I recently spoke with a friend who works for the State Department. She’s not in Washington, D.C., now, but she and her family only recently relocated from the capital. The last time we saw them, their kids were at a public elementary school and Pre-K in D.C., a choice that had left many of their government colleagues incredulous.
D.C. is consistently ranked as one of the worst public school systems in the nation. The vast majority of those who can afford private or finagle charter schools do, not least public servants.
But my friend told me the way she saw it was that her kids would learn because they were hers. She – along with all informed and invested parents – should support local public schools, because ultimately, educational attainment has to do with parental work at home more than any one school itself.
It’s an interesting, decidedly egalitarian approach to education. And it’s certainly central to the point Patrick Wall is getting at in a recent article for The Atlantic, “The Privilege of School Choice.”
Wall follows the plight of Mark Gonsalves, father of an elementary school-aged son, who chose his Manhattan abode in large part because it was zoned to one of NYC’s best public schools, P.S. 199. But last year, Gonsalves’ area was re-districted to P.S. 191, a school with a predominantly black and Hispanic student body makeup, and an 82 percent poverty rate.
The article tracks Gonsalves’ struggle to decide: give the low-performing school a chance, opt for a private or charter school, or move. This frames a larger problem Wall sees – the segregation of public schools.
Here, some disturbing assumptions enter Wall’s argument, which seems to be that the success of schools currently attended by mainly minorities depends upon white children joining them.
Rather than acknowledge that most parents will pick the best option they can afford for their kids, Wall frames the Gonsalves’ decision this way: “P.S. 191 needs parents like Gonsalves if it’s ever going to end its damaging racial and socioeconomic isolation… How can you persuade parents with other options to choose integration?”
Wall here implies that parents who move to better districts, or choose where they live from the start for high-performing schools, are somehow implicitly making a choice based on race. A choice against integration.
That reads a lot like jumping the shark to me, but the problems don’t stop there.
A study by Sean Reardon of Stanford University is cited, showing that “roughly one-fifth of the average metropolitan area’s racial achievement gap is due to racial segregation because of the higher poverty rates in schools attended by many black and Hispanic students.”
For anyone who follows educational trends, it is not hard to see why this is sloppy reasoning. As many education advocates know, some of the worst-performing districts in the country are rural. And those populations are predominantly white. What they have in common with their majority-minority urban school counterparts is a poverty disadvantage. This is an economic divide, first and foremost. And it is false, not to mention immoral, to posit that white students and white parents are the only ones capable of bringing meaningful educational improvement to a struggling school district.
I’ve taught in a rural district, and saw firsthand what many researchers have also documented. Part of the challenge to raising academic standards is a lack of funding, sure. But a much a larger issue is a culture that is skeptical and sometimes hostile towards “official” education. Many parents did not attend college, and might not see the need for their children to do so now. They may have dropped out of high school themselves, and hold a general view that teachers and other white-collar professionals think they’re “better than” the community. These are challenges faced by many struggling urban districts as well.
But what is perhaps most troubling is the cognitive dissonance between a clear desire for improved education for minority students – who deserve equal opportunity and are equally capable of academic success – and this insistence that bringing white kids into classrooms is key to that goal.
A clear refutation to that nonsense idea is the record of Success Academies. Begun in 2006, the network now has 14,000 students across four of New York City’s five boroughs. Of those students, 93 percent are children of color. Their test scores, compared to the rest of New York, are astonishing. In math, Success Academy students rank in the top one percent, in English they hit the top two percent, and in science, students are in the top five percent.
All that, no forced white kiddos required.
There are benefits to racial integration and diversity, no question. But blaming race discrimination for parents choosing to leave failing schools in the name of bettering their own son or daughter’s future is preposterous.
Would Wall claim the same for the thousands of black and Hispanic parents who send their own kids to charter schools?
The article launches into a very thorough history of integration – or lack thereof – in these two schools, dating back to the 1960s. Undoubtedly, racism played a role for some parents in resisting school changes for their kids, both then and perhaps even now.
But so much has changed since then. There were not charter schools in the 1960s demonstrating that children of color can outperform everyone else without a large serving of white children to guide the way. The demand for a college education – and not only that, a high quality college degree – was not nearly as critical fifty years ago as it is today. For many parents, especially those like Gonsalves, the long journey to university begins in Pre-K.
Parents who objected to their students being suddenly rezoned to P.S. 191 cited the school’s low test scores. One suspects they would have resisted just as vehemently had the school been predominantly white. If it’s about education – and for most parents, it is – then academics are what matter, not racial makeup.
A final note, again from my own experience. I taught in a respectable Texas district for five and a half years before changing careers. The first five years were at a high-performing middle school. I taught Pre-AP and on-level English to 8th graders. One of the aspects I loved most was that in every single class I had students of diverse backgrounds. Black, white, Asian, Hispanic – every class.
Their scores were exemplary, but more importantly, my students really got along with another. They interacted, they shared life with each other. That is invaluable.
My final half-year, I took a job teaching sophomore Pre-AP English and on-level junior English at the district’s lowest-performing high school. My students were mostly white.
I had plenty of advanced kids who were not getting the education they were capable of, primarily because with 180 students, there was no way to keep up with everyone. When some students show up and sleep through class, some are recovering from a hangover, some are currently high, and others are chronically absent, providing a bare minimum is not an option – it’s the best a single human being can do. My work weeks averaged between 50 -70 hours, and still: none of us were getting the best out of each other.
The students who struggled the most were often the ones whose parents were impossible to get a hold of. And the students who came from more stable homes and were capable of excelling did not raise the bar for everyone else – they got left behind.
The school’s test scores bore this out. Which is a caution against the belief that social engineering is some kind of panacea for low-performing schools – whatever their racial makeup happens to be.