Part 5—No one knows how to create them: This morning's New York Times helps us see why we can't have nice things.
Here at this site, we'd planned to focus on Richard Kahlenberg's attempts to "create public schools that are more integrated." More specifically, we'd planned to focus on his current efforts in Chicago.
The formulation that we've quoted comes from Anya Kamenetz, "NPR's lead education blogger." In March of 2017, Kamenetz interviewed Kahlenberg about his efforts in Chicago. Her report appeared beneath an unfortunate headline at NPR's web site:
Try This One Trick To Improve Student OutcomesWe don't know who composed that unfortunate headline. That said, its cheeky tone suggests the degree of concern upper-end news orgs tend to bring to the topic of education for low-income kids.
Cheeky headline to the side, what's the "one trick" NPR said we should try? Kamenetz explained it like this:
KAMENETZ (3/16/17): Richard Kahlenberg has spent decades stumping for a third way. His idea: Create public schools that are more integrated. He helped innovate the use of social and economic indicators to do that—instead of race and ethnicity, the use of which is prohibited by a 2007 Supreme Court decision."Give poor kids the opportunity to attend school with not-so-poor kids?" In principle, and where possible, that is, at least theoretically, a very good idea.
His strategy could be summed up as: Give poor kids the opportunity to attend school with not-so-poor kids.
We include a litany of qualifiers because there are so many ways this good idea can, in practice, go wrong. Also because of this sobering yet other-worldly exchange, which starts with a factual error by Kamenetz:
KAMENETZ: In New York City, where I live, as your report notes, 77 percent of students live in poverty. How do you create economically mixed schools if there aren't enough middle-class kids to go around?In education parlance, "low-income" doesn't mean "poverty." It isn't true that 77 percent of New York City kids are living in poverty.
KAHLENBERG: I worked with Chicago Public Schools on their socioeconomic integration plan. The district is 85 percent low-income. My recommendation was not to ensure that every school was 85 percent low-income, because high-poverty schools are bad for students. In Chicago what they've done is to begin with magnet and selective-enrollment schools. You want to create a virtuous cycle where people can see examples of success.
KAMENETZ: It almost sounds like a chemistry experiment—you have to control the conditions very carefully and titrate your mixture until it hits that tipping point.
KAHLENBERG: The long-term aspiration is that, as you develop more socioeconomically integrated schools, that the overall demographics of the public school system could shift. We saw that in Cambridge: Over time, more middle-class and white people came back into the district, stopped using private schools and stopped moving away once their kids got to be a certain age.
Setting that requisite groaner to the side, let's focus on Kahlenberg's thinking.
All things being equal, it's a good and decent idea to "give poor kids the opportunity to attend school with not-so-poor kids." That said, all things aren't equal around the country, not by the longest of long shots.
For example, all things aren't equal in Chicago, where, in Kamenetz's admirably direct formulation, "there aren't enough middle-class kids to go around." What do you do in a system like that, if you want to give low-income kids a better chance in school?
What do you do in a system like that? In our view, Kahlenberg's answer is other-worldly—and also, highly instructive:
What do you do in a city like that? According to Kahlenberg, you create a small number of "socioeconomically integrated schools," for example through the creation of magnet schools, which are typically aimed at the higher-achieving and more ambitious students.
In Kahlenberg's formulation, when people see how well those few schools operate, some sort of demographic miracle will occur—in a city whose student population is currently 85 percent low-income! (And 87 percent black and Hispanic.)
That's the "one trick" NPR said we ought to try! By our reckoning, this trick should erase our ginormous achievement gaps by some time in or near the start of the 23rd century.
In the meantime, first-graders are going to school today, and they'll also be going to school tomorrow. In the fall, their younger sibling will be starting kindergarten. What's going to happen to them?
These good, decent kids will be going to school in cities which are overwhelmingly low-income, and also black and Hispanic. While we wait for NPR's "one trick" to blossom in Chicago, what is going to happen to them? Who's going to serve those kids?
Anthropologically speaking, our upper-end news orgs are crammed with people who are skilled at ignoring such questions. Anthropologically speaking, experts say that it seems to be the nature of the beast.
The kids in question don't really matter, except to the extent that we can use them as pawns in our attempts to engage in old-fashioned moral posturing about our moral greatness. You won't hear the lives of these children discussed on your favorite "liberal" TV shows. Nor will you see their interests discussed at your favorite liberal sites.
We liberals quit on these kids long ago. To the extent that we bother posing and pretending at all, we bloviate about "integration" and "desegregation," racial and socioeconomic. We posture about possible academic gains for tiny handfuls of kids. We imagine magical outcomes, in centuries yet to come.
So it was in this morning's New York Times, where a reporter who isn't an education specialist conducted the latest magical mystery tour of the drive toward "desegregation" in New York City's schools. In her report, Winnie Hu focuses again on School 54, the "high-performing" Manhattan school which would be affected by the "desegregation plan" now under consideration for the middle schools in New York City's District 3.
Hu quoted a parent from School 54; his wife had been quoted by Elizabeth Harris in her own report about School 54 back on May 2. This parent had a sensible point of concern about the proposed plan, along with a tired old claim about where achievement gaps come from.
