study funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.  They seek to answer the question, “Why are so few underrepresented minority high school students learning computer science?” While investigating this question in three public high schools in the Los Angeles public school district, Margolis found that many factors contribute to both racial and gender inequity throughout the educational system and that technology, once thought to be the “great equalizer,” only widens the achievement gap, particularly when technology use is not supported by quality curriculum.

The title of the book comes from what Margolis terms an “unlikely metaphor.” In the first chapter of the book she describes the significant absence of minority participants in the sport of swimming. She explains the violent history of the sport’s segregation, citing various incidents of mob attack and unjust exclusion throughout the Jim Crow period of American History. The connection between swimming and education becomes apparent when Margolis explains that the explicit segregation of the past has not gone away as times have become more tolerant, but that it has transformed into more implicit exclusion in the sport. The segregation is now two-fold: first, members of the public adopted a belief that minority groups possess biological differences that make it impossible for them to excel at the sport of swimming. Second, minority children have grown up with an inherent fear of the water that has been passed through many generations.

During interviews with the students in the LA public school district, Margolis and her team saw evidence of this type of inherent stereotyping. In chapters two, three, and four, their experiences at these schools are described in detail and some of the conversations with students and teachers are transcribed.

Comments from Westward students also provide great insight into what type of person is perceived as ‘special’ enough to pursue computer science. For many students, intelligence, when linked with a particular racial group, was most commonly linked with whites and Asians…Fernando, who is Latino, described a typical computer scientist this way: ‘A dude…probably white or Chinese, ’cause they’re, like, smart and they like those things.’ (60)

In addition to believing that the “smart” people are most commonly associated with a particular racial group, many students have come to see higher level classes and technologically rich environments as hostile to minorities. In a focus group conducted by the research team the following opinion was revealed about minority students who brave technology education:

They’ll condescend to you, like [you are not] as smart as them or something like that. Like you’ll ask ’em a question or you’ll try to have input on what they’re saying…[and] they won’t really take in what you put in. They won’t really use what you said or anything like that. Like if they ask you a question, and you give ’em an answer, they won’t really take it as a valid answer or something like that. But if a white kid does…they will. (86)

As the book continues, Margolis describes how this process of implicit segregation has left many schools throughout the country in the shallow end of the technological pool. For many years there has been a policy shift in this country that has pushed for the wiring of every school so that every student, regardless of socio-economic status, would have access to the technology that drives the global society. Unfortunately, Margolis shows that there is so much more that needs to be done:

…there is another aspect of technology policy that goes beyond the provision of equipment and is anything but straightforward…Technology policies have been successful at increasing the number and quality of computers in schools serving low-income students, but they have not addressed the underlying distribution of knowledge…When one identifies which students are going beyond learning basic computer literacy skills, critical gaps are revealed – gaps that leave students from different backgrounds prepared for very different futures. (120)

At the conclusion of her research, Margolis felt an obligation to the schools that she had worked with and could not leave them without offering a way to escape from the shallow waters. Chapter five is entitled “Teachers as Potential Change Agents,” and it outlines how Margolis has been able to successfully establish an intricate support system for public school teachers who wish to improve the quality of technology education. She has built a partnership between the LA public school teachers and administrators and the UCLA professors of education and computer science. Through this program, teachers have been able to participate in quality professional development and enriching learning communities. These teachers then take their new knowledge back to their classrooms where they redesign curricula in order to level the playing field for their students.

Margolis leaves her readers with a final thought about the connection between the segregated history of swimming and the current state of educational inequality:

…we hope that educators who are committed to equity will consider our metaphor, not as a random choice or simply a literary device, but as a useful entry point for thinking about the spaces and subjects in schools that either don’t exist or are still segregated, and then talk with others about why this is so. And ultimately we hope these conversations will help open access to the deeper waters of education for all students. (140)

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