Friday, March 5, 2010

Different Schools, Different Lives

Ta-Nehisi Coates has some interesting things to say about his decision of whether or not to send his son to public or private elementary school.  The piece is rough and doesn't bring enough in, but provides a nice picture of the complex intersection of socio-economics, class & race in education.

Despite reports to the contrary, Harlem is still a relatively poor area of town. And also despite reports to the contrary, the class of people here, and in poor black neighborhoods around the country, are mostly made up of parents who desperately want to get their kids getting up and out. The schools are addressing that sentiment with uniforms, discipline and three hours of homework. There's a school in the Bronx that bills itself as "college prep." That school starts in fifth grade.
This seems as good a picture as any of the disconnect between how we view education and socio-economics in America.  On the one hand, you have neighborhoods populated by middle class parents who are by and large functional, read to their kids at night, provide them with enriching activities, and promote an academic orientation through the use of rich language and cognitive skills.  Children of these parents tend to do okay in school.  They don't have a great deal of stress in their lives, and are largely well-behaved and receptive learners.  They can move rather nicely through grade-level curriculum, have support at home, and thus are very receptive to more child-centered, exploratory and open-ended curriculum. 

On the other hand, you have neighborhoods populated by poor parents who are often dysfunctional in any number of ways, undereducated, lacking in parenting skills, young, single-parents, and have limited resources to provide enrichment, either through activities or language.  Children of these parents tend to struggle in school, often starting behind in Kindergarten and never catching up.  They experience high levels of stress in their lives due to the many manifestations of poverty - difficult and depressing family jobs, drug abuse, criminal behavior, impulsivity, etc.  School comes to feel a place of endless drudgery and failure, in which they are continually failing to meet expectations.  The more child-centered, complex curriculum is rejected in favor of more traditional, rote learning that is less inspiring but more efficient at delivering basic skills.  Authoritarian learning environments, designed to correct inadequate levels of student self-control, in the hands of a less than comfortable teacher often deteriorate into a climate of yelling, harshness and hostility.

These two worlds are very different, and rarely overlap.  Geographically, they take place in different classes of neighborhood.   In California's Coachella Valley, different cities have vastly different populations.  The estimated median family income for Palm Desert is $59,189, with a median house value of $430,677, and a poverty rate of 6%.  Yet a few miles down the highway, the estimated family income for Indio, CA is $36,992, with a median house value of $286,700, and a poverty rate of 14.8%. 

As students in public schools are assigned according to where they live, these classes are born out in student test results.  Students at Palm Desert High School scored about 60% proficient or better in statewide exams.  Students at Indio High scored about 25% proficient or better.  While some of this discrepancy can be attributed to teacher or staff performance (better schools are a better talent draw), the larger issue is obviously socio-economic demographics.

These are very different populations, from very different worlds.  Just looking at one teacher, one curriculum, and one group of 30 students is not an effective, scalable model for real education reform.  Any meaningful solution will need to account for the disparate realities that students are facing.  As we see over and over in the statistics, students from poor neighborhoods are getting a "separate but equal" education.  Once the moral decision has been made that we need to act, the problem is thus what to do to address the fundamental inequity for these children.  One option is to bring back a program of integration via bussing, now seemingly more viable on grounds of class rather than race yet just as inconvenient and disruptive.  The other is to simply provide different levels of service depending on community need.  This is generally what we have now, although the patchwork of government intervention programs seems sorely disproportionate to the level of social and financial capital available to well-off communities.

The real difficulty lies in summoning the philosophical and moral courage to act.  For many citizens, the problem just seems too large and complicated to solve.  Yet this is rational luxuriation.  Political apathy is so much easier than action.  Action requires taking a position and taking a position requires taking ownership and responsibility.  No one likes being wrong, but on two sides of an issue there must be a loser.  Life already seems so complicated and we feel over-tired and burdened already.  And if the children of the poor are far away from us, out of our lives, it is as though they disappear.  But their lives are real.
(image: Shawn Beard)

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