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?



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.










More ways the system works against poor kids

I have worked in area schools for almost 30 years, and I have come to know many dedicated and hard-working suburban, rural and urban teachers and administrators.

My experience has convinced me that teaching in any school is challenging work especially over the past 15 years as we have adapted to requirements and accountability responsibilities associated with the legislation of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), then Race to the Top (RTTT), and now Every Student Succeeds (ESSA) which gives state lawmakers considerably more power over the schools. And now those of us in the field are awaiting the new edicts from a new administration in Washington. The expression, “All politics are local” has a corollary—“All education policy is political.”

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.

And there is no clearer example of the way politics shapes education policy in our region than the way we have segregated our schools by both socio-economics and race. Critics of the Rochester City School District are quick to blame parents, teachers and administrators for low performing schools. But Rochester, like many urban districts, has a unique set of physical and demographic characteristics—not seen in suburban and rural districts. Much has been written about the challenges of urban education but for the sake of discussion I’d like to focus on three areas having to do with teachers and teacher belief systems.

  1. Inexperienced teaching staff and teacher turnover

 Suburban districts in Monroe county have many teachers who “cut their teeth” in the Rochester City School District. And this is not good news for city school district schoolchildren. Study after study has found the turnover rate in urban districts is many times that or suburban districts. In her article, “The Missing Link in School Reform,”  author Carrie Leona cites her studies on human and social capital in schools and the findings that student achievement blossoms in schools with high social capital—that is, the relationship of novice teachers learning from and leaning on experienced teachers for help. Indeed there is work that goes back generations showing that even struggling teachers get better when they have strong ties and help from their experienced peers. This is something that private and suburban schools recognize and promote but that many urban schools can never accomplish because the teachers leave.

2. Cultural Competency

More of the teachers in urban settings than in suburban settings struggle with teaching children who are not like them. To be sure teachers everywhere must work on this skill, but teachers who take jobs in the city often have beliefs about the children (Black, Hispanic, disabled, low-socioeconomics) that are difficult to overcome without significant interventions to have them reflect on their biases. They may perceive race and class as limiting factors in learning or see a different learning style as an intellectual deficiency. These stereotypes are hard to overcome and can poison the educative process. For example, last year a student in my Educational Leadership Program, who taught in the city, came to me for advice on how to deal with a principal in a charter school (but it could have just as easily been any school in the city) who announced to her staff that while the school was not one that she would send her own child to, it was good enough for the kids who were attending. That thinking would be unacceptable in almost any other school district in our area.

3. Belief that kids who learn differently are not smart

So you have a class full of poor black kids in front of you, drive into the city from an outlying area where a lot of people you know, and maybe you as well, voted for Trump, a candidate who mocked the handicapped, embraced racist rhetoric, and called the “inner city” the equivalent of a war zone. How intellectually strong do you have to be to put these thoughts aside and not feel that many of these kids are not as smart as yours? Kids often act out when teacher expectations are low. Recent studies indicated that teacher expectations and student self-worth play significant roles in achievement (“How to Nudge Students to Succeed,” NY Times,  Oct. 30, 2016). Students who look around and see 23 kids a lot like them and an inexperienced teacher in front of them are doomed before they get started. And make no mistake that is what they see. Because in Rochester, one of the three poorest and most segregated cities in the country, the chances are that 95 percent of the kids are poor, black or brown.

I have little faith that we will see this change in my lifetime and my less optimistic side says that we will nibble away at the edges and celebrate suburban districts that agree to take 5 or 10 kids into their schools in a marginally expanded Urban-Suburban program. And we will add a few more charters while bemoaning the belief that the city cannot get it right and the parents don’t care.

But the optimist in me thinks that over the next few years we can start three or four magnet schools, expand the urban suburban program into the thousands and change the boundaries of our many districts to allow a freer flow of school choice

Because I hear from people who do not live in the city that they are not prejudiced and that the old attitude—“you want good schools, make more money and move to the suburbs”—may have run its course. But in 2016 I know that politics has left 27,000 of the children in our county in sub-par schools with less experienced teachers. And the choices we have made as a city and county feel unethical and racist. And it is hard for many of us to see it in any other way.








To all our suburban friends: We need your help

The Urban-Suburban program is nice. Over the years many Rochester schoolchildren who would otherwise be consigned to a high poverty and underperforming school have been given the opportunity to attend a suburban school and learn alongside a middle class population.

