Why Should I Talk About It?
Recently there has been an uproar about equity in educational opportunities for students in New York City. In fact, I got into a heated debate with several teachers just the other day on the topic. It began with our new chancellor first taking action by saying he’ll keep 25% of middle school seats open in the heavily segregated District 3 open to students who score below grade level on state tests (tests that closely track socioeconomic status and race). He would later apologize for the language of the tweet (the language created by the site not him) but not the message. Oppositional anger continued to grow after the mayor then announced a major overhaul for the 8 highly sought after elite high schools that use a Specialized High School Admissions Testing (SHSAT) as the sole determining factor for admittance. At first, he discussed replacing the test entirely with middle school class rankings and test scores. He later decided to institute a smaller change where 20% of seats would be set aside for low-income students who scored just below the cutoff. Some called the move a small step towards what’s needed and others panned it as wholly ignorant and misguided.
What do I know or have to contribute to any of this? I mean I’m a white man who grew up in an educated middle-class family. I haven’t really ever been a victim of inequity. I wholly understand the desire to, as a white person, sit quietly and listen to those with personal connections lead when discussions of race and equality arise. And, you know what, I/we should spend more time listening. That said I am a father and an educator of struggling students often in poverty, so I do have a little perspective. I’m inclined to recall when Chris Emdin said that whiteness alone won’t be the thing that prevents you from connecting with students but rather your lack of realness.
If we cannot now end our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity.
John F. Kennedy
So while I technically do have mixed-race children, they have inherited their father’s pasty white features and blue eyes, so they are unlikely to ever find themselves victims of systemic inequity. The worst they’ve had to endure may be the time my older son was mildly teased for the spots on his face (freckles) that the majority of his Asian and Hispanic 7-year-old classmates didn’t understand. FYI-He’s doing just fine. He’s leading a fairly blessed life.
I do have to admit though that in my dual roles I feel somewhat torn. I mean I definitely wanted my children to attend a public school because I felt like a hypocrite otherwise (not an effort to judge those who don’t, just my choice). Alternately though I wanted to fight for my kids to have the best opportunities for success. Yes, that meant teaching them math and reading early, but it also meant having them take the gifted and talented exams in preschool to possibly get them in better classes in better schools. But even after they passed we took the diversity of the school’s population heavily into account when deciding on their elementary schools (considered segregated with >5% white students) and now his middle school (considered diverse with more than 15 % of 4 different races). I wanted the best for him, but within the system and with the power of a diverse instructional environment in mind. The practice of tracking (which can include gifted grouping) has been blamed for maintaining inequity, but it has also been lauded as a means to keep wealthier families involved in public schools. So was I being inequitable in my efforts? Was I only placating my guilt? Would I have still made the same choices even if I was?
I’ve spent my career chronicling the story of children in segregated schools. This time, the child is my own. https://t.co/j9xczV1oe6
— Ida Bae Wells (@nhannahjones) June 9, 2016
I look at the purposeful choice made by Nikole Hannah-Jones (someone who I first felt challenged by in a podcast she appeared on). She chose to send her black daughter to her zoned school knowing she probably could have fought for a different (better?) placement. She chose it because she thought it was important to have her daughter contribute to her low-income heavily black neighborhood of Bed-Stuy. Most of her middle-class neighbors sent their students elsewhere. But instead of sending her daughter to the kind of integrated school she and her husband attended, she chose the local, mostly black school. She recognized she was in a position to give her child learning opportunities outside of school at cultural institutions, but she didn’t want her child part of a system that seemed to want to rezone all the students in poverty in one school while others who could found something else. Was her way right or would more parents of color insisting on bringing their children to schools lacking diversity be a better response? There are no easy answers as her parents made a different choice than she did. I respect Nikole’s choices and her reasons for them unsure of whether I would be willing to do the same.
