The Equity and Access in Education Project: Learning, Unlearning, and Taking Action

by Jeffrey Koetje, MD, Director, Business and Strategy, Pre-Health Programs | February 27, 2020

From our founding as the tutoring service Stanley Kaplan set up in the basement of his parents’ Brooklyn home in 1938 to the present day, Kaplan Test Prep has supported students in pursuit of greater opportunities through education. Against the backdrop of European and US anti-Semitism in the 1920s through 1940s, and the rise in the use of the SAT for college admissions―which was initially touted as an assessment of “aptitude for learning”―Stanley Kaplan believed that no student should be denied the opportunity to learn, grow, and develop into the fullness of their goals and aspirations

Mid-Century Standardized Bias

Well before Stanley first became aware of the SAT, many people working in higher education, including leaders of some of the most prestigious US universities, saw―and even spoke openly about―the supposed utility of a standardized test such as the SAT as a tool of social engineering to separate the presumed truly intelligent applicants from the [children] of foreign parentage who have no background [and who, nevertheless] in many cases attempt to educate themselves beyond their intelligence. Their accomplishment is over 100% of their ability on account of their tremendous energy and ambition. I do not believe however that a College would do well to admit too many men of low mentality who have ambition but not brains.”

But Stanley, who was himself likely a target of the anti-Semitic Jewish quotas in place in the New York City area medical schools at the time he was denied admission around 1940, was convinced that standardized tests could be understood and used for something very different: as an assessment tool―eminently coachable―for, indeed, demonstrating the very merit and promise of striving, hard-working students whom the gatekeepers of elite higher education were so interested in excluding.

Flash-forward to 2020

Today, in 2020―nearly 101 years since Stanley’s birth―the US system and institutions of education have not yet eliminated or transformed the policies, practices, and cultures rooted in supremacist ideologies; and through the combined operations of systemic and institutional racism, personally mediated racism, and implicit biases, many students continue to experience marginalization and/or minoritization within educational spaces. Furthermore, many students continue to experience educational spaces as spaces of violence and trauma, rather than as spaces of nurturing, affirmation, and validation. 

Students of color, and especially Black students, may find themselves frequently the targets of mechanisms of oppression, within the very spaces that make the philosophical and ethical claim of supporting human growth and development. And when we apply an intersectional lens of critical analysis to the operations of power, we can also name the manner in which students may be further marginalized/minoritized across not just race and ethnicity, but also gender identity/expression, socio-economic status, cultural and/or religious affiliation, and language―to name just a few “nodes” in the complex network of any one person’s various identities.

Addressing Historical and Present-Day Wrongs

As an educational company that works with individual students, student clubs and associations, and academic programs and institutions, we at Kaplan are deeply motivated through our mission to meaningfully participate in and contribute to correcting these historical and present-day wrongs. These wrongs are as political in nature as they are moral, as indeed the specific organization and functions of any human-created social system, such as education, reflect ideologies enacted through policies. 

Recognizing this, we affirm―as so many already do―that the solution to the problem of inequity in education is not merely a call to individual moral agents operating within educational spaces to enact a “better” morality, but must also include sustained action to transform the structure, the operations, and the culture of the system and institutions of education which have been working to establish and then maintain inequity. 

Despite the history of inequity in higher education and its ramifications for marginalized/minoritized students, it is exceedingly clear that the majority of educational professionals―those with moral agency in the educational system―are well-intentioned people who daily make the commitment to support, nurture, and care for students. My own past experiences as a premedical and then medical student have helped me to recognize that the professional roles of teacher, advisor, counselor, and mentor can justifiably be positioned on the Caring Professions continuum, alongside the roles of doctor, nurse, pharmacist, and every other healthcare professional role. And as such, we can apply the ethical principles of non-maleficence and beneficence as critical lenses to identify and understand how we as educational professionals―and how our places, policies, and processes within education―may be causing or contributing to harm to marginalized/minoritized students, regardless of our intentions.

So, what are we to do? What must we do? 

As moral agents within an inequitable system, the first thing we must do is not turn away from the harm that is being done; to do so is unavoidably to turn away from the real people who are the targets of the harm. We need to steel ourselves so that we can hold the enormity of this problem that we have inherited and which we will inevitably perpetuate, unless we begin to take action to dismantle it.

