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Studies Suggest Economic Inequity Is Built Into, and Worsened by, School Systems

In light of the new research, several components of no excuses education reform are likely to increase the current problems with social and educational equity, instead of addressing them.

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So why do self-styled education “reformers” keep ignoring class issues?

Ignoring Poverty as Education Reform

As Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan represents both the discourse and policy currently driving education reform in the US. On September 24, 2009, Duncan spoke about equity, education reform and the possibility of reauthorizing the federal education legislation known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

Typical of his discourse throughout his tenure as Secretary of Education, Duncan explained: “I heard their voices – their expectations, hopes and dreams for themselves and their kids. They were candid about their fears and frustrations. They did not always understand why some schools struggle while others thrive. They understood profoundly that great teaching and school leadership is the key to a great education for their kids.”

Building on the framework for reform endorsed by Obama and Duncan, self-appointed reformers – including Joel Kline, Michelle Rhee, Paul Vallas, and many others – directly announced an education reform manifesto that asserted: “As President Obama has emphasized, the single most important factor determining whether students succeed in school is not the color of their skin or their ZIP code or even their parents’ income – it is the quality of their teacher.”

Duncan’s implication that the public doesn’t understand variations in educational outcomes (as well as his misinformation about the power of teachers and school leaders to overcome social forces) and reform agendas rejecting the impact of race and ZIP codes are now complicated by the mid-April release of two new reports from the Schott Foundation and Brookings since the conclusions of these two studies highlight that America’s faith in a level playing field is not fulfilled in either society or in public schools.

In light of the new research, several components of “no excuses” education reform are likely to increase the current problems with social and educational equity, instead of addressing them. Before we look further at why charter schools, school choice, Teach for America (TFA) and teacher quality will make the problem worse, not better, let’s look at some of the data.

Findings Confirm Classrooms Are Not Immune to Forces Beyond the Schoolyard

“We like to believe all students have an equal opportunity to learn,” explained Liz Dwyer, “regardless of the color of their skin or the amount of money their families have.”

But “A Rotting Apple: Education Redlining in New York City,” from the Schott Foundation for Public Education, has prompted Pedro Noguera (New York University) to state in the Preface: “[T]his report will show that evidence of blatant disparities amount to Apartheid-like separations that have been accepted in New York for far too long.”

The Schott study focuses on New York City (NYC), but the patterns exposed in the report are typical across the US in public education, a system currently under siege by “no excuses” reformers from the US Department of Education to each statehouse across the country.

“The historic link between home values and school quality throughout the United States virtually insures that poor and working-class children will be denied equal educational opportunities,” said Scott Henderson, a professor of education at Furman University and author of “Housing and the Democratic Ideal” (2000).

The data in the report connect housing prices and patterns as they correlate with school attendance and measurable outcomes for those students. The patterns exposed by the report’s examination of opportunities to learn reveal the following:

“[W]hile 46% of the city’s White, non-Hispanic students and 47% of the city’s Asian students are enrolled in top quartile high schools, only 18% of Black and 16% of Hispanic students are enrolled in those schools. Seventeen percent of students who, because of their family’s low income, are eligible for free or reduced price lunches, are enrolled in those schools. Here, again, the family income metric corroborates those for race and ethnicity. Nineteen percent of the city’s few American Indian students were in the highest quartile schools.

“When we look at the racial/ethnic distribution for the lowest quartile, where the average student has a 29% or less chance of graduating in four years with a Regents diploma, we find that a Black or Hispanic student is nearly four times more likely to be enrolled in one of the city’s poorest performing high schools as is an Asian or White student.” [Executive Summary]

Broadly, then, the report reached this devastating conclusion:

“Most, if not all, students in majority middle class Asian and White, non-Latino Queens Community School Districts 25 and 26 … have an opportunity to learn in a high-performing school, where most students are able to achieve at high levels. None of the students in Harlem, Bronx and Brooklyn Community School Districts 5, 7, 12, 13, 16 and 19 (at the far right on the chart) have the opportunity to learn in a high-performing school. The latter districts serve some of the poorest children in the city.

“Students who live in neighborhoods that are overwhelmingly Black, Latino, or impoverished White or Asian have little opportunity to learn the basic skills needed to succeed on state and national assessments, attend one of the city’s selective high schools, or obtain a high school diploma qualifying them for college or a good job.

“This report documents not only where de facto education redlining occurs in New York City communities, but also the devastating impact inequitable educational opportunity has on New York City’s public school students.” [“A Rotting Apple,” p. 4 .]

