Tuesday, August 4, 2015

The Problem We All Live With: How Education Reform Reinforces Racism

As much as I enjoy writing about music, my real passion is my day job: teaching. Though I'm not really an NPR person, a number of my friends and family urged me to listen to this week's episode, "The Problem We All Live With." The episode centers on the accidental desegregation of a school district just outside of St. Louis. If that sticks in your mind, this all occurred between the summer before Michael Brown's senior year and the summer he was shot. By a horrible (though likely) coincidence, the district in question was Brown's home district.

To summarize, though the Normandy school district had underperformed for decades (much like virtually every high-poverty and high-POC school district in the country), the state suddenly decided to strip the district of accreditation. Under Missouri state law, all parents in Normandy were given the option to transfer their students to other districts. Predictably, backlash ensued and the state pulled a maneuver worthy of Catch-22 to placate the white school district.

Before I go any further, this situation raises serious questions for me. Under No Child Left Behind (NCLB), schools are required to report state test scores. All schools are expected to show a certain amount of growth (AYP) -- this was supposed to be a motivator to ensure that all schools are "proficient" (as defined by individual states) by 2012. Obviously, that ship has sailed. However, if a school fails to make AYP, families at that school are allowed to transfer their student to a district of their choosing. The first school I worked at, a middle school, consistently fails to achieve proficiency on every federal, state, and city standard. In the spring, the state sent home a letter notifying families that the school had failed to make AYP and that they could transfer their kids. Most parents were confused by the letter and thought it meant the school was closing down. It also wasn't clear how they could transfer their student.

Although nobody makes it easy to transfer your kid out of your zoned district, I have to assume that the parents in Normandy were informed of their rights before the district lost is accreditation. Unless, of course, the state of Missouri failed to perform its duties under federal law.

This piece raises so many points and nuances. I'm not really a thinkpiece person (though here I am writing one), but I look forward to reading what greater minds than I have to say about this story. My response to this piece is based purely on personal experience. If you'd like to read more about the subject in a more scholarly and evidence-based vein, take a gander at What's Race Got to Do With It?: How Current School Reform Policy Maintains Racial and Economic Inequality edited by my friends and colleagues Bree Picower and Edwin Mayorga. I haven't read past the first chapter, so if what I say echoes anything from the book, it just shows how similar my experiences in the Bronx these past few years are to the teaching community at large. "The Problem We All Live With," at least, helped my thoughts about the issue coalesce into one realization: education policy in the United States as it currently exists does not work, cannot work, and will never work because it reinforces the racial hierarchies that create these inequalities in the first place.

It was interesting to hear my sister's reaction to the piece. She was upset to hear about the corruption and inefficacy of the school district. I shrugged. Isn't that what I've been saying for the past two years? The part that upset me on a visceral level was the town hall meeting in the white school district at minutes 24 to 28. The parents raised a number of concerns, including:

  • increased class size
  • changing instruction to integrate students who may be grade levels behind
  • lower test scores

And the most vitriolic and disturbing comment of all, which will merit its own response:
  • safety and security -- "In one month, I'm about to send my three small children to your school and I want to know...will there be metal detectors?...Will we have the same security that Normandy has when they walk through those doors?...Because I shopped for a school district!" (min 27)
Lest you think Ira Glass cherry-picked some truly awful cretins of humanity to quote, if you'll listen to the podcast you'll hear the roar of approval after every thinly veiled racist comment.

Listening to this hurts. The hatred and ignorance makes me sad on a deep level. But the truth is, if I were a teacher in the white district -- young and untenured -- I would be shitting bricks. Here's why:

At the beginning of this podcast, you'll hear the claim that integrating schools is the "only" reform that "works." Whatever that means. However, another crucial factor in student performance is class size. There's a moment in the story where you'll hear about a student whose teacher did not inform her parent about a sudden dip in grades because she had "too many students." The parent claims the teacher "didn't care." That's possible, but when teachers have a caseload of 100 students and 2 or 3 subjects to prepare, if they're going to call parents at 7 PM (because that's when the parents are home), it's going to be those 10 kids who were bouncing off the walls, not the usually star student who fucked up on a test. More importantly, there are only so many small humans one adult human can interact with in a 45-minute period. Fun fact: the maximum class size for middle and high school in New York City is 35 students. It's larger for elementary school. And that's not decreasing any time soon. Trust me -- the difference between a class with 20 students and 25 students is huge. The fact that this school had to suddenly absorb 1000 students was a reasonable cause for concern.
So the past 15 years' emphasis on data and accountability has made it less likely that a young, promising teacher will want to stay in a low-performing school district. There are so many examples of how the insidious influence of these numbers has effected me and my colleagues' work and has put a chokehold on the pleasure we take from teaching.

The achievement gap is very real. Now, I've spent the last two years working with students who completely fell through the cracks at their previous schools, so my perspective on how "bad" things are in the Bronx is skewed. That being said, I taught 21-year-olds who were writing at an 8th grade level at best. But these are 21-year-olds who had the tenacity to get their high school diploma. There are many more who either struggled through or stopped going to school altogether. I've often wondered "what the fuck were these teachers doing?" But I know what they were doing. I completely failed at teaching middle school for  year. Large class sizes, unsafe emotional environments, lack of support for new teachers, and the preponderance of inexperienced teachers in high-poverty school districts make for disaster.

