Nearly every year since 2010, President Michael Roth ’78 has taught HIST 214: “The Modern and the Postmodern.” The class, a history course cross listed with the College of Letters (COL) and Center for the Humanities (CHUM), examines the development of the concept of modernity. For the fall of 2021, however, the course is being taught differently, and not just because it’s over Zoom. Through a partnership between the University and the National Education Equity Lab, the class is being offered to over 70 high school students throughout the country.
The National Education Equity Lab is a nonprofit organization that coordinates with universities to offer credit-bearing classes to underprivileged high schoolers, specifically with Title 1 or Title 1 eligible schools, a designation assigned to schools that serve historically marginalized communities and have a high percentage of free or reduced lunch expenses. To participate in the program, high schools apply through National Education Equity’s Principal Interest form, and, once selected, principals send out forms to students they believe would be interested. Students are then selected through the form and enrolled in the class offered to the school.
The program launched in the fall of 2019. As CEO and founder Leslie Cornfeld explained, evidence of the positive impact of early college programs and offering college classes to high school students has been longstanding.
“There is a very robust evidence base that demonstrates that bringing actual college classes to students in high school increases access to college and completion rates of college, so success in college,” Cornfeld said. “That data was our start[ing] point because the challenge of that data was scale. We know it works but not all students have the luxury of having a college next to them. That’s the challenge our nation faces and so this model was designed for scale and designed to bring opportunities like this to high striving students in underserved communities across the country.”
Since its inception two years ago, the Education Equity Lab has partnered with over 120 high schools in 90 cities and twelve universities, including Harvard University, Columbia University, Cornell University, and now Wesleyan.
Wesleyan’s involvement with the program began last winter when the Wesleyan Student Assembly (WSA) raised the idea to Roth after Academic Affairs Chair (AAC) Ben Garfield ’22, read an article in the New York Times that described the program’s impact.
“We brought it up because we thought that [it] was a project that aligns with the mission of the University for equitable education and we were actually kind of surprised that Wesleyan wasn’t involved because a lot of our partner schools or institutions similar to ours were participating,” Equity and Inclusion Chair Ariana Baez ’22 said. “We thought that it would be very worthwhile to introduce a program here and to have students from underrepresented communities take a course at Wesleyan.”
After deliberating with the National Education Equity team, the University decided to offer Roth’s “Modern and Postmodern” class, as videos were already recorded for the Coursera version of the class. The Coursera version, however, differs from the actual class offered through the equity lab.
“It’s a completely different platform and has completely different goals,” Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Nicole Stanton who was involved in the planning over the summer, said. “There are ways to enter in Coursera experiences that are free and are paid and they are as an organization trying to have more concentrations and mini degree type things. The equity lab is something completely different. It has a focused audience that it’s trying to work with and trying to serve.”
According to Associate Director for the Center for Pedagogical Innovation, Jeffrey Goetz, the class was originally offered at eight different high schools; two in New York City (both the Bronx); one in Rochester, N.Y.; two in Topeka, Kans.; two in Los Angeles; and one in Florida. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the initial eight schools involved went into quarantine for a couple of weeks, causing the students and teachers to feel too far behind to continue. However, according to Goetz, one student from that school is still enrolled in the course.
Each week, students are expected to watch videos, most of which come from the Coursera version of the class. The videos are accompanied by readings, ranging from Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” to Karl Marx’s “The Communist Manifesto.”
For students, most of the week is spent going over the videos and contents in their own classrooms with their own teachers. However, once a week, high school students Zoom with teaching fellows—University students—to discuss the material and ask any questions they may have about the course. For many of the students, this is the first time they have been expected to read such dense texts in such a short amount of time.
“The readings are very intensive, but they range from Karl Marx to Baudelaire, and then analysis of political theory,” Paulina Anaya, a sophomore enrolled in the class through her school in Lake Wales, Fla., said. “Whenever we have the readings, we have our meetings on Tuesdays with our teaching fellows so we have a day to read everything and get a quote or get our thoughts prepared.”
Students also turn in essays every two or three weeks, which are then graded by the teaching fellows and sent back to the students for a second submission. This model of improvement is crucial to the course.
“This course is so built on having students improve in all of these areas,” Course Manager Jamison Hartley, who is responsible for facilitating communication between the University and the nonprofit, said. “In terms of just the writing, we’re really focusing on how do they go from a first draft to a second draft and really respond to feedback and, and really work through those of key recommendations for improvement.”
Not only do teaching fellows provide help with the material, they also offer support and advice about the college experience.
“I think one of the interesting things that was built into the program is this emphasis on college and this emphasis for low income from underfunded schools to take what they’ve learned and then go forward and use it in college,” Teaching Fellow Max Sanborn ’22 said. “I’ll say in my classes, ‘You can ask me at any point questions about anything we’ve talked about or any questions about college.’ For the kids who are interested in that, it’s really helpful.”
Given that it’s a pilot program at Wesleyan, there have undoubtedly been some challenges.
“It is a college course and when we take [college] courses, we take four [classes]. They’re taking eight,” Sanborn remarked. “[We’ve had to think about] how are we really translating these things in a way that’s appropriate and fair for these students? I think a lot of the bumps have been like ‘Oh, we didn’t think about that.’”
