School diversity and teacher diversity both necessary

 

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.

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

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.

Save the date – An evening with Nikole Hannah-Jones

Please join us for a community event on October 26 featuring Nikole Hannah-Jones, a nationally recognized investigative journalist who covers civil rights for The New York Times Magazine.

This event is an important milestone in an ongoing community conversation on how we can dramatically restructure education in our community so it works for all students. Hannah-Jones provides a compelling case for school diversity, and has decades of experience studying segregation in education to back it up.

Our city and suburban districts are actively moving forward with plans to form socioeconomically diverse schools. The time is now to bring more people into this movement to create long-lasting, systemic change in Monroe County schools. So please RSVP and invite a friend or colleague.

RCSD resolution, Regents’ policy statement are groundbreaking

As you know by now, at its June 27 meeting, the city school board passed a resolution that commits the district to an “exploration of possible regional schools, as envisioned by Great Schools for All coalition, and the impact that a regional school (or several regional schools) might have on existing facility and zone capacity.”

So what exactly does that mean?

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

Representatives from GS4A worked for several months to find a way to bring the district into conversations about socioeconomically diverse interdistrict magnet schools as part of a strategy to address the consequences of concentrated poverty in city schools. We appeared before the board’s Student Achievement Committee in March and later met individually with most board members to help find a path forward—one that would commence the interdistrict conversations needed to develop diverse schools while not disrupting Superintendent Barbara Deane-Williams’ critical work to restructure the district’s administration and programs.

Since the district’s planning process includes assessing its future facilities needs,  the board’s resolution seeks to consider the possibility of interdistrict schools in light of their potential impact on the district’s future space needs.

That’s the legislative sausage-making process that led to the resolution. GS4A and BOCES leadership had earlier identified several suburban districts willing to be a part of a conversation on interdistrict diverse schools, and we expect that shortly these  conversations will begin.

GS4A will do whatever we can to facilitate and support these discussions,  including drafting agenda items and soliciting help and advices from educators in other communities with a long of history of maintaining diverse schools.

This resolution and the dialogue to come are especially timely. This summer the state Department of Education and the Board of Regents are considering strategies to increase socioeconomic diversity in order to improve outcomes and help school districts meet the requirements of the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

The Regents’ “Draft Policy Statement on Promoting Diversity: Integration in New York State” is particularly powerful and on point. I want to share a bit of it with you.

An introductory referral attached to the draft statement notes that “the proportion of New York State schools considered intensely segregated doubl(ed) between 1989 and 2010.”

The draft statement then explains:

“In 2010, over half of Black and Latino students in the State attended schools with fewer than 10 percent White enrollment, and the typical Asian student in the State attended schools in which a little over 30 percent of their peers were White.  In that same year, the average White student attended schools in which close to 80 percent of his or her classmates were White.  Further, in 2010, the average White student attended a school in which 30 percent of his or her classmates were low-income, while the average Black and Latino student attended a school where 70 percent of his or her classmates were low-income.”

The Regents’ paper goes on to reference recent research showing  “that socioeconomic and racial integration leads to higher academic outcomes for all students, closes the achievement gap for students of different racial and economic backgrounds, fosters critical thinking skills and the ability to communicate and work with people of all backgrounds, reduces racial and ethnic prejudice while increasing cross-cultural trust and relationships, decreases the likelihood of teenage pregnancy and interaction with the juvenile justice system, and increases the likelihood of college going and success.”

This is a powerful endorsement of the arguments we and other diversity advocates have been making for years. In response to the findings, the board “commits to promoting increased integration within New York State’s public schools.”

The statement then says that “promoting socioeconomic and racial integration is a powerful mechanism for achieving” the Regents’ longstanding goal of educating all children in the state.

The draft policy paper further commits the Regents  “to the development and support of educational programs that promote the values of socioeconomic, racial, cultural, and other kinds of diversity. The Board of Regents encourages districts and schools, to the greatest extent possible, to adopt integration plans that result in schools that reflect a diverse mix of students—of different races and ethnicities, abilities, home languages, and socioeconomic status—to ensure that schools, programs, and services reflect—and thus obtain the full educational, instructional, and developmental benefit of—the diversity of the district and/or surrounding districts.”

To achieve these ends, the Regents suggest several strategies, including:

  • Creating partnerships or regional districts or consolidating with nearby districts to address socioeconomic or racial isolation across districts;
  • Re-drawing school zones, strategically selecting new school sites, and creating unzoned schools with weighted enrollment (e.g., enrollment preferences or weighted lottery) to increase integration; and/or
  • Providing transportation and other logistical support to ensure that segregated housing patterns do not prevent students from attending integrated schools.

