Integration improves more than test scores and graduation rates

The headline in the February 12 Washington Post shouldn’t surprise anyone who has looked carefully at the consequences of segregating low-income and minority children: “How segregated schools turn school kids into criminals,” it said.

The story looks at what happened when a lawsuit in the early 2000s effectively dismantled a highly successful school integration program in Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, NC.

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

At GS4A, we often write that socioeconomic integration is important because the demography of classrooms and schools is so important to educational outcomes. In the presence of middle class students, parents and expectations for success, poor children show dramatic improvements. But the demography argument cuts both ways.

With resegregation, the performance gap (between white and black, rich and poor students) in the Charlotte-Mecklenberg schools began to widen. Meanwhile, according to the Post, “a non-white boy who went to school that was 60 percent minority, instead of 40 percent minority, would be about 16 percent more likely to get arrested, according to the data.”

Why? “Taking so many at-risk kids from the same neighborhood, and packing them together into the same school, magnifies the bad influences they have on each other.”

Diversify schools along socioeconomic lines and you can both reduce juvenile crime and get more kids through high school ready for the next phase of life—be it college, work training or a job.

Across the country, new strategies for school integration are proliferating (because the evidence makes the case for it), yet there are and long will be communities that resist integration and fear its consequences, especially for affluent suburban children.

But that fear is unfounded.

In another Post story, of Feb. 9, education reporter Amy Layton, says that despite efforts to desegregate schools in some places, the communities that have worked hard to keep their schools integrated have much to show for it.

“In Hartford, CT, for example, black and Latino students from the city attend regional magnet schools along with white students from more affluent suburbs. In 2013, there was no gap in state reading test scores for third-­graders, meaning white, Latino and black students all scored about the same. The achievement gap also was eliminated between Latino and white students on the fifth-grade reading test. And by 10th grade, the gap between low-­income students and their more affluent peers was 5 percentage points on the reading test, compared with a statewide average of 28 points.”

Not every community that has used regional magnet schools as a tool for socioeconomic integration has eliminated the achievement gap,  but the yawning gaps caused by segregation narrow dramatically in every case I know of.  And who knows? We might be able to develop a Rochester-centric plan that can completely eliminate the gap over time.

But improved test scores and graduation rates are not the only reason to support using magnet schools to end socioeconomic segregation.

A brand new analysis of findings from across the country makes it clear that integration is as important for middle class  and wealthy kids as for poor kids. Amy Stuart Wells, Lauren Fox, and Diana Cordova-Cobo, in “How Racially Diverse Schools and Classrooms Can Benefit All Students,” write:

White students in particular benefit from racially and ethnically diverse learning contexts in that the presence of students of color stimulates an increase in the complexity with which students—especially white students—approach a given issue. When white students are in racially homogeneous groups, no such cognitive stimulation occurs. Research shows that ‘the mere inclusion of different perspectives, and especially divergent ones, in any course of discussion leads to the kind of learning outcomes (for example, critical thinking, perspective-taking) that educators, regardless of field, are interested in.'”

In other words, integration makes all kids smarter and better prepares them for living and working in a diverse world—a world in which success depends as much on empathy, creativity and  collaboration as it does on academic achievement.





In Review: ‘Who’s In Charge of America’s Schools?’


Ten’s of thousands of white residents flee the city in the 1960s and ‘70s lured by attractive federal mortgage subsidies, tract housing, green spaces, and new highways. In a generation the racial make-up of the school district flips from two-thirds white to over two-thirds black. Thinly veiled racist redistricting and banking practices push black families to increasingly smaller and more segregated neighborhoods. Over the next few decades the economic and industrial base of the city collapses and the school system fails along with it. A city leader decries that, “Our city was set up to fail.” The city is Newark, New Jersey. But it could just as well be Rochester, New York.

Dale Russakoff’s compelling book, The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools? (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, New York, N.Y., 2015) tells the story of Newark from 2009-2014 when Mark Zukerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan invested $100 million

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

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

in that city’s schools. The book is impeccably researched and reads like the thriller it is.

The characters include the photogenic then mayor of Newark and current U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, billionaire Facebook founder Mark Zukerberg, and a secondary cast that even includes two former Rochester City School District Superintendents, Oprah Winfrey, and other politicians and philanthropists who saw Newark as ground zero for re-shaping urban education in America. The author’s writing illuminates the local, state, and national politics that shape urban education in the 21st century. However this is not a tale of good vs. evil. Her even-handed reporting neither spares nor vilifies any one group.