The NYC study connecting any student’s opportunity to learn to the housing and community structures beyond the control of that student and the family reinforces the broader issue of in-school inequity exposed by Peske and Haycock (2006), who examined patterns of teacher assignment based on student characteristics most strongly associated with measurable student outcomes – family income, race, native language, special needs. They conclude:

“Unfortunately, rather than organizing our educational system to pair these children with our most expert teachers, who can help ‘catch them up’ with their more advantaged peers, we actually do just the opposite. The very children who most need strong teachers are assigned, on average, to teachers with less experience, less education and less skill than those who teach other children.”

“New York needs a renewed commitment to equity to insure that the opportunity to learn is not determined by the census tract where a child resides,” argued Noguera, but recent evidence suggests that the entire US shares the same need for a “commitment to equity.”

“These studies demonstrate a simple, essential reality which corporate reformers ignore: that socioeconomics don’t somehow magically stop at classroom door,” explained educator and scholar Adam Bessie. He added, “School reform and social reform are inseparable projects and that schools in economically and racially segregated communities are not crippled by ‘bad teachers’ nor ‘evil unions,’ but rather, by that very segregation itself.”

Bessie also suggested that these studies help challenge the call for “miracle” reform that presents schools as the singular institution to create social change, even though the dynamics of those schools tends to perpetuate the same inequity found in society. Social reform addressing over 20 percent of children living in poverty must accompany reforming school inequity, he maintained.

New York City and Across the US: Education as Inequity

The mid-April release of the Brookings report, “Housing Costs, Zoning and Access to High-Scoring Schools,” confirmed as well that education as inequity is not unique to New York. This national analysis concluded:

  • Nationwide, the average low-income student attends a school that scores at the 42nd percentile on state exams, while the average middle/high-income student attends a school that scores at the 61st percentile on state exams….
  • Northeastern metro areas with relatively high levels of economic segregation exhibit the highest school test-score gaps between low-income students and other students….
  • Across the 100 largest metropolitan areas, housing costs an average of 2.4 times as much, or nearly $11,000 more per year, near a high-scoring public school than near a lowscoring public school….
  • Large metro areas with the least restrictive zoning have housing cost gaps that are 40 to 63 percentage points lower than metro areas with the most exclusionary zoning.

As Nirvi Shah reported: “While the idea that economic segregation was a function of zoning practices isn’t new, Mr. Rothwell said his research is among the first to explicitly link the two and tie the results to access to high-quality schools.”

Nancy Flanagan taught in the suburbs of Detroit for 31 years and now blogs at Teacher/EdWeek. As a teacher and consultant, she witnessed firsthand the inequity of children’s access to housing and education. Flanagan argued the Brookings report revealed to her that “the answer seems very clear: If every family were earning a fair wage, enough to pull them out of poverty, our problems would be solved.”

These patterns of in-school inequity pose significant problems for current education reform narratives and initiatives coming from political and public leaders in the US, especially when evidence on income equity has caused Timothy Noah to confront the data and ask: “That was when the richest 1 percent accounted for 18 percent of the nation’s income. Today, the richest 1 percent account for 24 percent of the nation’s income. What caused this to happen?”

If children in the US are experiencing growing inequity of income in their homes and communities as well as inequity of opportunity in their community schools, how do the current education reform commitments match the weight of evidence concerning what sort of reform US public education needs?

Jonathan Rothwell, in the Brookings report, reached this conclusion about current reform:

“While all of these efforts deserve careful consideration, none directly addresses one of the central issues that limit educational opportunity for low-income and minority children: their disproportionate concentration in low-performing schools. In particular, limiting the development of inexpensive housing in affluent neighborhoods and jurisdictions fuels economic and racial segregation and contributes to significant differences in school performance across the metropolitan landscape.” [Introduction, p. 2.]

Wrong on All Four Counts: Why Charter Schools, School Choice, Teach for America and Teacher Quality Are Not the Answer

Both studies also suggest that the current education reform movement is terribly flawed since politicians and the public have committed to addressing poverty and inequity by ignoring poverty and inequity.

Charter Schools. The Obama administration and states across the US are promoting and expanding charter schools, yet the growing body of research on charter schools shows that student outcomes are little different than outcomes in public or private schools. Further, as Matthew Di Carlo emphasized, “there is nothing about ‘charterness’ that leads to strong results.” Yet, charter schools, notably charter chains such as Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), are being supported as a primary mechanism for addressing the achievement gap among racial and socioeconomic subgroups. As Rothwell concluded, however, charter schools do not address the inequity of children’s homes and schools; in fact, the one key pattern shown in the growth of charter schools is that they are resegregating education.