The Regents conclude with “A Call To Action” that says they will work with “districts across the State to support their integration efforts…and encourages districts to consider integration as a cost-effective strategy for raising student achievement.”

As an old journalist, I know it’s important to never get ahead of the facts. But this statement, still to be revised and finalized, represents a huge step forward, even committing the Regents to the concept of interdistrict collaboration to achieve socioeconomic diversity. This is new ground, and essential to building an educational system that serves the needs of all children, including the poorest among us.

Stay tuned.

A breakthrough: RCSD to consider interdistrict schools

On Tuesday June 27, the Rochester Board of Education approved a resolution that commits the district to working with wiling suburban partners to investigate the development of regional magnet-type schools that would offer students the well-known advantages of a truly diverse education.

We see this is as an important step forward and worth celebrating by all of you who support the goal of socioeconomic diversity as a key to reversing the devastating effects of high-poverty schools on the educational achievement of the poorest children in our community.

The board approved the resolution on a 5-0 vote, with Commissioners Malik Evan and Cynthia Elliot absent. The resolution was sponsored by Commissioner Willa Powell who says this is a perfect time to begin conversations on regional schools because the Rochester City School District is assessing its long term capacity needs and magnet schools could well effect the districts’s future needs for space.

Great Schools For All applauds the city school board for this action. We have earlier reached out to suburban superintendents and found several willing to discuss with the city ways they might work together toward diverse schools.

This is just one step. We understand there is a great deal to be done. But we hope that these conversations will arrive at agreements on the types of magnet schools that could appeal to city and suburban families. We hope they will also result in a framework for interdistrict collaboration, with an emphasis on using existing buildings and funding streams wherever possible. We hope they will also identify changes in state law or regulations needed to make interdistrict collaboration possible and successful.

Adding to our momentum at the local level is increased interest from the Regents in making school diversity a statewide priority. The Regents and New York State Education Department (NYSED) are currently leading two strands of work that directly complement and align with the goals of Great Schools for All.

First, NYSED included school diversity and integration in their draft state plan required by the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The state ESSA Plan, which will be finalized in September, lists school integration as a potential school intervention strategy and recommends that schools be able to use their Title I school improvement funds to support integration efforts. Additionally, the plan discusses using school integration as a potential accountability indicator that schools would have to measure and report on to the public.

Second, the Regents are developing a Policy Statement in support of school diversity and have created a Working Group to facilitate that effort. The current statement specifically mentions interdistrict partnerships as a strategy to address concentrated poverty, which aligns with our efforts in Monroe County.

GS4A is actively involved in these discussions and are hopeful it will create the state-level changes necessary to create diverse schools in Rochester and across the state.

Dallas schools seek diversity; time for Rochester to do the same

For all its charms and its rich history, Rochester is not known for being bold when it comes to social change—not since the abolitionists and suffragists called our city home in the 19th century.

A lot of people here recognize the need for change if we are to reverse the effects of decades of concentrated poverty on our neighborhoods and our city schools. But when it comes to giving up bad old ideas for better new ideas, we freeze.

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

At Great Schools for All, we see and hear this all the time. Most people now agree that socioeconomically diverse schools are the best tool for improving the odds for academic success for the poorest  kids —and the best tool for teaching all kids, including those who are pretty affluent, how to collaborate in an increasingly diverse world.

But when it comes to taking that first step…

Here’s a little encouragement. On June 19, The New York Times ran a story under the headline: “Dallas schools, long segregated, charge forward on diversity.”

Yes, Dallas. My colleague Don Pryor wrote a blog on the Dallas initiative last September, noting its early successes and noting that our Great Schools parent survey from last spring found strong support among city and suburban parents for diverse schools. There is every reason to believe that Monroe County parents would welcome the discussion of interdistrict schools—if our leaders would take that first step.

The Dallas superintendent, Michael Hinojosa, is a native who lived through a failed integration campaign in Dallas in the early ’70s. But the experience did not sour him one bit.

Hinojosa has inherited a plan developed two years ago by his predecessor. The goal is to open 35 new schools by 2020, drawing a 50-50 mix of poor and more affluent students and enticing some wealthier families back into the city.

It’s a heavy lift and progress is slow. But the commitment is real.

“Every major city in America has to find some way to deal with this issue,”  Hinojosa told the Times.  “When you have a mix of kids, the affluent kids don’t suffer and the children of intergenerational poverty do better.”