Central to the story are philanthropists who advocate a “paternalistic” business type model for the Newark schools. They bring in consultants at $1,000 per day (indeed in the final tally, consultants eat up almost one-quarter of the $100 million) and expand charter schools to help poor people—without engaging the community in their design. At the same time, they mock their critics for “using poverty as an excuse.”

The district hires 39-year-old Teach for America veteran Cami Anderson, after considering a number 51V2zO50wbL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_of other leaders—including former RCSD superintendent Jean Claude Brizard—to replace another former Rochester superintendent, Clifford Janey. Anderson attempts to push through what Zukerman, Booker and Christie call a “transformational teacher contract.” Newark becomes, in the words of the author, “a political sausage factory” as both the community and union stymie her.

Remarkably, the district squanders the promise and slowly runs out of money as the charters and unions dig in their heels and refuse to work together, a battle captured in a quote later in the book by a community member: “We had the opportunity to get Zukerberg’s money. Otherwise it would go to the charter schools. I decided I shouldn’t feed and clothe the enemy.” The title of the book, The Prize, turns out to be the money.

Russakoff tells the reader that Newark is a metaphor for much of urban America and the intractability of both sides—the market oriented charters vs. the bureaucratic public schools. Still there are heroes in the book. Most are the teachers in both the public and charter schools (I know charters are public schools but in the 21st century they have often become quasi-public entities supported by foundations and philanthropists) and the parents who want nothing more than for their kids to have a shot at the same education as their while suburban counterparts. And in a moment of clarity in the book, even Governor Christie acknowledges that he would not be governor if he attended the Newark schools.

The author avoids the trap of making this a book for policy wonks by giving voice to teachers, principals, social workers, kids, parents and community members as they struggle to make sense of it all. These voices give the book a heart and remind the reader of the hard work that any educator and family faces when confronted with the realties of poverty on a daily basis.

In the end a school reformer voices a lesson he learned from Newark. “It’s not even what you do sometimes. It’s the way you treat people and the process of doing it. If your approach is to get a lot of smart people in the room and figure out what these people need and implement it, the first issue is who decided that you were smart.”

Humble words—humbling book. Worth reading by all who care.

We learn best with ‘a little help from our friends’

“When I think back on all the c*** I learned in high school; It’s a wonder I can think at all.”

—”Kodachrome” by Paul Simon (1973)

Those lyrics (listen here ) spoke to me the moment I first heard them, 43 years ago. Not because I had a terrible high school experience, but because I could relate to having to sit through many classes taught by teachers who neither inspired nor informed.

For most people I know, that was the norm. If you had two or three teachers who truly inspired you, consider yourself pretty lucky. Most teachers are ordinary. That’s what a bell curve is all about. Most of them are not bad teachers, but they do not connect effectively with every student.

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

And yet—and this is the important part—we all got through high school, went to college, had productive lives. Great teachers change lives. But ordinary teachers do not doom their students to failure. In a great school, there are plenty of supports—so students “make it” anyway.

But that’s not the way it is in most of Rochester’s high-poverty schools today. Most students do not make it.

At GS4A, we are often asked how the magnet schools we propose differ from charter schools. The simple answer is that many charter school operators believe that low-performing schools are the result of poor management, bloated budgets and weak teachers whose bullying unions care more about protecting teachers than helping kids.

Charter operators typically believe that the private sector can turn around poor performing public schools using private sector management practices and (generally) non-union teachers who can be deployed more effectively.

At GS4A, we believe that public schools can work just fine—and most do. No one says the public schools in Brighton and Pittsford are no good, even though they, too, have their share of teachers who could  not be called rock stars and who are represented by powerful unions.

Because current state law requires charter operators to give preference to students from the district in which they are sited, city charters schools, like RCSD schools, have large majorities of poor students.

Unlike most local charter supporters, GS4A believes that who you sit next to in school matters a lot—and the evidence supports that view. Teaching is not unimportant, but classroom demography is a much better predictor of outcomes.

Charter schools in Rochester are trying to prove that we can keep poor children in high-poverty schools and still dramatically improve the outcomes.