But there is another side to this successful program. It allows some to think that serving about 2 percent of the city’s schoolchildren contributes to solving the problem of economically segregated schools—and this could not be further from the truth.

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.

Our current school district system in Monroe County, like those in many other urban areas, has kept all but those 700 kids in the Urban-Suburban program from gaining any access to suburban schools. This is the result of generations of back room dealings and goofy school district borders that look like the scribbles of a kindergartner.

A new report but ED Build  features an interactive map of school district borders across the United States. The maps of Monroe County school districts should make us ashamed. The City School District is surrounded by school districts drawn in odd shapes that sit next to Rochester with one of the highest student poverty rates in the country. West Irondequoit and its poverty rate of 10 percent borders Rochester. So, too, the oddly shaped districts of Brighton and Penfield and, just blocks away, Pittsford—with poverty rates in the 6 percent range. The Wheatland-Chili district has a finger-shaped section thrusting to the city district, while Gates and Greece make up the western borders.

Across the county, district lines drawn years ago fence off the affluent and middle class suburbs, effectively isolating and excluding poor minority populations in the city. As a result, property values have risen in the suburbs and fallen in the city, which affects the funding of the schools.

Then these districts and villages worked to keep low-income housing out of their communities. Some have even blocked apartments and condos that were intended for working class and middle income people. These housing policies have incentivized wealthy communities to wall themselves off against the City School District and schoolchildren, which has lead to poorer and poorer city schools.

We in the city know that our friends in the suburbs care because they march to protest racist flyers left at their homes and pride themselves on including phrases on their district material and mission statements extolling diversity as strength. But the actions of these districts and villages do not always align with their stated philosophies on diversity.

Our Great Schools For All (GS4A) group wants what is best for all children: equity realized through socially integrated magnet schools. To be sure, many in our group, myself included, would favor a countywide school system that would allow students to attend any Monroe County school. After all, as we know, it takes less than ½ hour to get just about anywhere in the county. But a countywide system is neither politically nor legally viable, so the weirdly drawn boundaries must stay. Instead critics of our plan tell us to embrace school choice and other options. But that is a false choice because our kids cannot choose Brighton, Penfield, or Webster. They can only choose another school where more than 80 percent of their peers are poor.

So we challenge our suburban neighbors to embrace plans for truly diverse schools all across our county. The Urban-Suburban program is just not enough to overcome a half-century of political machinations that have isolated the city. The children of Rochester have been sacrificed to keep property values up.

Historically, when parents have moved to the suburbs for the schools, they’ve said they are just taking care of their family and that it is not their intent to segregate poor kids in the city. I’m sure that’s true—but the end result for the children of Rochester is the same.

But here is the toughest part. We desperately need our suburban allies to help rectify these educational inequities. We cannot do it without you because you have the power both financially and politically to move us forward. And we know from our spring 2016 countywide parent survey that 87 percent of parents, city and suburban, now support diverse schools for their kids. If the suburbs advocate for change it can happen. By supporting the work of GS4A and pushing to open socioeconomically diverse schools for all children in Monroe County, you help save a generation of kids and, in the process, help your own children by modeling compassion and morality for them.

Thanks for thinking about this.








Attitudes, Behaviors and Magnet Schools

Sometimes I think we are making progress in helping folks understand the need for magnet schools in Rochester. And then I make the mistake of reading a letter in the newspaper or an on-line post somewhere that vilifies city kids as lazy and parents as criminals. Or I hear someone blame the poor for being poor or lazy. And I wonder how can we change their attitude?

Attitude change is a topic that I know little bit about because I researched it for my doctoral thesis years ago at Penn State. My thesis was: The Development of a Reliable and Valid Scale to Measure Writing Attitudes. Don’t look for it on Amazon.

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.

Attitudes are learned and evolve based on our experiences. We acquire them gradually. They are affected by important events and the people associated with them like our parents, friends and teachers. We know that individuals are likely to ignore or discount information that people outside their circle tell or show them. We all favor information from people close to us. And this information shapes our attitudes. This reasoning seems particularly relevant today in a political climate in which people are likely to tune into the news they want to hear from people who share their perspectives.

The concept of attitude contains a quality of evaluation: that is, you are for or against something or like or dislike a group’s ideas and institutions. But attitude can change. Many factors can contribute to attitude change:  education, feedback, media, socialization and getting to know people who may have different attitudes.

My old research got me wondering  what role attitude plays in our quest to create socioeconomically diverse magnet schools. On one hand the results of the GS4A survey seem to indicate that people would put their kids in more socio-economically integrated settings if they thought the school would be good fit. But some of the research on attitudes and their effect on behaviors make me wonder.

