Putting the ‘public’ back in ‘public schools’

When we at Great Schools for All sing the virtues of school diversity to groups who have asked to hear what we have to say, we find a lot of heads nodding in agreement. You can almost hear the thoughts:

“Yes, children should be in diverse schools where they can learn to work with and appreciate children who are not like themselves. Yes, every child should have access to a great school. No, the quality of a child’s education should not be defined by the neighborhood his or her parents can afford to live in.”

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

But another line of thought also runs through some more affluent parents’ minds—one they are not always comfortable voicing in public. They wonder if attending a socioeconomically diverse school, despite the advantages they readily acknowledge, could deprive their kids of the undeniable benefits that accrue to them at academically elite schools where students have the highest test scores, graduation rates near 100 percent and which send their graduates on to elite colleges that pretty much guarantee high-paying careers.

I don’t mean to trivialize that concern for a minute. All parents want the best for their kids, and it’s easy to feel that if we fail to provide our kids with every advantage we can, to give them a leg up on the competition, then we’ve failed them. Yes, we know schools should help kids become “culturally competent” and good citizens of the world who understand and value other cultures. But what if diverse magnet schools don’t have the same reputation as elite suburban schools? What if,our choices for them somehow cost our kids a little future earning power?

I don’t think I can or would try to answer that question for another parent. But I encourage you to follow the writing of Nikole Hannah-Jones, a reporter for The New York Times Magazine who writes frequently about the disastrous effects of school segregation, especially on the poor. She and her husband live in Brooklyn and decided to send their daughter to a neighborhood public school—a diverse, but still poor school—even though they could have enrolled her in a more affluent city school.

In a February 21 piece, Hannah-Jones says it’s important to put the public back in public schools, to stop working to get the most for our own kids out of a public school—even at the expense of other kids.

Betsy DeVos, the new U.S. Secretary of Education, Hannah-Jones says,” called traditional public schools a ‘dead end’” and “bankrolled efforts to pass reforms in Michigan, her home state, that would funnel public funds in the form of vouchers into religious and privately operated schools and encouraged the proliferation of for-profit charter schools. “

In truth, Hannah-Jones writes, “We began moving away from the ‘public’ in public education a long time ago. In fact, treating public schools like a business these days is largely a matter of fact in many places. Parents have pushed for school-choice policies that encourage shopping for public schools that they hope will give their children an advantage and for the expansion of charter schools that are run by private organizations with public funds. Large numbers of public schools have selective admissions policies that keep most kids out. And parents pay top dollar to buy into neighborhoods zoned to ‘good’ public schools that can be as exclusive as private ones. The glaring reality is, whether we are talking about schools or other institutions, it seems as if we have forgotten what ‘public’ really means.”

There’s more to public schools than public money, she says. “Public schools became widespread in the 1800s, not to provide an advantage for particular individuals but with the understanding that shuffling the wealthy and working class together (though not black Americans and other racial minorities) would create a common sense of citizenship and national identity, that it would tie together the fates of the haves and the have-nots and that doing so benefited the nation. A sense of the public good was a unifying force because it meant that the rich and the poor, the powerful and the meek, shared the spoils — as well as the burdens — of this messy democracy.”

This is tough stuff, but worth contemplating. It is a fairly recent idea that test scores and high-paying job opportunities are the only real purposes to public schools. Of course, academic achievement matters, but kids should (will) continue to learn throughout their lives.

What students learn from and about each other as young children will determine not what they learn later, but how well they will put their knowledge to the service of country and community and democratic values.

That’s why diversity matters.

 

Great schools for all, not for some

With the election of Donald Trump, the public school reform debate is about start over again, pushing the narrative back to where it was eight years ago—with a Republican administration  insisting that “choice” is the path to dramatically improving outcomes.

Never mind that that most of  America’s public schools are doing just fine, and never mind that the parents and students in the worst schools—high poverty urban schools—are not likely to get any real choices from the choice crowd.

