Blane Harding: As professors, researchers and educators, we believe having a quality education is a human right that should be available to all. However, barriers pursuing education, particularly in science, technology, engineering and math with the STEM programs in education exist in our country that are based not on an interest or a lack of drive, but on characteristics like a person's zip code.
I'm Blane Harding, the Director of Advising, Recruitment and Retention for the College of Science at the University of Nevada, Reno.
Ohidul Mojumder: I'm Ohidul Mojumder, a physics student in the College of Science. Welcome to our Discover Science podcast, an offshoot of our public lecture series of the same name, where we speak with the world's leading scientists, researchers and educators about important subjects that influence our world.
In this episode, we are joined by Dr. William F. Tate IV, the Edward Mallinckrodt Distinguished University Professor in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. Dr. Tate serves as a Vice Provost for Graduate Education and Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
For over a decade, Dr. Tate's research has explored the complex relationship between where and how a person grows up and their ability to pursue a STEM education. He has published two books on the subject, and has received numerous amounts of accolades for his research, including the Early Career Award and the Presidential Citation from the American Educational Research Association. He was also elected to the National Assembly of Education in 2017 and served as a member of For The Sake of All research team, a multidisciplinary group that is studying the health, development, and well-being of African-Americans in the St. Louis region.
His Discover Science lecturer asks the question, is space plus race greater than STEM attainment? Here we are with him today to talk through the answer. Welcome to the show, Dr. Tate.
Dr. William F. Tate IV: Thank you for the introduction and the invitation to participate.
Mojumder: It's an honor to have you here today. The first question that I have for you is the idea of comparing someone's geospatial location and academic achievement, it sounds somewhat abstract when you first hear it. Can you give us a big picture of your research, and give us a little bit of insight?
Tate: Let's take a state university anywhere in the United States. We have 50 flagship state universities. Most of them have an Honors program. If you were to back map those individuals who are residents of the state in the Honors program, you will find a pattern in a zip code. You could predict which students were in the Honors program based upon the zip code. The zip code would be predictive. We could predict who might be entering the very best private schools in the United States based upon where they live, what high school they attended. High schools are geospatial locations. They're embedded in communities. Those communities have certain attributes. The students who matriculate in those communities have certain attributes. Usually what I say is they have certain investments in them that have positioned them to be, for example, in an Honors program. Well, you could take that same type of thinking and say who might perform very well in a science course or physics or chemistry or statistics. Largely, we can predict because there's social determinants around them that actually cluster in space.
Let's just take a straight forward one. We know that the biggest predictor of whether someone does well in science or math is their teacher. Teacher effects are quite powerful. We also know that teacher effects cluster: that highly qualified teachers who have a great STEM background tend to be in the same places. Those students who matriculate in a geospace with very good STEM teachers, who are highly qualified, are more likely to perform well on the ACT or the SAT, to enter your Honors program or to be part of an engineering major. All these things are clustering. The big question is, why do some schools have outstanding STEM teachers in the high school levels and others don't? Why is it that some students have a great k-8 education in STEM areas? In fact, why is it that some kids actually get science in elementary school and some don't?
The reality is that it's geospatially determined. There are some schools that where clustering happens that they actually take science, or they actually have a very good math teacher. Many young people are clustered in school districts that don't even have certified teachers in math and science. They're being held accountable by State standards and other things that they really don't have a true shot at, and unfortunately it does end up being geospatially located.
Mojumder: From your initial remarks, it seems like this geospatial location has some relation to a socioeconomic status or a socioeconomic background. Can you further go on about this?
Dr. Tate: Right. You're absolutely correct. We have historically organized ourselves with boundaries that delineate our socio-economic background. They're very well articulated in our communities and housing policy that started way back in the 1930s and '40s in the United States, organized our neighborhoods in certain types of ways. We subsidize the suburbanization of many communities, and then used redlining and other strategies to keep people out of these communities based upon their race or class. The artifact of that is that it's an archaeological dig of discrimination. You end up looking around the totality of the United States and you have a very affluent highly, just, rich suburbs on every metric, not just financially, but they have everything at scale. You have some urban communities that now have been gentrified, they have the same attributes. Then you have in urban communities those that have been underdeveloped over time, they lack the kind of health care and education that you normally would need in order to protect the brain, because how do you do STEM? It's in your mind, it's your brain. If you don't have food, dentists, insurance, all the things that are necessary so that your brain can fully mature and be successful at doing things that are cognitively demanding like STEM, then you're at a definite loss as compared to colleagues who might be in a suburban area where they have all of that at scale.
