Monday, June 13, 2016

What is really going on in our most segregated schools?

In our discussions of bathroom accessibility and micro-agressions and trigger warnings and privilege checking and the nuances of affirmative consent, we're neglecting some serious issues. One of these is the continuing segregation of our schools, which is arguably more pernicious than ever: a segregation in which our urban school districts are offering disadvantaged students what, in many cases, is a far worse education than ever before.

Because our public schools aren't really public, as in open to the public, it's hard for outsiders to get a close look at the classroom instruction that occurs (or fails to occur) in the schools into which our most disadvantaged urban students are segregated. Mostly what we hear about has to do with the dire physical conditions of the buildings, or the lack of librarians, nurses, and college counselors, or the shortage of basic supplies like paper and toilet paper. 

But every once in a while one hears an alarming eye witness report about what's actually going on in classrooms. And what one hears is far worse than a lack of music, art, or AP curricula. Consider high school math classes that consist of teachers showing students the different functions of the keys on a calculator; teachers who don't bother assigning homework because they're certain students won't do it; teachers who have given up on their students and essentially just babysit them; burned out principals who avoid hiring good teachers because good teachers might make them look bad (I know several great teachers who would love to teach disadvantaged students but have been turned away or discouraged by terrible principals). Not to mention: students who sit imprisoned for weeks or months in teacherless rooms thanks to shortages of "certified" teachers and substitutes. 

So it was refreshing to see the New York Times Magazine run an article this past weekend highlighting the continued segregation of the New York City schools. In this article, Nikole Hannah-Jones contrasts the general conditions of most of the city schools into which disadvantaged students are segregated with one which has managed to flourish:
P.S. 307’s attendance zone was drawn snugly around seven of the 10 buildings that make up the Farragut Houses, a public-housing project with 3,200 residents across from the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The school’s population was 91 percent black and Latino. Nine of 10 students met federal poverty standards.
Hannah-Jones credits P.S. 307's success to its principal, Roberta Davenport, who has, among other things, obtained money from a federal magnet grant that funds a science, engineering and technology program.

But she also credits Davenport with some other things that I find problematic:
she rejected the spare educational orthodoxy often reserved for poor black and brown children that strips away everything that makes school joyous in order to focus solely on improving test scores. These children from the projects learned Mandarin, took violin lessons and played chess.
Focusing solely on improving test scores vs. making learning joyous with extra subjects like music and foreign language is a false dichotomy that assumes no middle ground. Reading, writing, and math, taught well, are fun; Mandarin and violin, taught properly, can be grueling. Producing a decent enough violin sound to make music joyous; learning the Mandarin tones and characters well enough to make communication meaningful: these things demand extensive drill and practice.

Plus, as things currently stand, the pressure to improve test scores is one of the only disincentives we have against those teacher-free/teacher-as-babysitter classrooms that predominate more than ever in the most segregated of our urban schools.


Anonymous said...

The charges you level against urban schools are not backed up with any evidence or even a verifiable anecdote. I'm not disputing your essential point -- that schools in which poverty is concentrated are poor schools qualitatively as well -- but it would have been helpful if you'd provided some links to data.

Katharine Beals said...

I agree! it would be very helpful if there were links to data--data in which large numbers of insider accounts of classroom practices were compiled together. But because our public schools aren't truly open to the public, such info is elusive. All I have are the individual eye witness accounts of the few people I know who've gotten an extensive inside look--and the fact that these insider accounts are fairly consistent, and rather damning.

Anonymous said...

You should mention your sources then, even if it's just to say that someone you know witnessed such-and-such; not to do so risks undermining your point, which is actually quite important.

Katharine Beals said...

Right: that's about all I could say. Sometimes sources--like commenters!--wish to be anonymous.

Anonymous said...

I think that what the commenter is suggesting, is that you could share a specific anecdote without revealing the name of the source. For example, I read an anecdote about an after school math teacher. As you have so helpfully pointed out, when math is taught correctly, students find it fun. However, the students in this class were bored and restless. Clearly this teacher was nothing more than a babysitter. I read another anecdote about a teacher whose written instructions were hard to follow. When students asked for help, she gave up on them and told them to just keep reading the unclear instructions over and over. See how I was able to share these examples of lazy, baby sitter teachers without revealing the source.

Katharine Beals said...

That's great, Anonymous! Thanks for sharing these. I would love to include these and other anecdotes in a post focused on the specific issue of "babysitter" teachers. I'm not sure they would satisfy Anonymous, however, because s/he appears to want "verifiable anecdotes," or anecdotes whose sources are identified by name, hyperlink, or their specific connection to the person citing them.

Adelaide Dupont said...

So interesting to read about these NYC and NYS schools.

Remember so well in 2001 when I would read about them first and how a class of kids from Long Island would write to people who were affected by September 11.

And 10 years later I would read POETRY IN THE MAINSTREAM which was a workshop series by the Fishers. All the poetry anthologies are on Scribd. Including In Search of a Song and Staten Island Anthologies and Streams and Waterways.

This is one powerful way to see inside and outside school. and Richard and Barbara Fisher.

Name! Hyperlink! Specific Connection! We must be careful...

[and league tables in the UK and in Australia try to do this. We are also watching REVOLUTION SCHOOL which opens up to *one* Victorian school].