Where We Stand
So without delving into the long history of racial inequality in America, schools in that north that were forced to desegregate remained heavily segregated due both to racist housing and lending policies (see Levittown) and selective self-segregation. Chinese residents choose to live in Flushing and Latinos head to Washington Heights due sometimes more for comfort than cost. So the segregation in those schools often reflects the segregation of the surrounding neighborhoods on the basis of race and poverty. The New York Times has even mapped out the racial disparities across the boroughs.
New York isn’t alone with this issue of schools being. Many schools in the south are making efforts to resegregate with new laws that allow districts to splinter and sections to secede while foregoing desegregation. As recently as 2017 a judge in Alabama actually argued that segregation was beneficial to black students. While some efforts can be made to zone districts to lessen segregation. The way district maps are drawn can make a difference, but sometimes, like in District 3, it’s heavily segregated within a single district. It’s difficult in cities where the population outside of schools is heavily segregated. 70% of New York City schools are considered intensely segregated (90-100% of the student body is comprised of students of color). Diverse schools are those where at least three races of students are represented at 10% or more, including white student enrollment. That’s all too uncommon, especially in the Bronx.
A few years ago the city was sued for promoting segregation in neighborhoods, and changes have been implemented to bring improvements, but it’s slow moving. Blaming neighborhood segregation doesn’t confront the full issue. It can’t just be the neighborhoods when 40% of kindergartners are leaving their districts in search of schools with less poverty and better schools and a better future for their kids. Now while the trends seem to be towards more inclusive schools there continue to be major challenges where over African-American and Latino students attend schools where over 60% of students are low-income compared to less than 30% where white students attend. So what we do?
On Legislating School Equity
The biggest barrier is parents of advantaged students who will do anything to maintain that advantage for their children. While that attitude is detrimental to disadvantaged students and society as a whole, it is (to me) an understandable shortcoming. It’s easy to justify your prioritizing your own child over others. It’s easy to want the needs of your child to supersede all others. This leads to questioning allowing any high-needs students into your child’s classroom. Won’t it mean less teacher-time for my child? Won’t it mean fewer resources that they receive? The answers to those could be yes which seems to be what is infuriating the parents in the video above. But even if those feelings are understandable for individual parents, shouldn’t the city and the DOE have a broader perspective?
The Arguments Against
What is certain is that the segregated status quo is unacceptable and untenable for society to function and grow. There needs to be some change, but many educators and parents question the merit of the mayor’s and chancellor’s plans. So let’s dig into the reasons given by those who oppose the change and whether the arguments hold merit.
- It’s Unfair. This generally sounds like an argument a kid makes when they only got 1 cookie when their brother got 2, so it’s hard to consider as a mature argument. Let’s try though. Yes, students who didn’t score as well will be a given a seat in a school in place of students who did. But who is it unfair to? The student who just barely made the cut and now just barely missed it? The bar was raised and instead of a bronze they are merely a participant and that medal was given to the 4th place finisher from a poorer country. Except that’s a poor analogy because it’s not the Olympics or a competition. It’s meant to be a collaborative educational system that best benefits all students and our society.
- It Opens Racial Wounds. I hate this argument. It’s essentially saying stop making me feel bad because I want to continue giving all the advantages to my already advantaged child. It’s an argument that says those who attempt to solve the city’s racial/socioeconomic divisions are causing problems by addressing those divisions out loud. The only way to resolve issues of race and inequality is to discuss them-something that is likely to feel uncomfortable at first especially to those of us who may have benefitted. Be okay with feeling uncomfortable and be honest.
- It Will Decrease Instructional Levels At Top Schools. This argument stems from the assumption that bringing in disadvantaged/struggling students will automatically force teachers to offer less rigorous instruction and less time for high-achieving students. This is wrong both for assuming these new students, who just missed the cut previously are weights on the system and that teachers are incapable of now managing the class. If the latter is true I would argue that it was neither that good of a school or filled with very good teachers. Having taught both gifted and academically challenged students, I can say it takes many of the same skills to challenge and personalize instruction for both groups. If these schools are incapable of that level of instruction then maybe we shouldn’t have been holding them in as much esteem as we have.