This is the reality of the American divide. It used to be an urban/suburban/rural divide, but with the big changes in our urban communities, you're experiencing really right here in Reno. As I came into town they said Google was here and other places. I guarantee you that over time, your achievement in STEM is going to go up 100% because there will be new geospatial communities created that will benefit those folks who are working in those environments. The parents there will insist upon it, and those students will grow. Then there'll be another set of people indigenous who might not actually have access to the same resources, and you will see the disparities unfold, and it will be geospatially oriented.
There are ways to intervene on that, and we can chat about it, but most certainly it’s something that I would be concerned about if I were living in this community.
Mojumder: Actually, I was born and raised in Reno. Throughout the years, I've seen changes occurring, expansion of the city itself, but one thing that's very characteristic to Reno is that there's a mix of urban, suburban, and rural populations in one city. How would this differ with any of the other research that you've looked at previously?
Tate: If I were mimicking what I did in St. Louis, we want to be a biotech hub. We put a map out and we laid out where all the biotech companies were. In our community, they line up on the highway of 64-- 4064 is our main thoroughfare. The biotech companies, in a non-random fashion, organized around the highway. That's not surprising because people need to get their workers in and out. Medical facilities tend to cluster around highways too. We know that these are the communities where there's going to be work that's high-tech.
The big question then is, what does achievement look like in those communities where the workers are actually going to have access? Parents are going to be there, and they're going to want good schools around there, and they're going to want to have housing next to where they work. They don't want a long commute. You're going to see patterns emerge here. Wherever the companies go, and it's probably going to be on your highways, they will begin to have clusters of excellence. You'll see certain type of food establishments, you'll see certain types of schools, whether they be public, private or charter, will emerge, and there will be an investment in having a very high-quality STEM environment in those places. It's a zero-sum game because it's a finite number of people who are actually of quality who can teach these classes so we don't produce them fast enough. These disparities become inherent unless you can, at the same time, rapidly increase the number of people who are really great STEM teachers and have them be aligned in places where those companies don't line up.
Fragmentation of our neighborhoods and the like is a form of segregation. That leads to disparity of all sort. A big question is, can you be an elastic community that's more inclusive and it actually takes seriously having talent dispersed around the geospatial realm of this environment, giving everybody an opportunity to contribute?
The communities that do that well are the ones that have produced a genius that you never would have found because they didn't have the opportunity structure.
Harding: I think that's very interesting, Dr. Tate. When we talk about, and you take a look at a variety of different universities and institutions and they're all concerned about culture. Whether it's the chief diversity officer, it's an inclusion officer, they're talking about how culture is getting in the way of the success of Black and Brown kids and so forth and so on. My question is involving this debate over the impact of culture to me is not necessarily culture, it's their lived experiences. They can go hand in hand, but I think they're separate. You seem to focus on those lived experiences. What role do you think culture plays in the lack of attainment in the STEM degrees?
Tate: The lived experience that I was talking about in terms of these big structures, these are deeply influential and a life course, but also, in a similar fashion, it would be naive not to acknowledge that culture influences choice. A big question is, which one is more impactful? I like to tell people they're both impactful. That the structural issues are impactful, but the culture and choices that we make, depending on what our culture values, is also impactful.
Rarely have I met a parent who didn't aspire for their child to have a true opportunity. I think there is the issue of being educated, even parental education, making sure that our parents understand that there are opportunities in STEM. I wouldn't just limit it to the STEM, I would say in the art and in creative work is more broadly, there are a lot of opportunities in the extent to which parents understand how to navigate the systems we have in place is important.