At GS4A, we accept that charters are part of the education landscape, and we understand why parents, frustrated with what they find in city schools, would be attracted them. In some cases, test results for charters are marginally better than those for RCSD schools, but not enough to suggest that privatizing public education is the way forward.

The magnet schools GS4A proposes are very different from the charter model. These schools would build theme-based programs (with curriculum rooted in the arts, science, foreign language,  nature studies, leadership skills, or technology, for example), but they would draw students from school districts across Monroe County and cap the number of poor students (at roughly 50 percent of the student body).

If you’re like me, when you think back on all the c*** you learned in high school, you’ll remember that you made it because you were surrounded by other kids who could help you with things you didn’t understand, because your peers—even when they said they hated school—generally understood that it was important to get decent grades and graduate. The parents and teachers (including the not-so-inspirational teachers) understood that, too. And it turns out, that support can make all the difference.

We understand that some students will find a home at one Rochester’s charter schools and succeed because of it. We do not live in a black and white world, where we think we have all the answers. We support socioeconomic integration not because we don’t believe some children will succeed in high-poverty schools, but because we know that integration will improve the odds for the greater number of students.

The difference between GS4A and charter schools is the difference between anecdotal success and systemic change. Some children will thrive in charter schools. But public education can’t settle for occasional successes. In New York State, every child is guaranteed a “sound basic education” —and that requires a school system that works for all. We believe that cross-district, collaborative, socioeconomically integrated schools represent the systemic changes necessary to make that constitutional guarantee a reality.

The truth is, who you sit in class with matters.  In fact, a “diverse charter school” movement is now going around the country, as awareness of the importance of socioeconomic integration spreads. At GS4A we welcome the support of charter proponents or operators who share our commitment to ending the segregation imposed by high poverty schools.

The truth is that while every school benefits from the skills of extraordinary teachers, truly effective schools work because they give students the chance to learn, if I may paraphrase the words from another popular song, “with a little help from their friends.”






Don’t let the problem define you—start with the end in mind

When I was in high school at Edison tech, I worked as a cashier at a neighborhood meat market. I remember walking to work one day and observing that the sun doesn’t seem to shine much here… I also remember thinking, I really don’t like this job very much, but how else was I going to pay my pager and look fresh—I knew my parents couldn’t cover me.

Needing to work to pay for clothes and a pager doesn’t qualify as a major life problem, but it can leave you with that feeling of being stuck, especially if you’re a teenager.

Ahlia Kitwana is a member of the GS4A steering committee

Ahlia Kitwana is a member of the GS4A steering committee

When faced with a large, rather daunting problem it is easy to believe that this is the way life is and this is how it will be. In some cases it is easy to allow your current situation to define you. This can be true of an individual, but it can also be true for a community. Allowing your current situation to define you limits the future possibilities as well as the potential solutions available.

Our current situation: Rochester is one of the poorest cities in the United States with the highest rate of childhood poverty of any comparably-sized city. This is a huge problem, but it is not intractable and we should not let it define us as a community.

Rochester is more than its poverty; we have to be forward-looking. We have to have in mind where we want to be, not just where we currently are.

This is where “Beginning with the end in mind”—borrowed from Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People—comes in. Yes, the current situation is not great. Actually, it’s pretty dismal. But where do we want to be? The Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative (RMAPI) has a goal of reducing poverty by 50 percent over 15 years.

That milestone is the end RMAPI has in mind. From there we’d have to work backwards to determine what policies and programs the community would need to implement and execute to get to that point.

So, the greater Rochester region has a current situation that is not great, but we do have an end in mind. This goal can only be reached with a huge community-wide effort that requires the successful implementation of many different solutions. A recent Democrat and Chronicle poll found that, while most people have not heard of the anti-poverty initiative, when its goals are explained, 91 percent say they support them.

One facet of this problem is the great discrepancy in the quality of public schools available to the young people in our community. GS4A is offering one important solution—socioeconomic integration of schools across school district boundaries. No, what we’re offering is not a silver bullet, but it could be one solution among many that can help us reach the end we have in mind.