Poor school performance is almost always blamed on teachers -- the reporter at the beginning of this podcast (who, by the way, helped implement NCLB) claims that high-poverty schools are plagued by low-quality teachers.With a sample size of two schools (as well as my friends' experiences), I beg to disagree. Like any work environment, there are people who are good at their jobs, people who want to be good at their jobs but aren't, and people who suck and don't care. I attended some of the poshest schools in New York City, and that was true of the teachers there (though there were many more brilliant teachers than incompetent ones.) Thanks to NCLB, schools are judged by metrics, which should give you a pretty good snapshot of what the teachers in these school are right, like? Not so. In New York and most states across the country (the federal government has limited power to enforce policies at the state level, but Obama granted minimal extra funding to states who implemented specific programs. This was called Race to the Top), teachers are given a score based on how their own students perform on standardized tests, how the school performed overall, how your boss rates you on a subjective rubric, and is weighted by a "value-added" formula, which is supposed to take into account class size, socio-economic factors, etc. It has been critiqued by real live actual statisticians. (Apparently the folks in charge of this stuff are neither experts in education nor math, which makes one wonder what actually qualifies them to tell me how to do my job?) This formula is kept secret and is tweaked every year. Case in point: last year was the first time New York State used this method to grade individual teachers. Based on the raw numbers, I had expected to maybe squeak by into "Developing," the second-lowest rating -- a guaranteed tenure-killer. However, the results were delivered two weeks late and while I was still rated Developing, I was just a few points shy of "Effective." Undoubtedly, the formula had to be tweaked to curve everyone upwards -- it wouldn't do to have an entire state full of failing teachers.

To return to the point (at last), whatever witchcraft the state did with the VAM formula, standardized test scores are still a huge part of that calculation. However, studies have shown time and time again that standardized tests only measure socio-economic status, not educational achievement. Now that teachers' careers rest on these test scores, we are further dis-incentivized to work in struggling schools and districts should we want tenure. So the policy that was supposed to ensure and increase quality in all schools -- misguided as it is -- ultimately ensures that the students who need quality teachers the most will never get them.
But if I could line these parents up and talk to them face-to-face, I'd like to talk to the woman who spoke about metal detectors. Kids from these communities are so fundamentally misunderstood. It's with bitter regret that I'm leaving the South Bronx this next school year. Although the school I'm moving to has a similar student population, when I tell people which neighborhood the school is in, their reaction is invariable "Niiiiice!" or some variation of "It's going to be a much better place to work!" When I used to tell people that I worked in the South Bronx, their reaction was almost always this:

But I'm so proud of everything my students have accomplished in the two years I've known them, and I know they're proud, too. They are the most resilient people I'll ever meet. That doesn't mean they're angels, or that they never came into school with shitty attitudes because of whatever traumatic thing that had happened to them over the weekend. It didn't mean they loved being in school or hung on every word of mine. If I asked any of them right now about the things they wrote about in their 7-page research theses, I guarantee they wouldn't remember any of it. But because of the emphasis we placed on how their hard work is worth it, how they're worth it, they rose to the occasion, often in spite of the many things in their lives that conspired to hold them down.

As I wrote about a year ago, kids will only rise to the expectations you have for them. There were three other transfer schools in the building my school was in. All of these kids came from similar neighborhoods, and often originally from the same schools that consistently failed to keep them engaged and safe. Anecdotally, the other three schools had more fights than last year -- including a floor-wide free-for-all that hospitalized a school safety agent. We had zero. I promise you that happened because of the way we treat our students with respect and independence. Incidentally, we had metal dictators installed last January. (I actually felt less safe with them there once students began to show me what they were able to sneak through.)

Kids from poor neighborhoods are not inherently violent and metal detectors won't keep you safe. But I guarantee if you treat people like they're future criminals, they will act like them. The numbers from these test scores only confirm, racist mothers of the world, your fears. Allowing these kids -- who were never given a fair shake in the first place -- into "your" schools are a threat to your kids based on the numbers. You're worried that diluting the pool will bring your kid down. Thanks to NCLB, your school getting shut down due to a decline in test scores is very real. But you didn't care when it wasn't your problem. And instead of trying to make it better, you'd rather vilify children you don't even know or care to.

Lastly, I'd like to respond to her comment about choosing to live in a specific district. I wish there was a way to decouple real estate values and school performance. Now that everything is tabulated, rated, and ranked, it is much easier to justify the sociological prejudices that keep our communities segregated through de facto means. I think this is the reason why gentrification is so jarring in urban areas (I write, sitting in an Upper Manhattan coffee shop.) These neighborhoods are more diverse cosmetically and economically, but we are as segregated as ever racially. Even though there are more white families in my neighborhood than there were, say, two years ago, they're not sending their kids to the local public school.

But bussing students isn't practical -- certainly not in suburban and rural areas where schools are spread out. There are also other issues to consider. New York City's high schools are officially de-zoned. That, and breaking so many schools into smaller, 200-400-student schools has affected our communities and ways I don't think we realize. In this secular age, community schools are the one institution that could bring the neighborhood together. But they don't -- at least not in high-poverty areas, where it's hard to get in touch with families for a variety of reasons. Given that the US spends more money per student than any other country in the world, I'm not even confident some kind of funding (re-)distribution would help, though I'm looking forward to working at a school that can afford to buy photocopy paper for an entire school year. Certainly, nothing will ever change as long as this issue as framed as "their schools" vs. "our schools."

Education reform will not be achieved through funding streams. It will not be achieved by changing the curriculum. It will not be achieved by ensuring teacher "quality", which is only defined by standardized test pass rates. It's about ensuring that all students have their educational needs met, which can only be achieved with increased investment (financial and emotional) in providing safe environments were no child is overlooked...or left behind. The only gains these policies have made are in disempowering teacher unions, de-professionalizing teachers, and dividing parents. Which, of course, was the plan all along.

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