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

The Obama administration hasn’t always been great on public education, but in the last year or so, Education Secretary John King has started to push incentives to promote socioeconomic diversity—finally putting a little federal muscle behind what the research has been saying for decades. Poor kids in middle class schools have a much better chance at success, and middle class kids in those schools are better off for the experience of diversity.

But with Trump’s nomination of Detroit billionaire Betsy DeVos to head the education department, you can forget about a push for diversity. DeVos is a longtime champion of “parental choice” in the form of vouchers and charter schools.

She has her supporters, for sure, and a large array of detractors. In a Nov. 25 story in her hometown Detroit Free Press, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder said her “appointment will mean great things for Michigan and for children around the nation as she takes her no-nonsense commitment to empowering parents to the highest levels.” In the same story, David Hecker, president of the American Federation of Teachers-Michigan, said, “I can’t imagine a worse pick…she wants to dismantle public education.”

We’ve heard this all before.

The question isn’t whether some students will succeed in charter schools, or would be better off using a voucher to attend a private school.

The question is whether our country believes in public school systems that deliver the opportunity for an excellent education to every student—no matter, as we say at GS4A, what their Zip Code.

Neither charters nor vouchers can deliver the promise of a great school for all kids.

Trump promised in the campaign to shift $20 billion from other education programs to vouchers. DeVos is a huge supporter of vouchers. But this approach presents problems.

How big would the voucher checks be? $5,000 or $6,000 would be larger than almost anything ever proposed before—but that’s not enough money to help a truly poor family buy tuition in a top private school. It might be enough to help the few remaining city middle class families to flee—leaving the city even poorer than it is.

Second, there isn’t enough private school capacity in most places, including Rochester, to take large numbers of poor city kids.

A November piece in Slate reported that a Louisiana voucher program has failed to deliver many promising results. The best—and most expensive—private schools have been unwilling to except larger numbers of poor kids (for a $5,500 voucher). The private schools that have accepted poor students have done so in the face of declining enrollment, suggesting lack of “customer satisfaction.” Students have seen their math scores decline in these privates.

Despite that, it’s surely possible that some children have used vouchers to secure a better education. The same can be said of students enrolled in charter schools—some are surely doing better than they were doing in the worst-performing public schools.

But Trump’s nomination of Besty DeVos signals a return to the mistaken—and tragic—view that private alternatives can replace public education.

Even with generous vouchers, private schools will refuse to accept the students most in need of a better school—because those students require the resources that even the best private schools cannot afford. Likewise, charter schools will continue to find ways to persuade parents of the most challenging students to return to their public schools before their test scores can be recorded.

While choice schools may be beneficial for individual students, they continue to drain away the  most promising students, leaving behind a pool of students even less likely to succeed—undermining the mission of public education.

To enshrine “choice” as the future of public education is to disregard the structural changes (diverse schools) that can improve lives and outcomes and settle instead for a system that delivers great schools for some.

That approach deprives millions of poor kids of the education they deserve, and deprives our country of the educated adults needed to “make America great again.”

The right answer is “Great Schools for All.”

 

 

 

Sometimes ‘fake news’ is truer than ‘real news’

It’s easy to make fun of young adults who get their current events from so-called “fake news” on TV, notably Jon Stewart’s (and now Trevor Noah’s) Daily Show.

But sometimes, the fake news is truer, or at least more revealing than the “real news.”

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

An Oct. 21 New York Times op-ed by University of Chicago law professor Geoffrey Stone asks whether Detroit’s highly segregated high-poverty schools effectively deny thousands of poor students the education they need to have a fighting chance to build good lives for themselves. Michigan state law guarantees them just that.

Fair question , obviously.

“At one Detroit school,” Stone writes, “just 4 percent of third graders scored proficient on Michigan’s English assessment test. At another, 9.5 percent did. Those students are among the plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed last month that asserts that children have a federal constitutional right to the opportunity to learn to read and write.”

Again, a fair issue to ask a court to review.

Stone goes on to say that, “in Connecticut, a state judge last month ordered sweeping changes to reshape the state’s public schools after concluding that ‘Connecticut is defaulting on its constitutional duty’ to provide all students with an adequate education. The judge concluded that the state’s funding system had ‘left rich school districts to flourish and poor school districts to flounder.'”