Going back to my high school days, I knew I didn’t want to be a cashier forever. Somehow I got in my mind that I wanted to be an engineer back then, so I worked backwards to figure out what I needed to do to become one. I learned that I’d need a 4-year college degree in engineering. Then I found out what I needed to do to get into college. I learned that having 2 or 3 extra lunch periods a day wasn’t going to get me into college, so I started going to class. I started making small changes and achieving smaller goals to get to the end I had in mind. The sun still doesn’t shine all the time, but knowing where I’m going, knowing there are many different ways I can get to where I want to be next has made all the difference.

This is my hope—that we all recognize that we as a community are much more than our current situation. It is my hope that we can agree that working towards a goal of a 50 percent reduction in poverty is a worthy one, and one that we can work together to achieve.

In working toward this end, I hope we can all fully recognize that we need many solutions, big and small, to reach the goal. There are some solutions that will get us short-term returns, but in many ways we have to think longer term in order to achieve the transformative change RMAPI has in mind.

Transformative change is not easy to achieve. We can get there, but if we lose sight of the goal, pull back on the resources we need to reach it, or weaken our resolve, we’ll be just like the high school student who settles for the cashier’s job because staying on a career path is just too hard.

Our educational future depends on a ‘Yes, and’ approach

I lived in Chicago, for 17 years. One of the local icons was The Second City, a comedy institution of mystical reputation.

You might know The Second City as the launching pad for many great comedic talents who first found their way to Saturday Night Live and then to cinema stardom. John Belushi. Gilda Radner. Mike Myers. Bill Murray. Tina Fey. And many, many more.

John Wilkinson is pastor of Third Presbyterian Church and co-convener of Great Schools for All

John Wilkinson is pastor of Third Presbyterian Church and co-convener of Great Schools for All

People going to a Second City show for the first time often expect a version of a Saturday Night Live broadcast, but in reality, it’s something much different, and, in my mind, something much better. Saturday Night Live offers scripted segments with familiar characters. A Second City performance includes characters, though ones you’ve never seen before. And while it is lightly structured, it is also based largely on the practices of improvisation. At various points in the performance, audience members shout out concepts (a wedding, an interview) or characters ( a police officer, a cheerleader). The cast takes this input and crafts, usually, a clever and hilarious sketch. I’ve never laughed harder than at a Second City performance.

I have therefore become intrigued by the concept of improvisation. Bear with me. The best improvisers are not necessarily the funniest or cleverest. What they are is intuitive and collaborative. They understand themselves to be part of a team, and that their primary job is not to look good, but to maintain the premise of the bit and help all of the cast look good.

In her great book Bossypants, Tina Fey writes that the first two rules of improvisation are “say yes” and “say yes, and.” To say “yes,” Fey writes, means that you respect what your partner has started. She continues: “YES, AND means don’t be afraid to contribute. It’s your responsibility to contribute. Always make sure you’re adding something to the discussion. Your initiations are worthwhile.”

Here’s the point: To address academic challenges in our region, and in particular the effects of high concentration poverty, will require a “yes, and” approach. To say “no” to anything, or even to say “yes, but” right now hinders initiative and contribution.

Great Schools for All is pushing a voluntary network of inter-district magnet schools that will allow students to move across borders—city and suburban—to experience great learning. We believe, based on our extensive research and experiences in Raleigh and beyond, that by reducing concentrations of poverty, students and families will move out of poverty, even as they continue to live in the communities where they have lived. Those same communities will also experience the benefits of this socio-economic integration.

That’s the “yes.” But remember the rules of improvisation. We, the GS4A team, are certainly trying to remember them. We know there are proposals in the community that are gathering significant and warranted attention, particularly those related to the work of the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative.

The “and” of “yes, and” becomes placing the GS4A proposal adjacent to enhanced urban-suburban efforts, and potential suburban-urban efforts. It places our proposal adjacent to the “Beacon school” concept (or “anchor school,” or “community school”) that has a strong neighborhood school in place surrounded by a variety of important services and resources. It places our proposal adjacent to the RCSD’s grant to do pilot efforts with Brighton and West Irondequoit. Yes, and.

We need all the good ideas we can get, and we know that no one idea, even the GS4A proposal, will address every challenge and solve every problem.

Tina Fey writes that in improvisation “there are no mistakes, only opportunities.” We should not be daunted by the potential of mistakes in order to avoid doing something. Rather, we should be buoyed by the potential for creativity and innovation that collaboration offers.

What would it look like for us to say “yes, and” to the ideas before us, for the sake of children, our most precious resource?