Logistics have also been one of the main hurdles. Although the COVID-19 pandemic has made Zooming across the country more standard, coordinating given the time differences has proven difficult.
“[It’s] one of those things where we’re sorting through what works best for our schools and for Wesleyan,” Hartley explained. “But even in that context, students are super excited. They’re really starting to dive into the course and doing things they’ve probably never done before. They had to read all the Frankenstein, like week two of this course and I had some students reach out and go ‘24 chapters in one week,’ but that would then would actually be able to get through the book and get things out of it and grapple with kind of the big questions.”
For Anaya, the intensity of the readings has not gotten in the way of her excitement towards the course.
“I really love the readings that we do in this class,” Anaya said. “Just being able to read about different philosophers and their ideologies, and both politics and morality and going over that whole expanse of society has been really enjoyable to me. Being able to communicate with my peers and see what they think, and their perspectives of the lectures and the content in the class has been really enjoyable too.”
Laura Jarrett, a high school teacher of 20 years who facilitates the course at Lake Wales High School, emphasized that teaching the course has been a learning experience for her as well.
“It’s incredible,” Jarrett said. “I sort of feel like I’m back in school because I get to do all of the readings. I make sure I do all the readings alongside the students. I get to have all of these great discussions. I generally hold my classrooms [in a] socratic style so they do their readings ahead of time, they’re doing annotations. We have this open discussion and all this exchange of ideas and we’re relating it to the lectures President Roth presents and also the previous readings.”
Jarrett highlighted how important the program is for educational equity.
“I think every student in the United States deserves the very best education, they deserve to have the top-notch teachers, the rigorous curriculum, they deserve to have IB, dual enrollment,” Jarrett said. “With [an] equity lab, that’s exactly everything I was looking for, that my students would have that chance to take courses from these Tier 1 schools and find out they are equal to any student in our nation, that they can walk into any of these classrooms.”
Jarrett also noted the racial gaps in advanced placement and dual enrollment courses, as these classes tend to enroll more white students, perpetuating the achievement gap in education. However, Jarrett pointed out that the majority of her students enrolled in the course identify as students of color and or are second language learners. The class has increased their confidence tremendously.
“Their confidence levels, the amount they’re participating and volunteering in the discussions [has grown],” Jarrett said. “I noticed that during their teaching fellow discussions, that at first some of them were hesitant to take part and now oftentimes because there’s another school or two schools that are in the same Zoom and oftentimes it’s my students who are leading and sharing the most so that’s been amazing to see that. Our students at our high school rarely apply to those Tier 1 universities so this has really shown them that they can compete at this level and will start applying [to these schools].”
Anaya was already interested in attending college before taking the course, but she remarked that her experience has helped her refine her future plans.
“College has always been on my radar,” Anaya said. “My dad went to community college, my mom always wanted to go to college but didn’t have the opportunity. I’ve always wanted to go to a large school because that’s something that has been pushed towards me since I was in elementary school but in taking this course, I’ve made a full 180 and actually am more interested in going into a liberal arts school where I’m able to have more opportunities with research and internships with things that relate to what I want to do in the future. Having the diversity is great in a big school but having diversity in a small school where I’m able to know more people and make better connections would be really exciting.”
The University plans to continue its partnership with National Education Equity Lab next semester, with a project-based “Foundations of Contemporary Psychology” (PSYC105) course taught by Professor of Psychology Lisa Dierker.
“We are optimistic about the enthusiasm from Wesleyan faculty that want to sign up to bring their talents beyond the campus of Wesleyan where their impact will be life-changing, and that’s just impressive,” Cornfeld said.
Roth emphasized that the idea is not for the program to act as a pipeline to Wesleyan, but to empower students to consider higher education in general.
“I think it’s good for Wesleyan to be better known in certain parts of the country where traditionally we have not gotten that many students,” Roth said. “Many of those students are in high financial need and don’t necessarily know that it may be free for them to go to Wesleyan or to other schools in our peer group. I think for many students that can be a surprise and a great opportunity. I think, more generally, that participation in the Ed Equity Lab is building the pipeline to higher education. Wesleyan may get some additional students but they also may attend other schools.”
Stanton expressed similar sentiments.
“To me, what was so exciting about this is that it’s about access and creating the opportunity to allow students who might not consider a liberal arts education as really possible, meaningful, and reasonable,” Stanton said. “The way it fits into our overall mission of providing people with the liberal experience is really exciting.”
Cornfeld is optimistic about the future of the program, highlighting Wesleyan’s contributions towards education equity.
“This is a national education justice effort,” Cornfeld said. “The ultimate goal is social and economic mobility. We know that college is the best mobility engine that exists in our country and education is supposed to have been the great equalizer. Our model is rooted in the fact that talent is evenly distributed and opportunity is not. We aim to help change that and Wesleyan is playing a large role in empowering scholars to both advance and demonstrate that talent. I think that President Roth and Wesleyan’s leadership team, and its students, have demonstrated a deep commitment to education equity. Many people talk the talk, but it’s impressive to see how Wesleyan is walking that walk.”
Hannah Docter-Loeb can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org