In an Atlantic article yesterday, “The Urban-School Stigma,” education prof Jack Schneider (who has also written “America’s Not-So-Broken Education System”) lays out an argument for rethinking our beliefs about urban schools – in particular, he writes about the myths of using test scores as way of assessing school quality.
To give an under-nuanced summary (and I encourage you to read the full article), test scores tell us more about students’ parents socioeconomic status than they do teaching prowess.  Moreover, a reliance on test scores for assessing “quality” glosses over many other important skills that students learn in school (such as social, collaborative and creative problem-solving skills).
While these are important points that need to be uplifted, the article is problematic. Schneider talks about white flight (without ever saying ‘white flight’!) as a result of bad impressions of urban schools which is a result of the bad ways we assess school quality.
Firstly, Schneider casually drops this line as a given: “one can hardly blame parents with resources for acting in the best interests of their children…” Actually, no. This might, in fact, be the crux of the problem. Assuming that all parents could and should ONLY act in the best interest of their ONLY their own kids flies in the face of the very mission of our most public of public institutions. Sure, we should look out for our ‘own,’ but when that is done on the backs of other people’s kids, maybe some accountability is necessary. Maybe those of us making those choices on the public dollar should bear some responsibility for the large-scale consequences.
Because while my kids attend public school, I have to also know that public school is for all kids. Because while I care about my kids’ educations, I also care about the interest of all children. Because I want my kids to get a good education in order to have a good life (whatever that means), I also know that my choices help to build the world in which my kids are going to be adults.
The fact that he treats this so casually, as kind of a throwaway obvious FACT, is of grave concern. The insidiousness of treating this as common sense both supports and excuses the work of those who are actively opportunity hoarding. There are all kinds of reasons that families make these choices and I am not here to *judge* your decision, but as a society, we have to own up to it. Further, it places all the onus on the schools to be ‘quality’ as if parents and students are not part of equation but are only, rather, clients (and there is a lot of research out there about the marketplace of education, etc). In this one sentence, Schneider is effectively excusing parents from the responsibility of public-making, from having to be citizens.
Then, Schneider writes that “middle and upper income parents,” “believing that they are fleeing bad schools, or securing spots in good ones, … have inadvertently exacerbated segregation.” Inadvertent? Really — oops? Like, it was a great, big accident?
History matters. The grueling history of racism in America is not merely a story of Charlottesville-esque torch-carrying. Though these are horrific, we cannot and should not ignore coded and/or less-media-sexy forms of racism. There are DIRECT correlations between testing and segregation and white flight and redlining and and and… And racism. **
We can also call into question the issue of white flight and talk a bit more about how many families are moving into the city, into diverse areas, doing all that gentrification. What about those folks? What about the fact that, as Nikole Hannah-Jones writes, “gentrification stops at the schoolhouse door”? Segregation is not simply an urban-suburban conversation.
And sometimes – often, even – segregation happens within a school. Think: special programs and tracking. There is much work to be done. It won’t happen overnight. It took us many millennia to dig this hole and we aren’t getting out of it easily. But if you ask me, our public schools are our best hope.
This critique is not to say that we should be mean and shame-y and self-righteous – but rather a call for greater honesty and bravery in how we talk about this issue. Race matters. Class matters. Citizenship and the common good matters. The “public” in public school matters.
Yes, as he says in closing, “parents and policymakers might do a great deal to reverse the intensifying segregation of American public education simply by educating themselves about what test scores do and don’t say about school quality… Questioning what they have long accepted, however, they might begin to create something different.” I would simply add that this is only part of the reality that we have to face – and maybe not even the biggest part.
** from a Nikole Hannah-Jones video (posting shortly!) “We started walking away from a firm belief in public schools right after Brown v. Board. That is when….so, in this country, and I talk about it in that piece, there was large support for public institutions among white Americans when there was legal segregation, where black Americans largely did not have access to those public institutions. Once you had Brown v. Board and then the 1964 Civil Rights Act, you start to see a very steep decline in public support among white Americans for public institutions, everything from hospitals to parks, to schools. And so, right after Brown, you had southern states that actually were willing to shut down public education in order to avoid a single black child from entering a school with a white child. And that’s where you start to see vouchers, the voucher movement, its forbearer is resistance to Brown, where states like Alabama, states like Virginia, other southern states, start to close down public schools and offer white parents tuition vouchers to pay for private schools. The “choice” movement, right, freedom of choice was an anti-integration program. The tests to get into schools that a lot progressive communities love now, right, to get into magnet schools, to get into your best schools, those are screened schools, those screens come out of resistance to Brown. So, I think we can see, you start to see, as soon as black children are starting to get access to white schools, is when you start to see white support for public schools decline.” The Urban-School Stigma:Influenced by biases against urban education, parents are moving away from city schools and contributing to segregation in the process