Attitude and behavior (the A-B relationship) are imperfectly correlated. Studies as far back as 1930s have found that variables like vested interest and who is asking the survey questions affect the answers. So a person may respond that they will send their children to a magnet school in the city but when push comes to shove they may not do so or be influenced by others who think it is a bad idea.

However, the A-B relationship does not only work in one direction. We can change attitudes by first changing people’s behaviors. For example over the past forty years our behaviors changed when legislation was passed requiring us to recycle. Now it is second nature for us to separate plastics and paper into different bins and many of us strive to maintain these behaviors because we think it is good for future generations and our planet. We changed our behaviors and our attitudes followed.

So the question is, “How do we change behavior that will change attitudes?” or, “How do we change attitudes that will change behavior?” when we know that people often ignore the research or new ideas because it is not shared by their family and friends?

I guess we just keep plugging away person by person. We had the political will to put recycling in place because we determined as a culture that there was no other way and eventually when asked to comply with new behaviors people found that it made sense and they changed their attitudes.

So continue to talk with and listen to your friends and family who may not have thought about the issue of socioeconomically diverse magnet schools and how they can help us all. It may change someone’s attitude.



Finding common ground between charters and traditional public schools in the RCSD.

There are rarely simple solutions to complex issues. Students in my Leadership classes get used to hearing me say that we must look at problems “in context” and try to find some common ground.

The role that charter schools play in the Rochester City School District is one of those complex issues.

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.

A recent article in Education Week (June 8, 2016) reported that charter schools started 25 years ago with the support of then president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), Albert Shanker. The intent was to give teachers a chance to create their own experimental schools under the umbrella of the school district.

The rift between the traditional schools and the charter movement was created some years later when court rulings allowed charter schools to become unbound by district rules and teacher contracts. Some of us in the field saw these changes as another iteration of “teacher bashing,” a practice that has occurred with regularity since the advent of schools. We also worried about the “industrialization” of education. Indeed I remember reading an article in a business journal years ago that advised people to get in on the ground floor of the education industry since oil, steel and textiles were not going to be as good an investment.

The foundations and institutes that moved into chartering schools made no apologies or excuses for doing away with unions. They believed that that schools could and should be run more like businesses with a bottom line measured mainly by student test scores. They correctly pointed out that over the past decade 2/3 of people nationally supported charters and that, in their view, school choice was a civil rights issue.

The Education Week article reported that charter school students represent about 5 percent of the 50 million K-12 public school students in the United States. Charters in 14 cities, including Detroit and Philadelphia, enroll 30 percent of the schoolchildren in the district. Nationally African American students make up 28 percent of charter school enrollments. Overall they make of 15 percent of the public school population.Thirty-five percent of all charter school students are white, while 50 percent of all public school students are white. The article goes on to say that Latinos do not attend charters at the same rate as African American perhaps because they often hit a language barrier.

None of these data surprise anyone. Indeed closing the achievement gap for African American students is a priority for many charter schools. In Rochester, charters almost exclusively serve children who would otherwise be attending the Rochester City School District. Many of the students are poor and black. Some of these schools are to be commended for their work.

But charter schools have contributed to the maintenance of racially segregated schools. Few charter founders have advocated for or designed schools with programs or curriculum that would attract a middle class population with the exception of Genesee Community Charter School (full disclosure—my kids attended prior to being accepted to School of the Arts).

But to counter that argument a school choice advocate offers a defense of all black urban charters by stating that segregation is when the state forces people of color into inferior circumstances. Black people choosing to stay with schools that have a lot of other black people in the city is not segregation. This is an important point. Given the choice between a struggling public school in a poor neighborhood and a charter, families often chose charters.

So where is the middle ground between recognizing that the best chance for poor non-white kids to achieve is in more integrated settings and the reality that for many city residents the charters provide a viable alternative even though they may perpetuate segregated schools?