Dallas has launched “innovation schools,” which try to improve neighborhood schools with new curriculum such as International Baccalaureate. Test scores are up somewhat in these schools, but the districts hasn’t had much luck attracting middle class families to poor neighborhoods.

More successful are “transformation schools,” magnet schools, using popular themes—arts, sciences, etc.—to attract interest.  Admission is by lottery and a socioeconomic balance is the goal.

This spring, the Times reports, 1,705 students applied for 613 spots in five existing transformation schools—and one in four applicants is coming from a charter or private school, olives outside the district.

The district has posted on its website a five-page concept paper on socioeconomic diversity as part of its aggressive effort to market these new schools.  It reads in part:

“But no matter the lever which creates the diversity in schools, the positive student results remain the same. The takeaway is that economic diversity matters a great deal and more districts are taking note.”

If Dallas can take this step, surely Rochester can, and should.

 

Let’s not talk about diversity as a ‘win-lose’ proposition

In a previous blog I wrote about win-win thinking and the need to look beyond the data and stereotypes (or generalizations if you prefer a less divisive term) on poverty and race to think critically about how socio-economically and racially diverse magnet or county wide schools could benefit children from both urban and suburban families. I want to return to this idea and specifically the term win-win as it relates to the need for more diverse school districts and magnet schools.

Stephen Covey coined the term win-win in his popular book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. It is habit #4. The term has become ubiquitous in our culture including education. But Covey writes that there are pre-requisites to getting to win-win solutions. The first two are maturity, which he defines as the balance between courage and consideration, and integrity. The third element, which is the most important and appears to be lacking in many of the discussions on equity in education, is an abundance mentality.

Jeff Linn is the chairman of the department of educational administration at the College at Brockport and a member of the GS4A steering committee.

This he defines as a way of thinking based on sharing. He contrasts this with a scarcity mentality such as a belief that if a group gains something—such as entry into a higher achieving school—it will mean fewer resources and opportunities for the children and families already associated with the school. A scarcity mentality is poison to seeking any win-win solutions and can only lead to win-lose results.

This concept is reflected in our current thinking on area schools. People who view life through a win-lose mentality believe that there is only so much to go around. They compare their schools’ “test scores” to those of city schools and declare themselves the winners because they got out or chose to live somewhere with good schools. They surround themselves with people like themselves, mostly white and middle class, and view those different from themselves with mixture of distrust, pity and disdain.

They could have gotten out like me, they think. They made their own breaks and others can too.

If urban kids mix with our kids we will create a lose-win. We lose our ranking as a top 100 school because we have diluted our student body.

This despite the fact that in many suburban districts 25-50 percent of the kids are “opting out” of the state assessments making that data  invalid. But they believe that other measures, like the number of kids enrolled in Advance Placement (AP) courses and the percentage accepted to 4-year colleges would drop and so would their coveted ranking and that would not be fair to them or their kids.

Win-lose thinking does have its place in our culture. Businesses, states and regions win and lose in their competitions for grants and contracts. Rooting for sports teams would be pretty boring without win-lose thinking. And not everyone can or should get into Harvard.

Still, the question is, do we want the social contract of our country and our region to be based on an abundance mentality, in which we share resources for the benefit of all? Or do we want to continue to embrace win-lose thinking that keeps the poor in their lane and crushes the American dream that should be built on cooperation and a level playing field for all children?

Building relationships between urban and suburban schools is win-win thinking. It is the third alternative that will benefit all parties and we can reach it if we embrace an abundance mentality. We are good enough for that. Aren’t we?

 

 

Taking steps to shape new initiatives with diversity

I recently sat in on a Rochester Board of Education committee meeting that focused on approaches to improve student outcomes, particularly graduation rates.

You know the context: Despite board priorities and the efforts of a parade of superintendents over the past several years, the district has struggled to move four-year on-time graduation percentages above the mid- to upper-40s.

Don Pryor is a researcher for the Center for Governmental Research and a member of the GS4A leadership team

Ongoing approaches and promising new and modified initiatives were discussed at this meeting. The back and forth between board and staff reflected a sense of, “this time it will be different,” that these efforts and the dedication of board members, administration, teachers and principals, parents and students will combine to move the needle toward significantly improved student achievement and graduation rates.