One other thing, we're supposed to be the experts, those of us at the university, in terms of creating educational infrastructure. We need to be the loudest about when it's underdeveloped prior to the collegiate experience. I want to have the very best students in my classes. By that, I mean the ones who really want to be there, and have had some opportunities to develop their minds. If I can see that their pre-K through 12 experience is underdeveloped, we should be shouting from the rooftops to fix it.
Harding: Yes, I agree with that completely, but we tend to focus on them once they get here.
Tate: Then we spend billions of dollars on remediation, which, generally, you're remediating on 12 years of experience, and it's extremely challenging to pull off.
Harding: Very true.
Mojumder: Actual changes in the school district itself are very difficult to attain. Is there any way that students themselves can try and go for these changes or push themselves forward to be more successful in the future?
Tate: It assumes that the student would actually know what they don't know. The dilemma is that we know what the pathways are for a successful matriculation at a place like the University of Nevada, Reno. As you know now, you're in physics, you understand the background. You could be an advocate, of course, but it would be hard for a ninth grader to fully understand that I don't really have access to AP Chemistry, and that's going to be impactful for my life, or I don't have access to a teacher who actually understands calculus, and so I'm not going to be able to learn it in such a way that I can apply it and use it when I get to Reno or whatever school they want to matriculate in.
It's important for us as citizens, and I count anyone over the age of 18, in adult life who's voting, should be really invested in making sure that all the young people have these structural things that we know are there so that if they do make the right choice, as you've articulated, that the choice mirrors the opportunity. That's what we really have to work on, the choice that they make mirroring what the new opportunity structure is. In too many places, it's underdeveloped in our rural communities, as well in some of the underdeveloped parts of our urban communities, is geospatially located.
The beautiful part about that is, based upon your question, is we could put a map up and say where we need to go get help. We can see it. That's why I use maps. I could use regression analysis or hierarchical linear models or all kinds of sophisticated statistical techniques, but I put everything on a map so you can see where you live relative to where other people live and what's happening in terms of the differential opportunity color coded with statistics undergirding it, and then you too could intervene and be a citizen scholar trying to make a difference for the life of a young person.
Harding: You talked a little earlier about the zip codes and identification of zip codes being predictors. Do you know of any strategies that low-income communities have used to actually bring in quality teachers? Because if they're quality teachers, they have options. They're going to go the better school district as opposed to go to the poorest school district.
Tate: You just nailed it. Therein lies the dilemma. Once the cycle of the community is started, that cycle is extremely difficult to intervene on. Part of that cycle is what are the benefit structures for a teacher in a community? If the suburban community where I live is redshirting teachers, giving them a full salary to trail after another teacher versus the other community that doesn't have that, I would rather be in this place that's going to support me as a professional. If one of the districts has a better retirement program, that's the case where our urban district in St. Louis has its own individual retirement program. Everybody worries that it might not be sustainable, versus the state takes over this retirement program for every other district in Missouri. If I have a choice in terms of long term where I'm going to invest my time, I'm going to go to the place that's going to ensure that my retirement is stable. These are the differential things that begin to happen in a cluster again in geospace. All these policies and benefit structures begin to accrue in the functioning communities that are doing very well. Some people will say money doesn't matter. The only people who say that are people with money. Everyone else knows that having a financial infrastructure, the incentives and the like makes a huge difference.
I haven't even dealt with one other piece about the geospatial infrastructure. We've been just talking about the public facing part of it. What also happens in geospace when there's a very affluent or middle-class family, they invest their family resources into the children over and above what can happen in a distressed financial community. Those students then accrue better public resources along with better family resources, doubling and tripling the investment in their education and health development. It makes it very, very hard for the student who doesn't have the family resources and the public resources, all again geospatially located, to compete.
STEM is extremely competitive. Anyone who's ever thought about being a scientist or an engineer or a technologist knows that those courses are cognitively demanding, correct?
Mojumder: Yes, of course.
Tate: The students, they are competitive. They want to do well. Imagine if you have deficiency of some sort, not because of your own making, because you just haven't had the resources at the time in order to compete. That’s talent loss. As a society, there's a cost to that.