Here are some ideas:

  • Charters should allow teachers to sign a three- or five-year contract. This solves the problem of inept leaders firing teachers who disagree with them. It also addresses the charter agencies’ wish to do away with tenure. And while I disagree with eliminating tenure, this solution may be a “win-win” by offering some job security for teachers while incentivizing innovation, as was the original intent of charters. Teachers with job security will gain more ownership in the school and be more likely to stay for the 6 to 8 years it takes to start to master their craft.
  • Charters should sign contracts with parents promising that they will not give up on a child and return him to the public school system because he did not fit into their system. Then we can stop resenting charters for wanting it both ways. Everyone knows that this happens and if charters agree then we can put to rest the tired argument of “creaming students” that has driven a wedge between the sides. But to do this the charters need more resources and professional development on working with Special Needs Children. And that must come from the existing district, which could include them. Could this be another win-win?
  • Actively recruit and provide funding for existing charters to become magnet schools that develop unique programs and curriculums that attract an ethnically and socio-economically diverse We need both traditional schools and charters to innovate and design Technology, Health Care, Arts and Dual Language Schools that attract all socioeconomic classes and ethnicities.
  • Expand “choice” programs to inner ring suburbs. The GS4A legislative group continues to work with our political leaders to allow poor students more options in more affluent school districts. That is real choice.

Racially and socio-economically diverse schools still provide the most powerful path for poor and non-white kids to graduate from high school and college and join the middle class.

This has been our mantra at Great Schools For All from the start. And we have to find common ground to make this a reality. Charters are part of the solution. Our public schools in Rochester are also part of the solution. And our Monroe County school district neighbors are part of the solution.

You may not agree with my views on what our schools could and should become. And that’s ok. But I hope that you agree that the education of 28,000 students in the RSCD and the urban charter schools are linked to the health of our city and region and that we can learn from each other.



State should fix failing schools, not just threaten them

The federal government is scaling back its role in the schools. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) which replaces No Child Left Behind (NCLB), will enhance the authority that states and school districts have over their schools.

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.

For advocates and friends of GS4A, which is promoting the establishment of magnet schools in Rochester to decrease the effects of poverty and segregation, here are some elements of  the new law and other factors to consider as it takes effect:

  • The U.S. Department of Education will require states to identify their poorest performing schools. States will be allowed to direct more money to these schools. This could be up to 7 percent of the Title I money allocated to the state.
  • The poorest performing schools—those in the lowest 5 percent statewide—will be defined as priority schools. Schools  with a graduation rate of less than 67 percent also qualify as priority schools. Focus schools are a step up from the priority schools but still have high numbers of non-proficient students in sub-groups.
  • New York State’s accountability system is currently based on math and English Language Arts assessments in grades 3-8 and Regents exams at the high school level along with graduation rates.
  • The “opt out” movement” is the wild card here. It is unclear how the Department of Education and New York will determine accountability status if large groups of students refuse to take the assessments or if they will be penalized for high numbers of opt outs.
  • There are still racial, language, disability and other sub-group components that factor into a school’s status and districts will have to design evidenced-based plans to turn these schools around. Each state will define what that evidence is, which may turn out to be more than a semantic argument.
  • Schools that fail to improve for up to four years must be taken over by the state.
  • While the U.S. Department of Education still requires testing in grades 3-8 and once in high school, states can scale back the role these tests play in gauging school progress.
  • States can move away from the Common Core curriculum and teacher evaluations linked with student test scores, as New York State has done.

There is much more in the law and terms like “quality,” “evidence” and “accountability” will no doubt be interpreted differently state-to-state and district-to-district. But this is a new era that gives states and localities more flexibility to try new ideas with schools mired in poverty. And Rochester has nothing but high-poverty schools.

The trouble is, flexibility doesn’t seem like much help for a school district as burdened by poverty as Rochester. As RCSD parents, my wife and I received a letter last week listing the Priority Schools, Focus Schools, and schools in Good Standing.

Twenty-eight of the 51 schools on the list are priority schools. There are two charter schools included on this list. Let that sink in. The students in these 28 schools are among the lowest 5 percent in the state and they comprise over half the schools in Rochester. In fact these 28 schools comprise about 16 percent of the statewide list. When you add in the Focus schools, there are only 10 schools in Good Standing in Rochester.

So I went to the master list of all the schools in the state (found here) and started looking for schools in Monroe County, but I stopped after finding that all the schools in Brockport, Brighton, Churchville Chili, Fairport, Honeoye Falls Lima and others in Monroe County were in good standing. I did not get to the P’s. There are a lot of schools on this list. But I doubt that parents in Penfield of Pittsford made got same letter that I did.

So no matter how much flexibility we have in measuring progress in the Rochester city schools, there is no massaging the central reality: We are past the tipping point. Some of the charters have made modest progress and schools 7, 15, 23, 25 and a few others are holding their own—for right now. School of the Arts and School Without Walls are also in Good Standing. But they are the only high schools in Good Standing.

