During a recent school break I settled on my couch to watch the latest Hollywood superhero blockbuster. Benedict Cumberbatch employs his now trademark cutesy arrogance in the title role of Dr. Strange, the world’s greatest surgeon until a crippling car crash crushes his hands. It turns out only Strange himself would have had the surgical skill to save his manual dexterity. Dramatic irony!
Just prior to his fateful accident, the good doctor pawns off a notoriously tricky procedure to a (presumably) lesser surgeon, since Strange is too smart to risk his perfect record. In a system of ranking and recordkeeping that punishes risk-taking, saving a person’s life can seem like a losing proposition.
As an educator, this throwaway line took me right out of vacation mode and into thinking about educational policy. So much of public and higher education is focused on preparing the best and brightest to be future leaders and professionals, to the exclusion of everybody else. But do we even accomplish this controversial goal?
Grade point average (GPA) is closely tied to socioeconomic status, and this is no surprise. It’s not just a child’s access to private schools and paid tutors that aid in shaping what we perceive to be successful students. The children of doctors and lawyers come into the school system with a set of behaviours, perspectives and prior knowledge that match our picture of the good student. The systemic social advantage of the privileged is what French sociologist and philosopher Pierre Bourdieu referred to as cultural capital, and it’s at least as valuable as raw spending power.
At their worst, students with high cultural capital game the system— arguing for higher grades, avoiding tougher courses in which they may not receive an A, and telling teachers only what they think they want to hear. It’s only one mechanism that favours the privileged, but it’s an important one.
But one of the more overlooked effects of this phenomenon is a glut of affluent and mediocre applicants to elite programs: straight-A students who struggle to demonstrate deep cognitive skills on tough admission tests like the GMAT, LSAT or MCAT. From this reality has sprung the multi-billion dollar test prep industry. A former colleague described the frustration of “beating basic graduate thinking into people who have no business going to graduate school.” I sheepishly admit that for a time I did some of that beating. And it didn’t come cheap.
Incentives are a funny thing. If we had a system that rewarded more intellectual risk-taking and less strategic GPA-padding, perhaps we could actually better prepare dynasty professionals for the cognitive challenges of their field, if only marginally. But why seek blood from a stone when there’s a much more egregious squandering of talent? That is, the huge numbers of low-income children whom we systematically exclude from advanced education and training.
Minimum GPA requirements disproportionately disqualify low-income and minority students, but the disparity continues beyond the admissions office into the faculties themselves. In studies of admitted low-GPA high-LSAT law students, white males were twice as likely to flourish as minorities of either gender. Turns out we can compensate for the educational gaps of those with raw talent, but only when they come from the dominant group.
Defenders of minimum GPA requirements might point out that high-GPA students tend to do well in professional programs, even with low test scores. Even minority students are better served by high incoming GPAs rather than test scores on an individual level. There’s a reason, they’ll say, that we use grades as a screening tool.
And there’s truth to that. But while GPA signals an understanding of how to be a good student which proves valuable in all manner of professional programs, there is also research to suggest that individuals who score low on tests of general ability—those former test prep students who threw enough money at the problem to squeak past the admissions desk—don’t end up being great doctors. This is the price we pay for drawing almost exclusively from the upper socioeconomic strata of white society, where high GPA is in abundance but high cognitive ability remains a limited resource.
Am I suggesting then that we would be better-served by C-student medical doctors, lawyers, and CEOs? After all, defenders of our current system rightly argue for the importance of valued traits like conscientiousness, ambition and persistence, with which GPA often correlates. I am well aware of the importance of the “grit” straight A students often demonstrate. In fact, I’ll add that studies have shown that minority students, too, are well-advised to cultivate this trait.
But we need to understand that amongst low-income and minority students, GPA is not exclusively a proxy for perseverance, responsibility or cognitive ability. It’s also tied tightly to such external factors as hours worked at a part-time job (about a half letter grade drop for 20 hours per week according to one study), the availability and quality of financial aid options, and the unconscious cultural biases of teachers, professors and others.
We misuse student grades, stripped of context, as a gauge for future potential when it is more frequently an indication of how we are squandering our students’ current potential. If we devoted more of our admittedly limited resources into growing the cultural capital of our underresourced students instead of shunting them to low-skill career paths, all sectors of society would benefit from the increase in available talent.
This isn’t an attack on the wealthy. Parents of every background will use every tool available to them to support their children’s dreams, and this is as it should be. But what our educational system should be doing, from the primary level up, is pouring similar resources into the most disadvantaged students. We know by a third-grader’s reading level and family income if they’re at risk of dropping out of high school. And individual teachers kill themselves trying to save every student. But at the systems level, we’re not doing enough to change that.
In fact, in my own neck of the woods, it’s Gonzaga Middle School, the pet project of near-billionaires and the private Catholic education system, that provides the best example of a direct attack on educational impoverishment. Offering summer programs and longer school days, and built to exclusively serve Winnipeg’s poorest families, this private initiative is working to level the playing field by significantly building the capital of its low-capital students.
Shame on us for not making similarly heroic efforts in all our public schools. Lucky us, to have the opportunity to be the generation to change that.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Joel Boyce has been a Manitoba teacher for over a decade. He currently serves as the education director of the Louis Riel Institute Adult Learning Centre, which specializes in supporting students with multiple barriers to their education. He is a graduate student of inclusive education, school leadership, and the philosophy of education.
This article is from Canadian Teacher Magzine’s Spring 2018 issue.