We're talking about it at a very high level where that student actually makes it to college but maybe they end up switching majors, let's say, because they can't do the STEM major because they don't have all those accrue resources. They end up graduating. They can still go add value, and their children have a shot at the STEM degree, because they're going to end up moving to a community with the value added that we just talked about. It takes a generation to get to that.
What happens to the student who doesn't even get to college? They're geographically-bounded. They don't make it. They didn't have all the family and public resources before. Let's say they graduate from high school. Maybe they can compete to get a job that pays a reasonable wage. Not likely, because our economy has changed so radically. The manufacturing world that those people used to go to doesn't exist anymore. They're stuck in low-paying jobs. They're not going to be able to cross over into the geospace that we talked about. Worse yet, imagine if they don't graduate from high school and don't have the credential and/or the networking experiences associated with that. What's going to happen to them? They end up in a cycle of generally engaging with our criminal justice system. They end up with very, very poor health outcomes that we, as a society, end up subsidizing because they don't have insurance, so it's going to cost the rest of us. Once they enter into that realm, it just spins. Where do they end up living? They all live in the same places. They cluster geospatially. We keep them bounded by our rules and policies in certain areas.
They may have children and they end up in school. What's going to happen to them? It becomes a cycle. That cycle is extremely difficult to intervene on. That's why I say when you have a community that's emerging like yours with the new economy, that the extent to which you can design something that might provide opportunities for people indigenous, including the STEM opportunity and good healthcare, because they need that to develop the brain, is foundational to breaking that cycle.
Harding: Many distressed communities, not all, but many distressed communities are communities of color. I know we have a program here on campus where we're trying to increase Latinos, male and female, going into education and going into K through 12 education. If we were to increase, and there's not a lot to begin with if you take a look at the numbers and percentages, if we're to increase the number of teachers of color that are in K through 12, do you think that would have an impact on this distressed communities? Because they would have a tendency, at least from my experience, to go back to those communities, to give back to those communities because they want to be part of the solution, not the problem.
Tate: There have been a couple of studies that delineate that it is an empirical fact that having a mentor/teacher of your ethnic background, racial background, is an impactful part of your social development and your achievement. The extent to which we can do that is extremely important and it could be impactful. A lot of people are concerned that teachers who are not of the same background wouldn't be impactful. That's not what the research says. It just says having someone who you can identify with is actually an impactful experience. I think the extent to which schools are able to pull that off, we should do it.
Mojumder: It seems like we keep circling around the topic of incentivizing ways to develop these communities, to invest in these communities. What are some ways? Would it be political reform on the local level, on the national level? What are some ways that we can combat this and break the cycle?
Tate: Every community has a different history and a different design. The extent to which fragmented communities can figure out to create a more unified home, the more likely they are to be able to generate revenue that can be shared. They won't compete against themselves, and they're going to have a greater good around schooling in all municipal services. Imagine an inelastic environment where it's fragmented. One of those communities is going to get all the business. The high-end affluent suburb. That one will flourish while all the others are floundering.
That one will have the good schools. That's where the Honors program will be. That's where all the corporate types will live. That's where the golf courses will be. That's where Whole Foods will be. That's where Starbucks will be. That's where everything that everybody wants will be in that place. That's where the opportunity will flow from, and the rest of the community will flounder. This will be the demise of America if we don't fix it, and if we don't deal with the rural community and actually help them as well. It's both urban and rural. Some people just think it's urban. It's both. So many folks are just woefully underdeveloped because of this thinking.
Harding: Yes. The harm is the product of those that are in control that actually have the ability and the capacity to dictate them.
Tate: Well, I'll leave it right there. We need the will, politically.
Harding: Yes, true.
Mojumder: Honestly, it was a pleasure speaking to you today, Dr. Tate. He has a kind of eloquence to the way he speaks that makes it quite a pleasure, and it was nice speaking to him.
Thank you to our listeners for listening. I hope to see you guys at the next Discover Science lecture, and then the next Discover Science podcast.