Race, Poverty and Public Schools

Bob Herbert of the NY Times wrote an excellent column about race and poverty in learning called Separate and Unequal.   From his column:

Educators know that it is very difficult to get consistently good results in schools characterized by high concentrations of poverty. The best teachers tend to avoid such schools. Expectations regarding student achievement are frequently much lower, and there are lower levels of parental involvement. These, of course, are the very schools in which so many black and Hispanic children are enrolled. 

Given the new approach to assessing teachers, you couldn't necessarily blame teachers for avoiding these schools.  

Long years of evidence show that poor kids of all ethnic backgrounds do better academically when they go to school with their more affluent — that is, middle class — peers. 

Studies have shown that it is not the race of the students that is significant, but rather the improved all-around environment of schools with better teachers, fewer classroom disruptions, pupils who are more engaged academically, parents who are more involved, and so on. The poorer students benefit from the more affluent environment. “It’s a much more effective way of closing the achievement gap,” said Mr. Kahlenberg.

 But it isn't teachers deciding where kids go to schools, it's districts.

From the column:

In important study conducted by the Century Foundation in Montgomery County, Md., showed that low-income students who happened to be enrolled in affluent elementary schools did much better than similarly low-income students in higher-poverty schools in the county. 

The study, released last October, found that “over a period of five to seven years, children in public housing who attended the school district’s most advantaged schools (as measured by either subsidized lunch status or the district’s own criteria) far outperformed in math and reading those children in public housing who attended the district’s least-advantaged public schools.” 

Mr. Herbert thinks it boils down to politics.

What I think is a shame is that we have to do all of this humiliating dancing around the perennially uncomfortable issue of race. We pretend that no one’s a racist anymore, but it’s easier to talk about pornography in polite company than racial integration. Everybody’s in favor of helping poor black kids do better in school, but the consensus is that those efforts are best confined to the kids’ own poor black neighborhoods. 

There were some interesting letters to the editor.  From the letters:

In our work with the West Metro Education desegregation initiative in Minneapolis public schools, the students in grades 3 to 7  who got on the bus to attend suburban schools made three times the progress in both reading and math when compared with similar students who did not participate.

But wasn't it economic disparity that caused Davis Guggenheim ("Waiting for Superman") to pass by three public schools while driving his children to their private school?  If those private school teachers were moved to the public school, the students staying the same, would he have his children follow their teachers?  I doubt it.  Economic disparity trumps teacher ability. 

Mr. Herbert is leaving the Times; his last column was in Saturday's Times.


spsmarketshare said…
If you want to increase integration, especially integration across income levels, you will have to attract people into the public schools who are currently opting out. You can't force integration. People who can will leave you try to force them, just as they did in Seattle in the decades past.

In fact, due to that history, Seattle has one of the worst participation rates in public schools in the country. Only about 70% of Seattle children attend public school compared to the norm of 80-90% for major US cities.

The low public school participation rate is a big part of our problem in Seattle. The middle class is partially missing from and partially doesn't care about Seattle's public schools. Attracting them back, especially in the south, would help, especially because they would bring their time, money, and motivation with them.

You didn't qutoe from this part, but Bob Herbert also said in his column that you can attract people with additional resources. What doesn't work is what we saw under Maria Goodloe-Johnson, closing schools, shuffling schools and students around, disrupting schools that are working well, and forcing some students away from the schools in their local neighborhoods. Many parents who have the option will leave if you try to coerce them, but you can attract a diverse group of students and parents with good schools, popular alternative programs, or schools that are given additional resources.
Maureen said…
Aack, I just wrote an absolutely perfect (and very long )post and now it's gone!
Maureen said…
I was very interested to read Herbert's column. I first heard about this concept in reference to Richard Kahlenberg's work. I was excited to see that the study Herbert cited supported that.

I think that there are many schools in Seattle that have the potential to take advantage of these results. Schools like Stevens and TOPS and Garfield already balance populations that are 25-30% FRL and are racially and ethnically diverse. Other schools in Seattle could do this if boundaries are drawn properly and transportation is provided to Option Schools.

I wonder if Dr. Goodloe-Johnson had a warped version of this research in mind when she moved APP to TMarshall and made Concord and Beacon Hill into immersion programs?

The trick, as marketshare points out, is to do it without driving away the middle class/ wealthy families. I think it can be done. I think many families would like their kids' schools to be more diverse (they choose to live in Seattle afterall, not the burbs), but not at the expense of educational quality. Kahlenberg's work shows that this is possible, as long as you stay below a tipping point of about 40% FRL.

I do wonder though, if some poor kids benefit from explicit culturally relevant direct instruction that middle class families wouldn't stand for. (Geoffrey Canada and KIPP seem to believe that. It's not clear to me what sort of education model was in place in the control schools in the study) I would be interested to hear from anyone who can speak to the benefits of grouping poor kids together in one school.
ArchStanton said…
I'm dragging this comment to a more appropriate thread from: http://saveseattleschools.blogspot.com/2011/03/court-of-appeals-reverses-previous-math.html

No Archie, I'm commenting on your position. You're fine with segregation for yourself (presumably, becuase you're so deserving) but whine about it for everyone else. It's hard to take you seriously.

@Observer: I don't know who you are, and can only presume that you don't know much about me except for what I have posted on this blog (and likely a limited sampling, at that). Because I prefer my relative anonymity, I don't care to reveal a lot of personal details. Suffice it to say that it seems that you are making assumptions about my race, class, and motivations based solely on my advocating for keeping the APP cohort intact and maybe our family's decision to seek the stability offered by private school.

Know this: I am an African-American; grew up in an immigrant, ESL, single-parent, home; lived in the projects for much of my youth, didn't graduate college until well into my adult years, and regularly tutor kids that are living in similar circumstances to those I grew up in.