Clearly, this discrepancy between rich and poor is evident in urban areas, including ours, all across the United States. We have one set of schools for the poor (schools that fail nearly all the children who attend them) and another set of schools for the rich (who generally succeed even when they are near the bottom of their classes).

These discrepancies are totally unacceptable. Stone notes that in 1982, the Supreme Court pointed out that “illiteracy is an enduring disability” that will “handicap” children “each and every day” of their lives and take “an inestimable toll” on their “social, economic, intellectual and psychological well-being” for the rest of their lives.

But the Detroit case, like so many others before it, essentially asks the court to require that the state equalize the resources available to rich and poor students.

Of course, resources are important, but as we’ve been saying at Great Schools, it’s not just about the money.

On Sunday night, “fake news” anchor John Oliver, host of the HBO’s Last Week Tonight did an 18-minute segment on school segregation, noting, among other things, that New York has the most segregated schools in the country.

Oliver explained that high poverty schools, which are also typically racially segregated, are the product of decades of discriminatory housing and zoning laws that have kept the poor isolated. Indeed, Oliver explains—in ways you almost never hear on the “real news” shows—that the 1964 Civil Rights outlawed the officially segregated schools in the South, but not the segregated schools in the North resulting from discriminatory housing patterns.

Oliver showed some footage of diverse schools in Charlotte, N.C., where a former student says that as soon as poor schools started seeing middle class students, suddenly, there were new gyms and swimming pools and upgraded cafeterias. Of course, Oliver says, “funding tends to follow white people around.”

Yes. And as his “fake news” show also reports—correctly—when poor kids attend racially and socioeconomically diverse schools, they have much higher graduation rates and much lower rates of incarceration. By the way, in diverse schools, white kids show much less racial bias, according to Last Week Tonight.

Of course, modern facilities, state-of-the-art computers, comprehensive libraries, new athletic facilities and exposure to the arts are important.

But this week, only the “fake news” guy  seems to ask, “What if the most important resource we can give to poor and affluent children is the gift of each other?”

Lancaster starts talking about school integration

When it comes to moving toward school integration, do the facts really matter?

Yes and no. (I know, not the answer anyone wants to hear.) As my GS4A colleague Jeff Linn wrote last week, people acquire attitudes over time. Our thinking does evolve based on our own experiences  and on how the people closest to us think about various ideas. It’s complicated.

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

But rarely do we see a major attitude change, let alone public policy changes, based simply on what the evidence—however abundant—tells us.

But Rochester is not the only place struggling to find a fact-based solution to high poverty schools when people show little inclination to change.

Jeff Hawkes, a reporter for LNP, a daily newspaper in Lancaster, Pa.,  and Lancaster online, posted an August 28 story that sounds like what we’ve seen in Rochester. (An aside: Hawkes interviewed GS4A co-convenor Lynette Sparks, W. Irondequoit superintendent Jeff Crane and me for a sidebar story on our work here.)

The Lancaster school district is smaller than Rochester’s, but it has the same poverty and racial isolation issues we have.

Hawkes lays out the case for socioeconomic diversity:

“Integrating schools to restore economic balance boosts achievement levels among poor children without negatively impacting other students, researchers say.”

And, he wrote, there is local experience to support those findings going back four decades.

“Poor children at Manheim Township, Hempfield and other schools got an academic boost where they’re outnumbered by more affluent children…Specifically, at the 10 most affluent elementary schools in the suburbs, 60 percent of the disadvantaged children pass the language arts test. But at the 10 highest-poverty schools, all in the city, only 40 percent pass.

“The 20-point gap raises questions for the Lancaster region: what would happen if every school was economically integrated, assuring that poor kids from the city learned with middle-class kids from the suburbs?”

