For at least 25 years, I’ve been outraged at the way we have structured our public schools in Rochester, and across New York.
We have one system of schools (suburban) for middle class and more affluent kids, mostly white kids. In that system, nearly everybody graduates high school on time and goes on to college or work.
In the other system, the city system, almost every child is black, Hispanic, or refugee; almost everyone is poor, and a whole bunch live in extreme poverty—in families whose incomes are well below the poverty line. In the city system, only half the kids graduate on time, and the vast majority of those are neither ready for college nor for work (or work training).
In my 20 years as an editorial writer and columnist at the Democrat and Chronicle, and in the years since, I have written about the injustice I see again and again. This system, it seems to me, is morally indefensible and fundamentally un-American—a system that deprives the poorest kids of the right to a good school that will improve their chances for success.
But I believe that the crisis we face is complicated, not just a moral failure, easily corrected with a personal epiphany. Many good people in our community just do not see a viable solution.
At Great Schools, we have been focused on the importance of diverse schools—on a network of interdistrict magnet schools that will open the doors to success for the kids most likely to fail in our current system.
This is not an ideological crusade, but an evidence-driven proposal. Socioeconomically schools matter.
A 2016 report by The Century Foundation, found that:
- Low-income fourth-graders in mixed-income schools were on average two years ahead in learning over poor students in high-poverty schools. Moreover, poor students in mixed-income high schools showed 30 percent more growth in test scores over four years of high school than poor students in poor schools.
- Poor students in integrated high schools were 68 percent more likely to enroll in college than poor students in high-poverty schools.
- Dropout rates are significantly lower for poor students in mixed-income high schools than for those in high-poverty schools.
It is very clear that diversity dramatically improves the odds of educational success for the poorest kids. That’s why we support it.
But while diversity has been our focus, we have never suggested that magnet schools are a quick or easy solution or that other ideas are not worth pursuing.
We’re not generally pro-charter schools, but when we see a charter program that improves the odds for the poorest kids, we applaud it.
Likewise, it’s clear that minority teachers can have a powerful beneficial effect on the poorest African American students, especially boys.
As an aside, I recommend you listen to “Miss Buchanan’s Period of Adjustment from Season 2 of Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast. It’s the backstory of the Supreme Court’s landmark desegregation ruling in the 1964 Brown v. Board of Education case—in which the court concluded that separate schools for black and white students is inherently unconstitutional because the all-black schools were always inferior.
Gladwell reports that Leola and Oliver Brown were not at all dissatisfied with the all-black school their daughter Linda attended in Topeka, Kansas. They felt the program was fine, the teachers were well-qualified and even more important, that teachers and administrators “took an interest” in the students. They just didn’t feel that the school board should be able to tell them they had no right to send their daughter to a school closer to home because the closer school was for white students.
The court ruled, correctly, that segregated schools are always unequal. But it never looked at the question of the role of teachers in outcomes. Gladwell reports on the work of researchers at Vanderbilt University who found that when white teachers evaluate black and white students (of similar academic standing) for admission to gifted and talented programs, the black students are only half as likely to be selected as the white students. It’s not intentional racism, they conclude, just the effect of lower expectations shaped by racial stereotypes.
The truth is that black teachers matter. A study released this April by economists from Johns Hopkins, American University and the University of California Irvine found that, “Low-income black students who have at least one black teacher in elementary school are significantly more likely to graduate high school and consider attending college.”
They found that having “at least one black teacher in third through fifth grades reduced a black student’s probability of dropping out of school by 29 percent.” For the poorest African American boys, the dropout rate fell by an even more dramatic 39 percent.
Black students who have even one back teacher in the early grades have better test scores, fewer behavioral problems in school and much lower rates of suspension.
Are we at Great Schools for All in favor or hiring more minority teachers? Absolutely. We’re for improving the odds.
One of the visceral arguments we sometimes encounter in our advocacy is that it shouldn’t matter who a child sits next to in school. Similarly people strongly object to the proposition that the race of the teacher factors into the performance of black students. People want to believe that equality of educational opportunity arrived with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But that’s an ideological point of view, not an accurate point of view.
Any issue that intersects with race and poverty is sensitive and evokes strong emotions.
But the way forward is to embrace the evidence and act accordingly. That’s what we’re all about at Great Schools.