No one person, no one initiative, no one program, no one institution will ever be able to bring about the changes necessary to transform our education spaces into accessible, equitable, just, and affirming spaces for all humans, and especially for those who have been the targets of oppression. Collective action, coordinated across the millions of well-intentioned, passionate, mission-driven moral agents working in education, is the only way forward.

Space for Grace

As an organization that intentionally embraces a growth mindset, not just in our test prep pedagogy, but in the very orientation and practices of our day-to-day operations, we believe that an important aspect of the effort and work committed to effecting structural change in education is the humility and “space for grace” that allows imperfect humans (and imperfect organizations) to keep working toward the goal of being better today than we were yesterday, and better tomorrow than we are today. We also recognize the urgency that the continued existence of inequity and injustice in education demands of us: justice delayed is justice denied.

In the spirit of collegiality, and in deep recognition of our shared humanity―and shared responsibility to address historical and present-day exclusion and marginalization within education―we are putting forth a new forum for educational professionals for conversation, education, and activation to achieve positive movement toward increased access and equity in educational spaces. The Equity and Access in Education project will serve primarily as a platform for educational professionals and students in secondary and post-secondary education to engage in (the frequently) difficult or uncomfortable conversations regarding the real impact of systems of oppression on students whose lived experiences include exclusion, marginalization, and/or minoritization in their education. Furthermore―and just as importantly―this project will serve as a platform for educational professionals and students to explore, illuminate, and amplify the work already begun to bring about structural, procedural, and cultural transformation toward increasing access and equity.

Equity and Access in Education 2020

Throughout 2020 and beyond, the project will feature a monthly opportunity for engagement in the form of a webinar, blog post, white paper, student/professional interview, suggested readings, or existing resources focused on access and equity in education. We at  Kaplan make no particular claim of expertise in every aspect of these issues―our expertise is in the pedagogy of test preparation―but we acknowledge the unique position that our organization occupies within the larger landscape of secondary and post-secondary education, and we are compelled to do what we can to support and enter into these conversations and this work. Indeed, we already are engaged in these conversations and in this work through our many institutional partnerships with programs of educational access and equity such as pipeline programs for the STEM, Health, and Law professions.

We acknowledge that for many people, these issues are not merely academic or theoretical in nature. Inequity causes real harm, to real people, who experience this harm in many real ways in their individual and collective embodiment. Therefore, the Equity and Access in Education project will be informed by an advisory committee comprised of individuals within and outside of Kaplan, all of whose lives are impacted by systemic forces of oppression. The Equity and Access in Education project will adhere to an ethics of anti-oppression: anti-racist in its primary orientation, intersectional in its analyses, and focused as much on practice as on theory. 

Throughout 2020, the Equity and Access in Education project will cover topics such as: 

  • Access and equity for first generation students
  • Unpacking anti-Black racism in educational spaces
  • Historical and ongoing silencing/erasing of women (especially women of color) in STEM, Health, and Law
  • The operations of Whiteness in relation to normative notions of professionalism, merit, and achievement in education
  • Academic expectations around performance of race, gender, and class in relation to phenomena such as Impostor Syndrome and Stereotype Threat 
  • And many more... 

(It is an understatement to say that there is no dearth of topics for us to explore together!)

And so, we are excited to invite you to SAVE THE DATE for the first event of the Equity and Access in Education project:

Making the Most of College: For First-Gen Students

LIVE Webinar Presentation: Tuesday, March 24, 2020 at 8:00pm – 9:00pm ET

Join our panelists of first-generation college students and thought leaders for an online discussion for high school students, college students, parents, and educational professionals on the challenges and opportunities unique to the first-gen experience. You’ll hear how cultural knowledge and background can play a role in college admissions, the student experience, overcoming adversity, and shaping success in education.

Stay tuned for more information about our panelists and a link to register for the event in the next couple of weeks!

On behalf of our organization, thank you for doing the work you do, in partnership with and in support of students striving to grow into the fullness of themselves, in pursuit of their goals and aspirations. We hope that you will take up our invitation to enter into this thought leadership project as thought partners, co-learners, and collaborative partners for transformation in education. For it is in this way that we enter this space together as co-creators in the project of meaning-making, perhaps the most sacred function of educators, advisors, counselors, and mentors in relationship with those for whom we care.

In the spirit of learning, unlearning, and taking action,

Jeffrey Koetje, MD