Seven years ago, in 2009, David Rusk, a Washington, D.C.-based urban policy consultant (and author of Cities Without Suburbs and several follow-up books), “recommended Lancaster County rethink its tradition of neighborhood schools. He wrote a 51-page report called ‘Classmates Count’ showing how the segregated nature of Lancaster County’s neighborhoods reinforced educational disadvantage,” Hawkes reported.

” ‘Where a child lives (in Lancaster County) largely shapes his educational opportunities, not because of what the school board does but because of who his classmates are,’ Rusk wrote in a report that the that the county planning commission authorized but never followed up on. In the seven years since Rusk issued his report, the concentration of poverty at most of the city’s schools has only deepened, and poor students continue to fall behind their peers.”

Whatever the merits of integration, it’s a very challenging goal. Hawkes cites Jonathan Betel, who runs a Pennsylvania statewide education advocacy group, as saying that you can’t separate socioeconomic diversity from race.

Because the obstacles to integration in Pennsylvania appear so daunting, Cetel said he prefers to focus on strategies that lift up inner-city children in their neighborhood schools. Makes more sense, he says to build “high performance schools” in the poor neighborhoods the students come from.

Except that it won’t work for the vast majority of kids.

 

Likewise, Lancaster superintendent Damaris Rau said she and her staff are hoping to overcome the consequences of poverty by using learning strategies intended to “help kids reach their full potential.”

“It might work, but I don’t know,” Rau said, referring to integration. “We have to focus on the here and now. We can’t sit around and hope something like that is going to happen when we have children sitting in front us today.”

Sound familiar?

It takes years, maybe decades, for legislators and school officials to catch up to the reality that high-poverty schools can never yield the opportunities that more affluent students experience in middle-class schools. It takes even longer for them to believe (as the GS4A parent survey clearly indicates) that today’s parents are more than willing to consider integrated schools that are open to kids from a variety of socioeconomic and racial backgrounds.

So no, I don’ think studies will lead directly integration—no matter how compelling the evidence. What we need first and foremost are pioneers—a few school superintendents, boards, principals and innovators who are willing to lead by example. We need folks who will launch an integrated school and let the outcomes and word-of-mouth build support for broader change.

A tale of two schools

This  video, “A tale of two schools: Race and education on Long Island,” was produced a few years back by the Erase Racism project.

It is 26 minutes long, but I encourage you to stay with it to the end. David is a senior at Wyandanch High School, which is poor and lacks resources, not to mention high expectations. Owen attends the far more affluent Rockville Center High School, which is resource-rich and where he has become friends with many affluent students.

Their experiences clearly show why and how integration is so important to student success.

 

Integration not likely to happen by good will alone

Here’s a couple of  videos that explain how segregation happen today.
The first is from 2014, and explores how the schools in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, have been resegregated— showing how legislators and judges have permitted the slippage. Meanwhile, students from an earlier generation  of integrated schools talk about how their lives have been better for it.

 

In this interview from January 2016 PBS’ Charlayne Hunter-Gault talks with Pedro Noguera of the University of California, Los Angeles, about the ways to solve this problem.

School integration is about more than grades and graduation rates

In the wake of last week’s police shootings in Baton Rouge and suburban St. Paul and the killing of five Dallas police officers, Michael Eric Dyson, a Georgetown University sociologist and author, wrote a fiery, angry commentary for the New York Times Sunday Review.

White Americans, Dyson wrote, can’t understand why black Americans are so angry over police shootings when those same African Americans never say a thing about “black-on-black” homicides all across urban America. Dyson says the charge is complete nonsense, but “nearly beside the point. Black people protest, to one another, to a world that largely refuses to listen, that what goes on in black communities across this nation is horrid, as it would be in any neighborhood depleted of dollars and hope—emptied of good schools, and deprived of social and economic buffers against brutality. People usually murder where they nest; they aim their rage at easy targets.

“It is not best understood as black-on-black crime; rather, it is neighbor-to-neighbor carnage. If their neighbors were white, they’d get no exemption from the crime that plagues human beings who happen to be black. If you want interracial killing, you have to have interracial communities.”