Academic progress and accountability are important. But this annual ritual of assessment only serves a purpose for those districts, schools, principals and teachers who can use the data to improve outcomes. You see that is how assessment works. When I was a principal our school used the results of state and local assessments to understand the gaps that we needed to fill in our curriculum and the skills that we needed to develop in our students. Then we could adjust our professional development to provide teachers with support in these areas. But the city’s problems cannot be addressed by shifting resources or tweaking instructional techniques. The RCSD cannot fix its schools—no matter how many times the state threatens to take them over.

As a city parent and a city taxpayer I’m tired of report cards that do no more than belittle city schools. If New York State truly wants to turn around priority schools, it should provide the opportunities and the financial incentives for the inter district collaboration that can actually produce better outcomes for the poorest kids in our community.

This annual scolding just doesn’t cut it.








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.

The race factor in the challenge of socioeconomic integration

I recently read two articles that gave me pause. The first, “How Woodrow Wilson Shut the Door on K-12 Education for African Americans,” discussed the significance of recent protests at Princeton University by students who have urged the trustees to change the name of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Wilson supported the Ku Klux Klan—indeed he screened the racist film Birth of a Nation, which celebrated the Klan, at the White House—but more damning is the role his administration played in education policies that set black students back for generations.

Studies, spearheaded by the Wilson administration, focused on training black students in vocational education for service and manual labor jobs. The article cites the 1917 report by Thomas Jesse Jones (a philanthropist who worked closely with the Wilson administration) called “Negro Education,” which disparaged black parents and teachers who wanted an academically rich curriculum for African Americans and pushed back at African American educators like W. E. B. Dubois who wanted black students to focus more on academics.

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.

This was not a new argument for the time. Booker T. Washington and others were focusing more on training African-Americans for lesser jobs. Even so-called progressives, like John Dewey, echoed this view and thought that black students would be better served by curriculum (in all black schools of course) that focused on manual labor. These “studies” during the Wilson administration had a chilling effect on African-American students for decades afterwards.

Fast-forward 100 years to a December 12 Washington Post story that cites Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s comments during a hearing on the University of Texas’ race-conscious admissions policy.

There are those who contend that it does not benefit African-Americans to get them into the University of Texas where they do not do well as opposed to having slower track schools where they do well.” Or this one:“ I’m not impressed by the fact that the University of Texas may have fewer. Maybe it ought to have fewer and maybe some— you know when you take more, the number of blacks, really competent blacks admitted to lesser schools turn out to be less. And I don’t think it stands to reason that is a good thing for the University of Texas to admit as many blacks as possible.”

And finally: “They come from lesser schools where they do not feel that they’re—that they’re being pushed ahead in classes that are too—too fast for them.”

It sounds like Justice Scalia would be comfortable sitting for that screening of Birth of a Nation.

As the Post article notes, the University of Texas and most colleges would have no problem admitting black students who need extra help as long as they are playing football.

African American students who play sports are often provided with the supports they need to succeed in college. And a case can be made that colleges need to provide better supports and scaffolding for students from many underrepresented populations.

And if that means more attention must be paid to students who have not been prepared to do college-level work, then so be it. I have worked with professors who complain about unprepared students yet do little to adjust their teaching methods to better serve all their students.

But for our purposes, the bigger issue is the rigor and academic preparation that must be provided to low-income students—many of whom happen to be African American—mired in high poverty schools in Rochester. The experiences and privileges that prepare predominantly middle class students for college cannot be overlooked in this equation.

Students from Brighton, Penfield, Webster and any number of suburban communities are raised with the expectation from parents and teachers that they will attend college. And those schools and families do everything in their power to provide these students with the connections, schooling and experiences for this inevitability.

Contrast this with the expectations of poor African-American students from Rochester, among the poorest cities in America. These students have no social capital, few connections with someone who has attended college and parents who are struggling to make ends meet. These parents cannot provide their kids with the experiences that prepare them for college level work and their teachers, many of whom work tirelessly to serve them, often don’t have ownership in the neighborhoods where they live. For example, when I was a principal in the Canandaigua City School District about two-thirds of the teachers and staff lived in the city of Canandaigua. What percentage of teachers in Rochester live with these kids and know their lives?

As I read the reports and work of the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative, it appears that more people would like Rochester to focus on neighborhood schools to provide healthcare, community activities, parent education and schooling for their children. I understand this wish. I remember an African-American gentleman who took a course from me way back in 1990. He was educated at an all black school in the south in the 1950s. He told the class that although his school was in horrible condition and had limited resources he knew that the teachers cared about him. Actually I think he used the word love. Later upon moving north, he said he did not feel that love.

