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Remedying educational, social inequity matters to Deborah Stipek

Deborah Stipek

Deborah Stipek

American society does not treat its children very well, especially its poor children, according to Deborah Stipek.

"Supposedly, we believe in a meritocracy," the dean of the School of Education told an audience gathered Oct. 27 in Memorial Church for the popular noontime discussion series "What Matters to Me and Why." The biweekly series invites university administrators and faculty to reflect on their core values and beliefs. "You'd think that [education] would be the one domain where we would want to create an even playing field," Stipek continued. "But if you really believe in a meritocracy, then people have to have equal opportunity."

That does not happen, because America spends far more money and resources educating its richer children than its poorer ones, she said. For example, Palo Alto schools receive about $10,000 per pupil from state coffers, in contrast to the school district in East Palo Alto, which gets less than $6,000 per student.

As a result, poor children get stuck in decrepit schools with inadequate resources and undertrained teachers. From Stipek's personal experience sitting at the back of classrooms filled with poor youngsters eager to learn, she knows that by the time such students reach third grade they will be "hopelessly behind," and by fifth grade they will start to disengage and act out. When these children turn 16 years old, she added, half will have dropped out and "a big portion" will end up in jail a few years later.

"What is so painful and what is so crazy is to sit there and know it doesn't have to be this way," she said. "We have the resources to do better and we have the knowledge to do better. The only thing we're lacking is the will."

Stipek said her strong feelings about such glaring social inequities helped motivate her to become a developmental psychologist. "I wanted to improve education, not just for poor kids but for all kids who are getting such an incredibly bum deal," she said. "We talk about this country being the land of opportunity and we handcuff a very large proportion of our people, both literally and figuratively." Stipek acknowledged that her work is more than a job—it is a mission. And although the dean said she wasn't making a political speech, she added, with a smile, "I hope you will all join me in this mission."

In addition to a deep commitment to improving education for all children, Stipek spoke about her struggles to raise a daughter alone and what she has learned during her four years as dean.

Stipek talked in detail about her very religious upbringing that provided her with a strong set of values that she began to question when she reached college. "I have to confess that in college I went to France for a year," she said wryly. "I left a Christian, a Democrat and a virgin. Much to my mother's dismay, I returned an agnostic, a Communist, and I wasn't quite a virgin anymore."

Stipek talked about the challenges she faced raising a child without the "consistency of messages and practices" that can be provided by a church community. The dean described how she tried to join churches for her daughter's sake, but left because she felt fraudulent saying things she no longer believed. "When you don't have that, how do you find a way to promote those values in your kid?" she asked. "I worried about that a lot." Stipek said she didn't know if she was just lucky but, with the help of friends who offered consistent support and attention, her daughter, Meredith, now 19, "turned out to be a pretty good kid" who has survived the challenges of adolescence.

In an ironic twist, Stipek noted, when her daughter turned 16 she became interested in Christianity. "I answered her questions as honestly as I could, telling her that I was no longer a believer," she said. "What's interesting to me is that the only way she could rebel is to be a Christian! Her rebellion was to find Jesus."

Stipek also talked about what she has learned about managing people since she became dean of the School of Education. "One thing I see in my role is how quickly we are to judge, to see evil intent when, in fact, it's [often] very innocent intent," she said. "It's usually something under the surface that if we had known [about it], we would have not been so quick to judge." Stipek said the most boastful people are usually those with the least self-confidence. "When people are irresponsible, it's often because they are disorganized or they're fearful of doing something because they're not sure it's going to be good enough," she said. "It's just like children—those who behave badly are often usually just desperate for attention." The dean said she does not want to excuse bad behavior, but she has learned that people tend to behave as well as they are treated. "If you treat them with respect and if you expect them to behave well, they're much more likely to meet your expectations," she said.