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

I’m sure that many of Dyson’s readers will see his remarks as “extreme” or “hysterical,” but there is a truth to his premise: You cannot understand people, let alone care about them or build community with them from afar.  The racial divide in America is the product of persistent segregation—separate schools, churches, neighborhoods. And distinctly different expectations—of success and happiness, or failure, hardship and early death—depending on where you come from.

If you are white (especially if you are affluent), ” you are given a pair of binoculars that see black life from a distance, never with the texture of intimacy,” Dyson says. “…Those binoculars are…stories, bad stories, biased stories, harmful stories, about how black people are lazy, or dumb, or slick, or immoral, people who can’t be helped by the best schools or even God himself. These beliefs don’t make it into contemporary books, or into most classrooms. But they are passed down, informally, from one white mind to the next.”

Most of us spend most of our lives with people who are like ourselves. We are tribal in many ways. But in a wide open free society like America, we need to build institutions and opportunities for meaningful interaction with those not like us. When we wall ourselves off, the promise of America dies—because the promise of  “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is meaningless when so many are denied access to equal opportunity.

We at GS4A advocate for school integration because we know, from decades of research, that diverse schools can dramatically improve the odds for success for children in high poverty segregated schools.  But integration is about more than good grades and higher graduation rates, as important as those are. Schools are one of the places where children should have the opportunity to interact with kids who are different from themselves.

Schools should be places where children can put aside those binoculars and experience the “texture of intimacy” that is so essential to their growth as human beings and as citizens. Schools should bring together rich and poor, white, African American, Hispanic, Asian, and refugees in an environment that will make them all better for it.

Segregation not only stokes the fires of bigotry and mistrust, it destroys community and deprives us of the creative problem solving that’s only possible when we learn to work together.

The good news is that young adults “get” all this in ways that their parents and grandparents may not. As our recent survey of city and suburban parents confirms, that vast majority of parents today (people in their late 20s to early 40s) want their kids to attend fully diverse schools, and they don’t care if that means traveling across school district to boundaries to achieve integration. Of course, they want those schools to have rich academic programs and to be safe. But they reject segregation without  reservation.

That means the door is open. We have the opportunity in Rochester and Monroe County to begin to remove the barriers that have for so many decades denied our children the gift of each other—and denied our community the chance to use our collective skills to build a more just, more prosperous, more vital society.

The tide is turning in favor of integration

Believe me, I know that school integration is a heavy lift, and often it feels like an impossible lift. I’ve been engaged in conversations around the topic for more than 30 years in Rochester, where conventional wisdom has it that nothing can be done because there is no support for any further programs to address the isolation of the poorest children in our community. That’s what Urban-Suburban is for, right?

As an aside, CW also once held that the Soviet Union would never fall, that Ronald Reagan could never be elected president, that our state Legislature could never pass an on-time budget, and that the Red Sox would never end the curse of the Bambino. In other words, conventional wisdom—like its kissing cousin, common sense—always holds that something that has not happened will never happen. This is neither wise nor sensible.

So take heart. We may now finally be at a breakthrough point. How so?

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

Resistance can still be found to particular integration initiatives. As an April story in The Atlantic reported: “Pushback comes both from families at high-performing schools who are happy with the status quo, and from families at struggling neighborhood schools who want them improved instead of turned into a citywide series of magnet programs that might result in their kids trekking across town each morning. ”

There is, the Century Foundation’s Richard Kahlenberg says in the same story, a “discrepancy between what science suggests and how politicians act.” The consensus of social scientists, he noted, “is that socioeconomic and racial integration is one of the best things communities can do for young people to help them succeed in school and in the workforce. But politicians are ‘scared to death of the issue.’ However, Kahlenberg said, he thinks there are signs that change is beginning to happen.”

As a recent Century Foundation report notes, at least 91 school districts now use socioeconomic status as a factor in assigning students, up from just a couple in 1996, and around 40 in 2007.