- It will be an Increased Burden on Teachers. Really? Teaching a few students who really need it most is an unfair burden? What about the teachers who have a whole class full of them at a school with fewer resources to reach them? Isn’t teaching kids in need of quality instruction the exact job we were called to do. Having taught both gifted and academically challenged students, I can say it takes many of the same skills to challenge and personalize instruction for both groups. I’m reminded of a sentiment that Neil De-Grasse Tyson shared with our former chancellor.
The measure of a quality teacher/school is not in how many high-flying students you can keep airborne but in how many of those who are struggling that you can get into the sky.
- The Previous Students Will Struggle. People ask why are we punishing the students who worked hard enough to just barely make it by the previous marker by raising that marker. But that is assuming that the instruction they will receive elsewhere is punitive and couldn’t measure up. First, that’s part of why we need to address this. Second, it assumes this student who would’ve barely made the cut would’ve suddenly thrived in a high-pressure high-achieving school. That’s not a given though. They may do better as the top student in middle-level school rather than the bottom student at a top one.
- The New Students Will Struggle. If the students were truly at a disadvantage in their other schools then, yes, there will be a learning curve. There need to be supports in place for both students and teachers to help mitigate this impact and to help make efforts towards equity.
- It Undermines Certain Minority Groups. One of the groups most upset about the proposed changes is Asian-American residents. Thousands even rallied to protest the proposal. Asian-Americans make up 16% of New York City students, but they are 62% of the population at specialized high schools. Conversely, black and Latino students comprise 70% of the school population but you will only find 10% of them in the elite schools. The why is unclear as a number of reasons have been given from poverty and lack of parental education to city demographics and innate cultural differences. Some would say the rules were set and Asian families (sometimes newly immigrated) are making the most of the rules in place. It is likely the proposed changes will likely decrease the Asian-American population of these schools, but as it is linked to poverty rather than race, disadvantaged Asian students can be included in the population of seats set aside.
- More Parents Will Pull Away From Public Education. This is a genuine concern if the haves continue to engage in initiatives of ‘school choice’ and white flight to suburbs and charter schools which are part of what led to this inequity in the first place. I chose to stick with public schools and a diverse neighborhood (mostly Asian and Hispanic) with decent schools, but I’m still seeking advantages inside of that structure. Is it enough?
- Fix The K-8 Schools – Well, of course, in the long-term this needs to be done. We need to better prepare every student for success, but it doesn’t address the students suffering from the current inequity due to no fault of their own. Saying that we need to fix all instruction (a constantly evolving practice) before we can take any steps towards inequity is a false flag argument. It reminds me of the gun rights arguments (oh no, why did I have to bring in a wholly separate controversial issue, oh well) where we’re told that any initiative or small step that won’t solve every related issue is ineffective and thus should be ignored. Just because a solution doesn’t address every systemic issue in education doesn’t mean it can’t do some small good. The mayor’s efforts may not be the best solution but no change is certainly an even more ineffective response
Some of the struggling (or lowest test-scoring) students in the top-tier school would likely go to their average local school (see the graphic below). They may be amongst the top students at that school and receive special opportunities and not lose out on much and that school would benefit from their presence. Conversely, the poorer but high-achieving students at the struggling (and likely middle-tier) schools will be given far greater opportunities. No that doesn’t fix the struggling middle/elementary school, but it will address the needs of some while minimizing the negative impacts on others.
Why Steps Towards Equity Are Still Necessary
I heard teachers (yes, teachers?!) argue that bringing in these random kids (sometimes they didn’t even acknowledge they were kids) can only bring harm. It’s like assuming they are feral dogs or something. These are children who went to school and are likely high-achieving and dedicated in their environment (though perhaps not compared to the whole city).