GS4A has worked for the past year and a half to try to open up urban schools to suburban students while advocating that suburban districts take more of city students. That is a Sisyphus type task. We recognize that suburban districts may not be ready to accept thousands of students from the city. So we are focusing also on trying to open up schools in Rochester that could attract middle class students from the suburbs. This two-way exchange is important to achieving socioeconomic integration and to demonstrating that many city schools can do well by students when the demographics of the classroom are right.

The phrase “white privilege’ is becoming meaninglesslike “diversity.” Still, the idea that middle-class, predominantly white, suburban school districts have provided for their children while letting the children in the city suffer cannot be overlooked. Nor can the words of Supreme Court Justice Scalia once again showing us how far we have to go when it comes to considering race in America.

Discussing race is never easy but until we acknowledge how privileged we are as white people in this country we cannot move forward. We can address this issue or we can in the words of Justice Scalia leave “slower track students where they do well,” which will guarantee us another hundred years of Wilson’s thinking.


‘Who you know’ really does matter

My wife ran into an acquaintance the other morning and asked about the woman’s daughter who had attended the Harley school. The proud mom told my wife that her daughter, a 2013 college graduate, got a great job working for, as she noted “one of the 1 percent.” She lives now in Brooklyn but is wealthy enough to have recently given her parents a Paris vacation trip.

The young woman concentrated in French and film at Sarah Lawrence College. She works now for a hedge fund manager, and one of her duties is to make sure his art collection, which he loans to museums, is properly packaged and sent.

Mom said she had gotten the job because she became friends with someone at college and had formed some relationships with people there who knew she spoke French. These connections led to meetings and a job offer from her eventual employer. It sounds like a really cool job and I am happy for the young woman. But it got me thinking.

There are deep truths to many old adages. The one that I kept thinking of was “It is not what you know, it’s who you know.” And we all know that making the right connections and building relationships opens doors in education, jobs and careers for our children and ourselves.

Those of us in the middle class may not know the 1-percenters, but we often know someone who will open a door for our kids who may need a break, an interview, or a favor. But students who live with and go to school with only other poor children never have the opportunity to meet the people who can open those doors for them.

Relationships make the world go ‘round. They lead to opportunity, advancement, and upward mobility. Yet Americans enjoy less upward mobility than almost any citizens in the world.
Poverty is destiny for manyAmericans.

• 42 percent of men raised in families from the bottom one-fifth of incomes stay there as adults

• 62 percent of those raised in the top fifth stay there as adults

More on income inequality can be found here:

• Few investments yielded as high a return as a college degree
• College is far more expensive and out of reach for low income students
• High income families dominate enrollment in select colleges (like Sarah Lawrence)
• College graduation rates have increased sharply for wealthy students but stagnated for low income students.

So, no college means—no connections, no relationships built, no doors opened. And without these relationships many urban kids face almost insurmountable odds. Even when urban kids do go off to college, few make it. They are smart enough, but they often feel alone and have no context through any family member or friends to negotiate the middle class world and the rules of college. They have no relationships to build on.

Some critics point to their parents and grandparents who “pulled themselves up by their boot straps and so can these city kids.” They forget the context of the situation. Students in earlier generations did not face the barriers that today’s kids face. Fifty years ago a generation of immigrant and working class families lived together. Their kids went to the same school where the student body comprised a wide swath of social classes. Through those schools people formed relationships.

Later generations moved to the suburbs, denying both city and suburban families exposure to people outside their social class. Then about 30 years ago we reached the tipping point and all that was left in most of Rochester’s schools were poor families. Gone were the opportunities to form relationships with diverse social classes and ethnic groups. Instead of forming relationships with people less fortunate than themselves, many of the families who moved away became critics, blaming the poor for being poor. But that suburban flight contributed to the problems we now see in city schools—because relationships matter and families with kids who attend diverse schools may learn, through their children’s friends, not to stereotype or generalize.

GS4A advocates for the creation of magnet schools and regional academies because we recognize that schools are not just about academic achievement but also about making connections and building relationships.

There’s no doubt the kid from Sarah Lawrence worked hard to learn French and make the most of her major, but there was no way she would have the job she landed without the relationships she formed first through her parents and later her college.

No matter how many dollars we invest in urban schools, they will never truly be equal to suburban schools—until students have the relationships that make success much more likely.

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