The Ladder

A Blog from New America's Asset Building Program

Washington Post Series Features Real-life Scott's Tots

Published:  December 21, 2011
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Two businessmen walk into an auditorium full of fifth grade students and announce to the children, most from poor families, that they will all have their college educations paid for. For fans of The Office, this scene might conjurer up memories of Scott's Tots, the group of Scranton, PA students sponsored by Dunder Mifflin's regional manager Michael Scott. This true-life version featuring the 59 fifth graders of Seat Pleasant Elementary in Price George's County Maryland was chronicled recently by the Washington Post. While some of the plot elements differ, most importantly that, true to Michael's over-promise, under-deliver style, he is unable to finance his unrealistically generous offer, the stories of Scott's Tots and The Dreamers of Seat Pleasant's 1988 fifth grade class offer lessons that be applied to a range of policy issues.

1- Expectations matter. As I noted in a previous post, "Expectations about the future are very powerful determinants of present behavior. If I expect it to rain, I'll bring an umbrella. If I expect to overindulge in the yummy, calorie-lade deliciousness that the upcoming holiday season presents (and I do), I'll start having more salads for lunch now. Similarly, for kids who can't see themselves being able to pay for college, they likely also won't see themselves going to college. Introducing the expectation that that door will be open can help motivated them to perform in way that will make that expectation a reality, like staying in school and investing more academic effort."

90 percent of Scott's Tots were on track to graduate and 83 percent Dreamers of Seat Pleasant either graduated or earned their GED, which a program administrator said far surpassed the achievement of other students in the Price George's County school system at the time. 11 students went on to finish college, out of over 30 who began. Although college was the stated objective, the breadth of the impact cannot be captured in the binary metric "did or didn't go to college." According the writer of this series "...I think that a lot of the kids came away with a different idea of what's possible for themselves and their children. And that's what leads to real change."

2- The earlier, the better. In both cases, students were presented with this offer in fifth grade. For some who participated, this was simply too early for them to consider the opportunity and challenges that it presented and have a meaningful impact on their decision to go to college. As one Dreamer said,

"As an 11 year old, college was so for away from our realm of thinking at that time, that for many of us, the magnitude of what was being offered went straight over our heads. Then, in the years to come, to have to live up to that pressure of being "the chosen ones." The THOUGHT of college didn't cross many of our minds - because we were too young to understand what it meant to to go college. I think had this program been offered later on in our lives - maybe in the 8th grade or even in High school when most students start thinking about higher education - maybe it would have weighed more heavily on us...because reaching that goal would have "seemed" a little more tangible and not so far off in the distant future as it did when we were in the 5th grade."

William Elliot, a Fellow in the Asset Building program, argues that a college-bound identity forms early and lacking "an understanding of what it meant to go to college," actually, may prove the opposite of what the participant is suggesting. This is also the perspective shared by Tracey Proctor, who was assigned to mentor the Dreamers. Here is an exchange in a live webchat the Washington Post hosted on this series:

Q. Response to "Timing is Everything" I had the opposite takeaway. It seems 5th grade is already too late to instill basic values in education (nevermind college). By that age, we are well enough aware how we should or shouldn't interact socially with peers and adults and whether or not school is valuable in our own minds. Therefore, it might be better to start this kind of 'experiment' with 5 year-olds instead of 5th graders

A. Tracy Proctor : you are exactly right. The IHAD (I Have a Dream) programs now start with K5 grades. The younger the better.

3- Isolated acts of generosity are insufficient to meet systemic needs. A reading of the series makes clear the web of barriers that ensnared the Dreamers and made progressing to college rate somewhere between an inaccessible goal and a non-consideration. One student, for example, was responsible for caring for his 6 younger siblings while his mother worked, leaving little time for studying. Another was shot twice before the end of high school.

My colleague Hannah recently wrote a blog post about the link between health outcomes and unmet social needs, such as safe, affordable housing and employment. The same case could easily be made about educational outcomes. If the first student's parent could afford another child care arrangement, then perhaps he could have been more engaged in school. If the second student lived in a neighborhood where violence didn't make survival the dominating goal, perhaps the horizon for his future would have extended beyond the next day.

The conditions that kids are born into are powerful predictors of whether they will go to college or if they will move up the economic ladder (unsurprisingly, these are related). Making sure that all kids have a shot at those will necessarily mean improving the conditions for success among low-income families and communities. There's a narrative if low-income kids can be successful if they have the will or resourcefulness and external intervention, especially by government, results in the picking of winners and losers. This akin to having a group of kids whose parents feed them McDonald's every day and a group whose parents cook meals at home compete against each other a la Iron Chef. The McDonald's kids eat a lot of the same thing and receive it in a bag where as the home cook kids have more variety and see it being prepared. These latter kids aren't necessarily more talented or creative or smarter, but, because they know how to use an immersion blender and what a sunchoke is, are better positioned to win. Maybe a couple of the McDonald's kids will stage an upset, but those kids would have some innate culinary genius to overcome the deficit they faced entering the contest. I would argue that maintaining these terms is most likely to result in winners and losers being selected on criteria other than their own skills and abilities. 

In the context of college access, we invest a disproportionate amount of money on subsidizing the costs of college for higher income families than for the lower income families actually in need of that support. We also penalize low-income families who try to save for their children's postsecondary education by making them ineligible for many forms of public assistance that are critical to meeting their immediate needs. These policies reinforce the lopsided nature of the current playing field.

Policies that remove barriers to college is one way to improve the likelyhood that low-income students will pursue that option. A strategy with proven success that builds on the lessons of Scott's Tots and the Seat Pleasant Dreamers is savings, especially savings in the child's name. Savings help build a child's expectations for college and the resources to pay for college, especially when begun early. Where some Dreamers described their sponsorship as intangible, research by Dr. Elliot shows that account ownership helps make the savings purpose more salient and builds the college-bound identity (look for a series we'll be publishing on college saving from Dr. Elliot in the new year). The ASPIRE Act builds on these ideas and would establish an account at birth for every child with her name on it to be used for multiple purposes, including college. This casts a wide net and allows all kids, regardless of the circumstances of their birth, to have a foundation for building their future. In a way, it achieves what Jeffery Norris, one of the Dreamers, identified as a way to extend the opportunity he was offered to more kids: "Bring more resorces, funding, to these lower ecnomics areas for education...so we all can have a I Have A Dream experience...with society and city government as our sporser!"

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