Hu quoted that family again. But in a democratizing flourish, she also quoted parents from all over the city. Few of them seemed to have any obvious idea what they were talking about.
Hu created a Babel of complaints and theories. Eventually, we hit upon this suggestion:
HU (5/18/18): Naila Rosario, a mother of two in largely working-class Sunset Park, recalled her frustration one year when even the top-performing student at her neighborhood elementary school was not admitted to [high-performing] M.S. 51. Meanwhile, she noted, Park Slope's prestigious Public School 321 sent many students to M.S. 51, year after year.Why did that "top-performing student" get turned down at high-performing School 51? We don't know, but then again, neither does Hu or this parent. It's possible that the Park Slope kids were simply better students.
''It's not fair, it's not equitable,'' she said. ''All kids should have access to all the schools—and not because you live in a certain neighborhood and your parents have access to certain resources.''
That said, this parent's solution, while perfectly reasonable—all kids should have access to all the schools—leaves us where we began. Across the city of New York, the average child would be in a school which was 77 percent low-income.
All the schools would end up being New York City average. No one would be in a high-performing middle school whose students were high-performers coming in. There's nothing automatically wrong about this parent's suggestion, but these are precisely the kinds of schools Kahlenberg says he wants to avoid.
Meanwhile, each of those schools would have to deal with the giant achievement gaps found in New York City schools, where many kids achieve 1's on the state math exam and other kids achieve 4's. As you may recall, the river in New York City is wide, and it's hard to row over:
Average scores by percentiles, 2017 NaepBy standard methods of reckoning, the gaps in achievement are gigantic. And how would the typical middle school handle that wide range of achievement? Here's what Hu reports from another "high-performing" middle school in District 3:
Grade 8 math, New York City Public Schools
90th percentile: 329.72
75th percentile: 303.23
50th percentile: 272.76
25th percentile: 245.27
10th percentile: 222.66
HU: At the Computer School, which receives up to 1,000 applicants for 140 sixth-grade spots, about 19 percent of those admitted for the fall scored either 1s or 2s on the state tests. Once admitted, students with low and high test scores learn side by side. ''I see it as a challenge, but that's what we're supposed to do as educators—we're supposed to be the problem solvers,'' said Henry Zymeck, the principal.Really? Once admitted, these students learn side by side? They don't get split into "advanced" and "regular" and "remedial" classes, where the racial patterns we liberals despise will tend to appear again?
Despite those giant achievement gaps, these students learn side by side? We'd love to know how that works—or why anyone thinks it would. Lacking a background in education, Hu didn't think to ask.
These students all learn side by side? Think about what that means.
Think back! When you were in middle school and high school, did the kids who were taking Latin 4 learn side by side with the kids who were taking first-year Latin? Did the kids who were acing calculus learn side by side with the kids who flunked Algebra 1 last year and were taking it over again?
Did everyone learn side by side? Would it even make sense to try? We don't know who would run a school that way, or why anyone would think that approach made optimal sense. Anthropologically speaking, though, we liberals seem to be unable to think rationally about our low-income kids, their needs and their actual interests.
And make no mistake—the reason we bumble ahead in this way is because nobody actually cares. Given our manifest lack of interest, few things could be more clear.
Back on May 2, Elizabeth Harris wrote a fascinating news report about District 3's proposed plan. Already, the chancellor had apologized for a racially inflammatory statement he made about white parents who didn't like the plan. This sort of thing routinely occurs when we try to square the public school race-and-achievement circle in ways which make no real sense in the end.
We like to pretend there's some magical way to desegregate our way out of our grinding achievement gaps. In the real world, there's no such exit ramp. But we aren't rational animals, and we like to pretend.
In Harris' report, one parent said she hoped that lower-achieving students might do better academically if they get to attend School 54. Another parent worried that lower-achieving kids might not be able to handle the work at the school. Each statement was perfectly sensible, absent further explanation.
A third parent was quoted at the end of Harris' report. Like Chekhov's desperate dreaming couple in The Lady With the Lapdog, here's what the third parent said:
HARRIS (5/2/18): [Chancellor] Carranza has not said whether he will ultimately endorse the plan, though he has called it ''well thought-out'' and ''very moderate.'' On Tuesday, after meeting with legislators in Albany, Mr. Carranza said that while communities should be part of the conversation about integration, ''at some point we have to act on our beliefs.''The chancellor's declaration wasn't gigantically helpful. Everyone believes that public schools should be integrated. It all depends on what the meaning of "integration" is!
He went on, ''My belief is that schools should be integrated.''
For Tracy Alpert, a white parent who has one child at P.S. 191, which was at the center of an earlier desegregation debate in the district, the answer was clear. ''They need more good schools. It's a scarce resource,'' she said. ''We need more good seats at good schools.''
Meanwhile, to that third parent, the answer was clear. We need more "good schools," the parent said. We need more seats at such schools.
The parent offered no ideas about how these "good schools" would actually work. Nor did Harris seem to have asked her.
In that moment, a lesson was taught:
Everybody wants "good schools." But no one knows how to create them!
Next week: Gaps and solutions—good schools for struggling kids