School Choice. The school choice movement gained momentum in the 1990s, and then initiatives such as vouchers lost steam. But in the past few years, choice, vouchers, and other aspects of choice (such as the rise of charter schools as a choice) have all regained popularity, despite the lack of evidence that choice itself addresses social equity, educational equity or educational outcomes. Choice and, specifically, parental choice, is a powerful argument again refuted by current reviews of Milwaukee’s extensive voucher program. Casey Cobb’s reviews show why both the choice mechanism and the research as well as reporting on that research are yet more reform measures that fail to address equity. In his evaluation of a report comparing test scores from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, public school students with scores from students in the city’s school choice program, Cobb wrote:

“The results are not particularly useful beyond providing a snapshot of how MPCP students and a comparison group of low-income MPS students perform on a battery of state exams. The report correctly cautions readers not to make causal inferences about the effects of either sector, given the descriptive rather than analytical nature of the analysis.”

Typical of research on the impact of choice to reform educational outcomes, data from the Milwaukee initiative, on balance, according to the review, “provide little to support the 22-year-old school voucher program…. But it’s also because the data and the reports simply fail to demonstrate that voucher schools are associated with improved outcomes.”

“In New York City, openings in coveted preschools go to parents able to pay for them,” explained educator and EdWeek blogger Walt Gardner. “The same advantages persist throughout the entire educational process. The results call into question Milton Friedman’s claim that choice will provide a quality education for all.”

Teach for America (TFA). Like charter schools, TFA has gained a great deal of support from the Obama administration as well as states and school districts across the US. Since TFA recruits are college graduates without teacher education or teaching experience, however, commitments to TFA fail to address the inequitable distribution of quality teachers to high-needs populations of students. In fact, TFA perpetuates the inequitable practice of assigning inexperienced and unqualified or underqualified teachers to high-poverty, minority, ELL and special needs students.

Teacher Quality. Promoting TFA is a subset of the broader move to shift the accountability movement away from students alone (the standards and testing movement spawned in the early 1980s) and to include teachers as well. Calls for recruiting the best and brightest to teach is being coupled with value-added methods (VAM) for evaluating, paying and dismissing teachers. All of these policies, however, fail to acknowledge that out-of-school factors dwarf the impact of teacher quality, that VAM evaluations and merit pay are unstable and ineffective and that none of these policies address what we know is most inequitable about teaching in the US: affluent students are assigned the most experienced and qualified teachers while poor and minority students are assigned new and unqualified or underqualified teachers.

The reality of “no excuses” reform is that political and public leaders have begun to ignore poverty and inequity by repeating slogans such as “poverty is not destiny” to mask policy that fails to create equity and often increases inequity.

Addressing Inequity as Education Reform

Part of the current reform language includes persistent references to the “achievement gap,” but as Gardner explained, even if in-school equity were achieved (and currently it is not), “Don’t forget that advantaged children are not standing still in the interim. They continue to benefit from travel and other enriching learning experiences. As a result, the gap will persist.”

The Schott Foundation and Brookings reports are messages that US social and education reform must be reimagined in order to address not an achievement gap based on test scores that tell us what we already know – the out-of-school factors of a child’s life are more powerful than that child’s school – but the equity gap.

Pasi Sahlberg, director general of Finland’s Centre for International Mobility and Cooperation and author of “Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn From Educational Change in Finland?” explained how the US must reform education reform:

“First of all, although Finland can show the United States what equal opportunity looks like, Americans cannot achieve equity without first implementing fundamental changes in their school system. The following three issues require particular attention.

“Funding of schools: Finnish schools are funded based on a formula guaranteeing equal allocation of resources to each school regardless of location or wealth of its community.

“Well-being of children: All children in Finland have, by law, access to childcare, comprehensive health care and pre-school in their own communities. Every school must have a welfare team to advance child happiness in school.

“Education as a human right: All education from preschool to university is free of charge for anybody living in Finland. This makes higher education affordable and accessible for all.

“As long as these conditions don’t exist, the Finnish equality-based model bears little relevance in the United States.”

“A Rotting Apple” also offers recommendations that likely must be applied to the national education reform movement: restoring full funding of education; instituting equitable access to schools and programs for all children; providing school resources linked to need rather than competitive models, insuring students with identified literacy needs full social and educational support (including health and eye care as well as food security); evaluating schools based on student opportunities to learn (“access to high-quality early childhood education, highly prepared and effective teachers, college preparatory curricula and policies and practices that promote student progress and success”); and addressing teacher experience as well as pay equity within and among schools.

Noguera ended his foreword to the NYC report with: “Let us hope that the policymakers who read this report understand its implications and have the courage and foresight to act upon the recommendations.”

If leaders and policy makers are willing to confront the evidence of social and educational inequity, this hope may lead to the changes promised by the current president now trapped in “no excuses” reform commitments that offer no hope or change.

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