I'm not sure what exactly you think I feel that I deserve, but I'm sure that with your remarkable psychoanalytic abilities, you will figure out that instead of desiring a strong gifted education for my child; what I really want is to escape the circumstances of my childhood out of some self-loathing of my race or SES.

Please spare me any such drivel.
Maureen said…
I would really like to discuss this issue. Kay Smith Blum said something at the City Club Forum that ties into this. She said that what matters most for struggling learners is who they sit next to in class. This got some boos from the crowd, but I think her point is the same as Herbert's and Kahlenberg's.

From what I have read, the best way to improve a nonnative speaker's language is to toss them in with a a class of native speakers (With support? I'm not sure.) I think something like that applies to kids who don't live in an 'Education Culture' (for lack of a better term.)

I have seen it in practice, but I can't see what would have happened to those same kids if they had been enrolled at a school that was full of kids like them. Maybe they would get more tutoring or other support? Maybe the teacher would be at their level more and they would be less likely to get behind? Or maybe they wouldn't stretch themselves as much and wouldn't have access to extras like drama and music? Can anyone speak about poor kids they have known who have gone from a majority poor to a minority poor Seattle School and how that has impacted them?

I also wonder if the impact is the same at K-5, 6-8 and High School? I wonder if the older they get the more aware they are of differences in financial status and how that impacts their learning.
ArchStanton said…
She said that what matters most for struggling learners is who they sit next to in class.

I think that can be part of the solution, but it won't work all by itself.

One kid that I tutor is currently attending what most parents would describe as a good or desirable school. I don't know the makeup of his various classes, but one thing that has become clear is that some of his teachers have pretty much given up on him and he knows it - it clearly makes it hard for him to not give up on himself. The teachers need to buy into this concept and so do the parents of the kids he is sitting next to for this to work.

Unfortunately, I think that class size or the teacher/student ratio is what really becomes limiting. The kids I work with REALLY need more one-on-one time with grownups that care and are interested in them. It may take them a little longer to master a concept and if the teacher moves on before they get it, they quickly get discouraged and tune out. Having more involved parents that are willing to volunteer with classes/students that are not their own or more teacher's assistants would be a big help. One teacher with a class of 28+ can barely get all of the academically inclined kids - there's no time for struggling kids.

If you simply move kids from poor schools to affluent schools (or vice-versa), you risk re-creating the busing/integration of the 70s-80s - or at least create that perception and risk re-creating "white-flight", as well.

I feel like a lot of effort is spent on trying to identify one systemic fix when what we really need is more "boots on the ground", i.e. more people willing to get in the trenches do the dirty work of helping kids that are not like them - being that grownup who is interested in them, is concerned about their success, knows how to work with the system to advocate for them, and won't give up on them when they don't always do their best.

The tutoring program I'm with doesn't have much in the way of money and resources, but what they really lack is vonlunteers. There is a wait list for tutors and many tutors are working with more than one kid at a time.

Throwing money and resources at the problem can only help so much without the people to make it work.
Maureen said…
Thanks ArchStanton,

Unfortunately, I think that class size or the teacher/student ratio is what really becomes limiting. The kids I work with REALLY need more one-on-one time with grownups that care and are interested in them.

I wonder if high poverty schools with small class size and targeted interventions do a better job for struggling learners than low poverty schools with larger classes and more middle class enrichment opportunities? I don't feel as though anyone has really done that research.

I guess that is the experiment that is going on at The New School. I wish that the Sloan Foundation had created a control group of kids when they opened the School so we could follow them and compare their results to the kids who enrolled at South Shore (of course, IIRC, when they opened they drew a significant percentage of middle class families, but that seems to have changed over time.)

I know a parent who for about seven years came in every Wed. and worked with whatever kids from two different grades needed help. She was a predictable helpful (and somewhat stern) presence (she also had a math BA and her parents were both teachers). I think she made a real difference for the kids she worked with.

I have volunteered quite a bit over the years, but I feel as though I have not been consistent enough to make a real difference for the kids I worked with, especially for the older kids.

Do you mind telling us which organization you volunteer with?
ArchStanton said…
Do you mind telling us which organization you volunteer with?

I don't mind at all. It's the Youth Tutoring Program sponsored by Catholic Community Services in cooperation with the Seattle Housing Authority. http://www.ccsww.org/site/PageServer?pagename=childrenyouth_ytp

They really need more volunteers than they have. I can post more later if anyone is interested.

/Dealing with a sick kid at the moment.
ArchStanton said…
I'm sure I've read about studies that show the difference that one consistently interested and involved adult can make for certain at-risk kids. Someone here can probably point to them.

My experience backs that up pretty clearly. Some kids just need academic help and are ready to receive it, but many of them need to establish a relationship before you can begin to break through, especially around the middle school years. Many of them need the relationship as much as, if not more than the academic help. I feel like my role as a mentor/friend is more significant than the math/reading help I might provide. But, that means one person has to be paired with and dedicated to a few students. It's hard to get enough adults that can commit to meet the need.
Maureen said…
I wonder if that is one of the ways placing poor kids in middle class schools makes a difference? The kids develop friendships with kids whose parents take an interest in their lives and provide a view into a world where education matters. It might not happen for all of the kids, but for enough that the outcomes are better for the whole group?
ArchStanton said…
I'm sure that it happens, but I think it has to be part of a larger approach where you reach out to those kids any way you can.

My mom was friendly and supportive of our friends growing up. Some of my sister's friends called her their "second mom". I was probably somewhat gifted (even if not identified) and pretty academically inclined and many of my friends were from "the other side of the tracks" as it were. There were times when I felt like I was helping them see the benefits that I found in more academic pursuits. But, those times were pretty limited and would have been hard to predict or plan for.

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