Friday, September 15, 2006

I want integrated schools for my kids.

Jonathan Kozol’s book, The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America, shows that racism unfairly forces many black and Hispanic children into segregated, rundown, overcrowded, underfunded schools. More than 50 years after Brown v. Board of Education held that separate education is inherently unequal, education is not yet a fundamental Constitutional right of all American citizens, and most people have given up on the goal of full integration of public schools.

At Plainfield High School, for example, despite New Jersey’s Abbott case, which found the state’s school funding system unconstitutional and mandated equal per pupil spending, 99% of the students are black or Hispanic, and one in five children under 18 live in poverty. Bridgewater-Raritan High School enrollment is 75% white, less than 10% black and Hispanic, with 1.7% (Bridgewater) to 6% (Raritan) child poverty. Watchung Hills is 79% white, 14% Asian, and less than 7% black and Hispanic: 1.6% child poverty. The 2005 No Child Left Behind graduation rates were: Plainfield, 81.1%, Watchung Hills, 98.5% and Bridgewater-Raritan, 98.3%.

Segregated schooling is about more than graduation rates and money, although “throwing money at the problem” is needed to begin again on the long road to equal education. Many schools serving primarily poor minority children are overcrowded, run-down and primarily staffed by young, inexperienced teachers who do their work with limited supplies and few chances to develop their skills. The expansions, repairs, experienced teachers and supplies – found in wealthy white suburban districts – are not free, and kids in poor districts with overwhelmed teachers are understandably more likely to leave school.

As Kozol argues, another key component of resegregation since the mid-1980s, when busing and other practical strategies created more balanced racial mixes in many public schools, are the strict “standards” imposed by the 2002 NCLB Act and many similar “accountability” reforms that preceded it. NJ students are now required to take high stakes tests – leading to lost federal funding for “failing” schools – in 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 11th and 12th grades.

Many people have noted serious problems with such testing schemes. Children in chronically poor and undereducated families and neighborhoods are held to the same standards and schedules as children in wealthy districts with well-educated parents.

Poor kids lack access to the extra social services that impact learning – from pre-school to nutrition to health care.

In many schools, test-drilling has replaced recess, art, music and other activities.

The tests measure progress year over year, comparing this year’s 3rd graders, say, with last year’s 3rd graders, even though the children in each class are different; often short-term score improvements disappear within a few years.

The programs create financial incentives for teachers and administrators to cheat; some districts offer cash bonuses to teachers who raise their class scores, but all districts can lose federal funds and be forced to fire teachers if they continue to miss the target pass rates – unless they're wealthy enough to opt out of NCLB.

To me, the biggest problem with the “accountability” movement is its one-way nature. The goal of the reformers is to force teachers to mold students, and children to mold themselves, into workers with skills suited to the needs of corporate employers. Indeed, corporations have helped create many of the rigid curricula used in inner city schools. But no one requires corporations, or governments, to be equally accountable to the teachers and children for proper support.

Thomas Friedman, in The World is Flat, Bill Gates and others amplify the corporate demand for well-trained workers, pointing out that educated workers in India, China and other developing nations are rapidly taking American jobs as corporations outsource to find cheaper, smarter workers.

Education may well be about preparing kids for their futures as productive adults. But why do corporations set the parameters of those possible futures? Most children are not being prepared for lives of learning, inventing, policy-making or artistic creativity. Most children are being trained to unquestioningly serve the priorities and projects chosen by the current power holders. This practice robs children of their “inherent worth and dignity” and shortchanges the future: we’re going to need genuinely fresh ideas to make the societal transitions demanded by the coming decades, but we’re crippling the minds of the young people who would otherwise have those ideas.

I agree with Ivan Illich’s ideas, in Deschooling, about self-education, although I think passionate, caring and self-confident teachers can help kids learn to read, discover what there is to learn about, and understand why learning is personally satisfying and important to discovering “right livelihood” – how best to contribute to the social life of the human community. I also agree with Derrick Jensen in Walking on Water: Reading, Writing and Revolution: “There is only one question in life, and only one lesson…Who are you?”

From that perspective, I think segregated schools shortchange affluent white children as much as they steal the childhoods and limit the life possibilities of poor minority children. If the meaning and purpose of education is for each of us to find a place in this crazy, mixed-up world from which to work at making things less crazy and mixed-up, then wealthy white children who never experience conditions in poor inner city schools lose a key opportunity to understand the world, the people they share it with, and the possible futures they might have together.


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