As a special educator, their words hit me especially hard. For a long time, I’ve heard the arguments of why special needs students shouldn’t be included with their because it would only bring down the class. They should be “on their own” with other “students like them”. Apart from the wretchedness of that bias, it is not based in reality. The benefits of inclusion are many and improve the instructional environment for both the student with special needs and their general ed peers. One student I had that was able to be moved to inclusion even ended up being admitted to Stuyvesant, one of the elite high schools. In fact, if you want to improve your students’ school you should want it to be more diverse as the students in diverse schools score better on state exams.
Questions About The Plan
I’m not certain the plans of the mayor and chancellor are the best solutions to this problem but I know their admissions of segregation and efforts to curtail inequity are right-minded. The details of it will matter. Will parents still have to apply for those extra seats (a way to ensure parental concern/involvement)? Will they still take the test and have to score well even if the bar is slightly lower (a way to ensure certain academic standards and effort)? Will there be extra assistance to the parents in struggling and segregated schools both in the application and testing process? Will we integrate interviews and past school progress into the process? Would that even be fair if the standards of performance at schools are not equal?
It’s possible this effort may be ineffective. There have been scholarship programs and other efforts to give underserved students a leg up. They’ve helped, but there are cases where students brought in failed out of their programs soon because of their lack of background and preparation in what was expected or even because they couldn’t afford to eat. And that isn’t just academically. Many of those programs come with ongoing mentors and support, but the struggling students who were so long left to their own devices were unable or unwilling to access the resources available. So the details matter. This may not work but it is clear that status quo already doesn’t.
Universal pre-k was another worthwhile step, but the divisions will continue. But that doesn’t mean we should throw our hands up. Maybe it means we keep the SHSAT but make it mandatory for all middle school students along with their financial declarations. As with all things, the devil will be in the details. As I said I’m torn as my role as a teacher seeking equity and achievement for all students and my role as a father seeking every benefit and opportunity for my 2 sons. I’m realizing though those 2 things don’t have to be wholly at odds. I think I can see those opportunities for my kids as long as I’m willing to share those opportunities with all others. I can look for those benefits as long as I see them as a possible bonus and not something we’re entitled to.
And I need to be willing to fight for changes in policies to make them more equitable even if it means my son may miss out. Because I know I’m a good enough dad with enough with enough resources and knowledge to make up at home for any perceived shortcomings at school.
And isn’t that part of the issue. That we’ve created such high stakes scenarios that parents are fighting for the too few quality schools amongst one another and expecting the school they attend to be the sole driving factor in their future success. That’s a fallacy. The school they attend (even a university) has little to do with future success. In fact, the children of wealth will statistically do well regardless of their school experience. And that’s just financially, there are a whole other set of factors apart from school that will determine your child’s future happiness. If you are an educated well-off parent (or even more determinative if there are 2), your kid will do well so why be so stingy hoarding the resources for your kids? Why should the kids who won the birth lottery have all the benefits of school lotteries (and I know the city’s efforts are not technically lotteries)?
Yes, we need to improve all of the schools. Yes, we need to improve community involvement for children born to parents in poverty or with other legal/substance abuse problems. No, it isn’t about saving these kids, but it is about providing equitable opportunities. Whether it’s early intervention or redrawing district maps, we need to recognize that as all children go, so goes our society. Maybe we can increase equity by providing AP courses in all high schools, but that doesn’t mean we can’t also do this. If you are amongst those who worry or rant about kids today, stress about the levels of crime, or lament the ignorance of our society then you should be on board. By bringing knowledge and equity to those who’ve been deprived will improve all our lives by not leaving some to become disenfranchised and marginalized. Why not start by requiring some equity in the institutions that already have so much? And for everyone else, there are great teachers in classrooms all across the city. Some work with large populations of English language learners and students in poverty. That school’s test scores may be lower than one filled with wealthy students uptown, but that teacher may be an even better fit for the needs of your child.
Education should not be a way out of your neighborhood. It should be a tool for improving it.
Dr. Christopher Emdin
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