I’m a believer in “the promised land,” and the potential of numerous encouraging initiatives throughout the district, under goals set by the board and being carried out under the promising leadership of new superintendent Barbara Deane-Williams. And yet…and yet, concentrated poverty levels remain high, and no school in the district has a poverty population below 60 percent. Our local history—reinforced by consistent research findings across school districts throughout the country—strongly suggest that there are limits to what any of these internal promising initiatives can do to overcome the insidious effects of concentrated poverty, unless accompanied by other systemic interventions.

Great Schools for All strongly supports the district’s laser-sharp focus on a variety of actions to strengthen internal standards, structure and operations; to strengthen individual schools; and to improve achievement levels and academic and support programs for children. But GS4A also believes that this is a “Yes…And Also” proposition: That it is also important to simultaneously develop community-wide plans, shaped by all the existing research, to launch a network of socioeconomically diverse cross-district schools that are most likely to result in dramatic improvements in student achievement and graduation rates for the poorest children in our community.

While efforts of the district, and of the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative (RMAPI), focus appropriately on ways to strengthen supports in individual schools and neighborhoods, national research makes clear that these important efforts will be enhanced and that the ultimate goal of “lifting children out of poverty” will be more rapidly attained if the concentration of poverty in individual schools can be minimized. While, of course, there will always be individual kids who defy the odds, overcome the effects of poverty, and excel, research demonstrates that diverse schools can improve the odds for the majority of city children who, through no fault of their own, are being taught in schools with high concentrations of poverty.

Cross-district, socioeconomically diverse magnet schools have demonstrated their success in numerous communities across the nation. Not only do they improve the performance and graduation rates of poor students, they also improve critical thinking and problem-solving skills for all students, poor and more affluent/middle class students alike. Voluntary magnet schools can offer cutting-edge academic opportunities that not even the most affluent school districts can afford to offer on their own, and in so doing draw students from both urban and suburban school districts. Local parent survey data, and the experience of other communities across the country, indicate that there is strong support for such opportunities.

Several encouraging developments are under way locally that could lead to such schools in Monroe County.

GS4A is having constructive conversations with leadership in the City School District and with leadership in several suburban districts to explore these possibilities. Discussions are in very early stages, but offer the potential to create diverse educational opportunities to benefit students throughout Monroe County.

Simultaneously, GS4A’s Magnet Schools Committee has developed a process that will soon seek proposals from parties interested in collaborating with school districts or other community partners in the development of one or more socioeconomically diverse magnet schools.

Related plans are also being finalized for a series of community gatherings designed to bring together interested parties from various sectors throughout the county to develop ideas for diverse cross-district magnet schools that would respond to student and parental needs and desires by offering opportunities not currently available in any school district.

More details will be announced about these initiatives in the near future, so stay tuned. Efforts are also underway to expand Great Schools’ community engagement, outreach and advocacy efforts in all sectors of the community; to strengthen ongoing communications; and to expand diverse summer learning programs throughout the community. If you are interested in learning more about, or participating in, any of these efforts, please let us know by emailing Lynette Sparks, the Great Schools co-convener at lsparks@thirdpresbyterian.org

We say Yes to RCSD and RMAPI efforts to strengthen existing schools and neighborhoods, but lasting change must also include collaborative efforts across districts that will improve outcomes for students living in poverty, sharpen the cultural competencies of all students and strengthen the workforce of the future.

Above all, it’s a moral issue

 

“We had counted the cost and decided our children’s future was worth it.”

I am inspired, but even more so, profoundly challenged by the moral courage of the Reverend Dr. William J. Barber II. He leads in the tradition and carries on the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. on issues of racial and economic injustices.

Lynette Sparks is Co-Convenor of Great Schools for All and Associate Pastor for Outreach and Evangelism at Third Presbyterian Church.

Barber minces no words. He is brutally honest, which is why he’s so challenging. In his book, The Third Reconstruction: Moral Mondays, Fusion Politics, and the Rise of a New Justice Movement, he writes about his experience in 2010 resisting the attempted dismantling of one of the most thoroughly integrated public school systems in the South—that of Wake County, North Carolina— a system where data showed that diversity in schools works, a system that I visited three years ago with 10 other Rochester citizens.

He said the 2010 attempts at resegregation by privatizing schools were framed as a “push for excellence.” However, when he and his coalition “followed the money” of the privatization campaign, they learned these attempts “were continuing a fight that had been going on for half a century to deny a good education to poor people by clustering them in separate, subquality schools.” Barber built a diverse coalition of people – black, white, and brown, rich and poor, religious and secular, and more, to shift the public conversation, and ultimately succeed in resisting resegregation.