It always takes time for political change to catch up with changes in public opinion. Conventional wisdom is hard to reverse even when it’s so clearly wrong. But in Rochester, the new GS4A parent survey (link to it off this page), has shown that today’s parents of school age children do not object to integration at all—when it comes with new and exciting types of curriculum. Huge majorities of both city and suburban parents here now say they want (not just tolerate) much more diverse schools for their children because they believe that when schools look more like the world we live in, they will  better prepare children to succeed in that world.

Further evidence that the tide is turning: The Obama administration has proposed incentives to promote socioeconomic diversity as central to turning around failing schools. As a story in Education Week reported earlier this month, while the president’s proposed $120 million for diversity programs was rejected by a Senate panel, “the U.S. Department of Education, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Department of Transportation sent a letter to state and local leaders …asking that they put their heads together and figure out how to knock down barriers to diversity in housing and schools.

“The education department has also proposed giving projects that seek to improve socioeconomic diversity a leg-up in grant competitions. It has proposed funding projects through the Investing in Innovation program that would focus on diversity.”

This is how change happens. It’s never as quick as we’d like. And it is never easy. But the door is open. And the time is now.

 

 

Great schools for all require great public policy

At Great Schools for All, we know that socioeconomic diversity is the bedrock of any successful reform of high poverty segregated urban schools.

But I am always reminding myself that what we propose is not magic. For decade many urban school districts have played a huge part in the marginalization of racial and ethnic minorities, who are overwhelmingly poor.

And reversing the consequences of  bad choices is going be difficult.

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

First, there are institutional dilemmas. Rather than follow the evidence—integration is the building block of academic success and higher level creative and critical thinking skills—policy makers in most states, including New York, chose instead to believe that throwing money and resources at segregated high-poverty schools would lead to educational equity.

Instead, the poorest schools are in worse shape than ever and the proponents of more resources blame teachers (and teacher unions), school boards, parents and even the students themselves for the crisis at hand.

It is extremely difficult now to persuade the policy makers who have poured vast sums of public money into failed educational ventures that it’s time to try something else.

But parents, too, face dilemmas when it comes to integration.

If you are not familiar with the work of New York Times Magazine staff writer Nikole Hannah-Jones, you should be. She is without question one of the most compelling and knowledgeable journalists writing about the struggle for educational integration.

In a magazine story headlined,”Choosing a School for My Daughter in a Segregated City,” Hannah-Jones explains that she and her husband and daughter live in Bedford-Stuyvesant, “a poor but rapidly gentrifying neighborhood in Brooklyn.”

The schools in Bed-Stuy, like most of the schools in one of the world’s most diverse cities, reflect deep “racial and socioeconomic divisions.” Most middle class families send their kids to private schools or to one of a handful of diverse, academically exceptional magnet schools. The poor are left behind in schools that reflect the academic and social consequences of marginalization.

Hannah-Jones grew up in Waterloo, Iowa, where, thanks to a court-ordered desegregation plan, she was able to attend a “rich white school.”

“I remember those years as emotionally and socially fraught, but also as academically stimulating and world-expanding,” she writes. “Aside from the rigorous classes and quality instruction I received, this was the first time I’d shared dinners in the homes of kids whose parents were doctors and lawyers and scientists. My mom was a probation officer, and my dad drove a bus, and most of my family members on both sides worked in factories or meatpacking plants or did other manual labor. I understood, even then, in a way both intuitive and defensive, that my school friends’ parents weren’t better than my neighborhood friends’ parents, who worked hard every day at hourly jobs. But this exposure helped me imagine possibilities, a course for myself that I had not considered before.”

After plainly explaining the benefits of integration, her thinking takes a turn:

“Integration was transformative for my husband and me. Yet the idea of placing our daughter in one of the small number of integrated schools troubled me. These schools are disproportionately white and serve the middle and upper middle classes, with a smattering of poor black and Latino students to create ‘diversity.’ ”

In New York, she says, just 15 percent of more than one million students are white, but they are clustered in just 11 percent of the schools, “which not coincidentally include many of the city’s top performers.”

She acknowledged that all the research says children like her daughter would be better off in one of the city’s integrated magnet schools, but she persuaded her husband (after many arguments) to send their daughter Najya to P.S. 307, one of Bed-Stuy’s poorer schools.

“One family, or even a few families, cannot transform a segregated school, but if none of us were willing to go into them, nothing would change. Putting our child into a segregated school would not integrate it racially, but we are middle-class and would, at least, help to integrate it economically. As a reporter, I’d witnessed how the presence of even a handful of middle-class families made it less likely that a school would be neglected. I also knew that we would be able to make up for Najya anything the school was lacking.”

Turns out that P.S. 307, led by a charismatic principal was a great fit for Najya, but within a couple of years, school officials redrew feeder boundaries to ease overcrowding in a largely white middle class school nearby—assuring that P.S. 307 would be more segregated than ever.

Hannah-Jones and her husband had done what they could to open P.S. 307 to a more integrated future, but the system seems likely to overwhelm their efforts—and those of a few other pioneering  middle class families.

Integration is a heavy lift in a country where it is no longer national policy.

Parents have a duty to make the best choices they can. We can admire middle class parents who commit to poor urban schools and work doubly hard to make sure their children get the educational benefits they won’t get in those schools. And we can understand why middle class parents who have the means, relocate to a suburban district that promises great academic outcomes.

But Nikole Hannah-Jones’ very moving story is a powerful reminder that even the most thoughtful parents cannot always find a great school for their kids.  The only way to make that a reality is through public policy that guarantees it.

Focus on the ‘norms’ not the educational outliers

Today’s blog comes to us thanks to an email blast from retired School Without Walls principal Dan Drmacich, who sent us a May 4 blogpost by New York City education reformer Diane Ravitch, who referenced a response from a South Carolina professor to an April 29  New York Times story.

Blogging on blogs.

But this is good stuff and well worth sharing with you.

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

The Times story, “Money, Race and Success: How your school district compares,” lays out a variety of charts showing how clearly race and income are tied to educational outcomes:

“What emerges clearly in the data is the extent to which race and class are inextricably linked, and how that connection is exacerbated in school settings.

“Not only are black and Hispanic children more likely to grow up in poor families, but middle-class black and Hispanic children are also much more likely than poor white children to live in neighborhoods and attend schools with high concentrations of poor students.”

Well, yes, all that is well known. But the story also notes, “The data was not uniformly grim. A few poor districts — like Bremen City, Ga. and Union City, N.J. — posted higher-than-average scores. They suggest the possibility that strong schools could help children from low-income families succeed.”

Hold on, says Professor Paul Thomas, of  Furman University in South Carolina (see his full post here): “Let’s stop trying to find the ‘miracle’ in a rare few schools where vulnerable students appear to succeed despite the odds against them. With time and careful consideration, we must admit, those appearances almost always are mirages.

“Let’s instead put our energy in eradicating the poverty, racism, and sexism that disadvantages some students, vulnerable populations easily identified by race and social class, so that we can educate all students well.”

He goes on, and I like this analogy enough to steal it, “Education reform…is obsessed with playing the hero by seeing who can pull the most babies out of the river. And then examining the ones who survive the potential drowning in order to ‘make’ all babies survive the trauma of being cast down stream. But no one seems interested in walking upstream to stop babies being thrown in.”

I’ve made this point before, but it bears repeating. We should celebrate these outliers, marvel at them, even look for  aspects we can replicate and learn from. But anecdotal success is not success when it comes to school districts.

When we discuss the idea of Great Schools for All—the principle that every child deserves equal access to a great school, that a socioeconomically diverse school environment makes all kids smarter and dramatically improves the odds of graduating high school for the poorest students—we often hear about how Charter School X helped some kids improve reading scores, or how Super Teacher Y changes her students’ lives and gives them hope where there was none before.

Yes, that does happen. We should never underestimate the power of very gifted and dedicated adults to change lives. It is truly inspiring. GS4A doesn’t deny that; we cheer it.

But the job of public education is to develop structures, policies and strategies that result in nearly every child—90 percent or better—graduating on time and ready for work, work training or higher education.

Thanks to Professor Thomas for making that point so well.