Of course, in 2017 Monroe County, resegregation is not the issue, for our school landscape is about as segregated by race and class as it can get. And it’s getting worse. Let me also be clear that I am not suggesting that local private or even charter schools have been set up by their founders to cluster poor people into subquality schools. I trust that those who are dedicating their time and resources to improving education have the best of intent, and we need a range of approaches to tackle the complexity of Rochester’s academic achievement gap.

Nevertheless, we’d be remiss not to pay attention to the experience of others, including our friends in Wake County, including Dr. Barber. One of the strategies of the Rochester Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative (RMAPI) is creating “community schools,” which create partnerships with various health, social, and family support services to improve student outcomes. Great Schools for All fully supports RMAPI’s work in this regard. It provides immediate support for the immediate challenges of low-income students.

Recently, a community leader asked me why Great Schools for All continues to advocate for creating a network of socioeconomically diverse schools. Why isn’t creating community schools throughout Rochester enough to help these students in high-poverty schools? I replied, “Because it lets the rest of us (meaning suburban residents and districts) off the hook.” For me, it’s not about blame for what happened in the past and how we got here. It’s about all of us bearing responsibility for the future of public education for every child in our county, no matter their zip code. And Dr. Barber connects sole reliance on community schools and voucher programs with a self-perpetuating cycle of segregation and inequity.

Barber’s motivation is above all moral; he was even willing to be jailed to fight for what is right and just for poor and minority children, even if he didn’t know that they would succeed in stopping the move toward resegregation. “We had counted the cost and decided our children’s future was worth it.”

I ask myself if I would be willing to do the same for Rochester’s children.

 

 

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.

 

Critical thinking can bridge differences

 

I’m offering a symposium at a conference in a few weeks on the use of on-line learning communities to transform critical thinking and biases. I’ll be using some of the many anonymous comments that I have collected from my students the past four years. They include comments like these:

“Hearing from 16 other people allowed me to work indepently yet come together on-line for meaningful discussions.” 

“It made sure I heard all voices.” 

Jeff Linn is the chairman of the department of educational administration at the College at Brockport and a member of the GS4A steering committee.

Hearing all voices is key to critical thinking. This is a challenge in today’s fractured political environment. Critical thinkers strive to understand the influence that context, assumptions, and stereotypes have on their own thinking.

Critical thinkers consider the evidence and sources of information instead of depending on hearsay and opinion. They recognize that sources like the non-partisan Rochester Area Community Foundation’s Poverty and Self –Suficiency report (2016) consist of raw data that we must analyze before drawing conclusions.

Critical thinkers understand the role perspective plays in their thinking. They work to consider other points of views in order to find “win-win” scenarios, and not settle for the “win-lose” results that many city schoolchildren face. And critical thinkers reach conclusions based on evidence and informed evaluation of an issue. They recognize that politics, stereotypes and generalizations play a role in their own thinking, but they are reflective enough to acknowledge this. Critical thinking is hard because we must look at our own biases throughout the process.

Critical thinking may be the toughest cognitive work that we do. Throughout the process of composing questions for my classes and writing these blogs I have been forced to look the biases that I have about suburbanites who don’t care for the idea of more socioeconomically diverse schools and not be so judgmental. I am striving to understand those who view this issue differently than I do.

And I think I get some of it. Everyone wants what is best for his or her kid. Some suburban parents fear that children from the city will bring “urban problems” with them. Perhaps they think that the poor are poor because they are lazy or that they do not value education as much as more affluent families do. Or they think that poor parents are ineffective parents. But how do they know any of this is true without reading and thinking critically about the issue? And I’ve concluded that we will get nowhere saying that people are stereotyping. I prefer to he phrase that they are “making a generalization” because they know so few people unlike themselves in either race or social class.

I am trying to understand their perspectives so that those of us who advocate for more integrated schools can look for those “win-wins.” It is difficult to acknowledge the generalizations I have about the suburbs and suburban parents—because they expose my own assumptions, biases and blind spots. And they are there.

No matter how difficult it is, however, we must continue to struggle and model critical thinking for the people who think they own the truth. I don’t know any other way to do it.

We don’t have nearly enough critical thinkers as role models. We are (temporarily) in an era in which some of leaders model behaviors that are thin-skinned, narcissistic and vengeful. But our capacity for critical thinking grows as we become attuned to others and we cannot descend to that level of thinking. We need both humility and character. And to do this we must try to put aside grudges that only serve to weigh us down and cloud our judgment.