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Apr. 20 2010 - 1:31 am | 272 views | 1 recommendation | 9 comments

Should schools mix rich and poor kids for the greater good? (part 2)

True/Slant writer Megan Cottrell and I share a deep interest in issues of race, class, and urban life, so the two of us decided to bring our perspectives together on the issue of income diversity and school segregation.  You can read a portion of our conversation each day this week. Megan’s initial message to me was posted on Monday as Part 1. Following is my response:


As a former Chicago Public Schools teacher, current educational researcher, and (I hope) future parent, I have mixed views on socioeconomic diversity policies. On one hand, as you pointed out, these policies afford many children the opportunity to attend a school where there are not overwhelming numbers of students with extraordinary needs—an opportunity they otherwise would not have. This allows students who need extra support to get more of it, and allows educators in the building to focus more on education. The teacher in me says “Alleluia” to that! And, of course, this also creates a situation where students of various racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds mix during the school day. And since experiencing diversity—in all its forms—is important for success in everything from business to the military, this policy helps all children who are affected by it.

On the flip side, the policies can be restrictive to parents who want their children to attend public schools of a certain quality (in other words, to learn in a school that is filled with other high-achieving students who have stable home lives) or who simply want their children to be close to home. Although some people try to bring race or class prejudice into the equation, I think most parents who oppose socioeconomic diversity policies do so for these reasons. Can parents be blamed for wanting their children to be successful or to get a leg up on their future competition, especially in a global economy that is more competitive than ever? And who can’t empathize with parents who feel better knowing that their child is a short distance away in case of an emergency, or who have a daily schedule that is helped by having a child home a few minutes after the final bell rings? The question that seems to be at the heart of the debate is this: Should some parents be expected to give up certain advantages for their children—not unfairly gained—so that other children may have an opportunity for more advantage?

There’s always an interesting quandary when it comes to the demands—implicit or explicit—of parents and how school boards handle them. For example, I know of several school districts in Virginia where schools serve, for the most part, an equal number of black and white students. But many of the white parents tend to be upper-middle class and want their children to participate in certain enrichment programs. If the school district funds such a program, it will be comprised mostly of white, well-to-do students who were the most qualified because of advantages they had growing up, and the district risks charges of racism, or of caving to the demands of a small group of parents. If the district does not fund the program, however, it risks losing those parents and their children to private schools who will offer such programs. This would mean less funding for the district, hurting the children who remain in the public schools, and could mean less support from certain segments of the community when the school district needed to pass a bond referendum to raise capital. It all goes back to choice, and the fact that people who have more money have more options. I don’t know that there is a “right” answer to this type of situation.

Before putting the ball back in your court, I’d like to share an anecdote about busing. During my first year as a teacher in a chronically low-performing high school, I helped a talented freshman student gain admittance to one of the district’s best high schools. I drove her and her mom to the counselor’s office there so she could pick out a schedule for the next year, and she was good to go. But after the last day of school, when it was time to tell the school’s programmer to push the transfer button and make it official, my student said she wanted to stay. She had grown up near her current school and didn’t want to ride a bus for 1.5-2 hours each day. She also didn’t like the idea of being so far away from home, or of spending so much less time with her mom. I had a hard time understanding at first, but I eventually realized that we viewed the situation differently. Where I was somewhat myopic, seeing only opportunities for this student to enhance her college and career options, she took a wider view that took into account academic possibilities but also included things like family and convenience. (She ended up attending one of the nation’s top liberal arts colleges and will graduate this spring.) I have no problem with busing, but I think some type of choice or community tailoring needs to be built into it in order to accommodate students’ and families’ unique needs and desires.

Your thoughts?

(Click here for Megan’s response, which is Part 3 of our conversation.)


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  1. collapse expand

    I think the question in your headline is somewhat misleading. Of course we “should” try to overcome the disparities between rich and poor. The question is, is it achievable with any regularity?

    Busing and diversity quotas have been around since the Civil Rights era, and yet the achievement and college matriculation rate gaps are still huge? Why is that?

    As I have theorized on Megan’s post, and in comments I’ve made on other related posts on this blog site, I don’t think it’s possible to institutionalize motivation and drive. It’s either part of your culture and surroundings, or it’s not. The immigrant Asian community is a perfect example of folks who have little means but still manage to do very well academically and climb their way out of poverty–a strong work ethic and value of education is part of their culture. This is not to say some kids can’t overcome the disadvantages they are born into, but they really have to want it and put in the hard work necessary to get where they want to go.

    I think the only thing that public schools (and taxpayers) should be responsible for is (a) broadening the horizons of kids who have no role models as to what’s possible for them, and (b) providing the after-school support and homework environment necessary, should they decide that path is for them.

    After that, this is a community and social issue to slowly change the way people think about education and work ethic. We can’t force it on poor communities; they have to want it and find the leadership to change from within.

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      inmyhumbleopinion – Thanks for the comment. I think your statement that “they really have to want it” puts a little too much responsibility on the backs of young children. Parents and teachers should be instilling a strong work ethic and value of education in 6- or 8- or 10-year-olds, with the knowledge that kids are not totally responsible for themselves or their education at those points. Once kids get to about the 6th grade, I think they can be held more responsible for their education. What’s important to remember in this discussion is that the benefits of education may be much more apparent, much more quickly, to students growing up in higher-income areas. So if a student doesn’t immediately connect education and working hard with a better life, it may be because she has never seen that play out in real life. And that’s where one of the benefits of mixed-income schools comes in–providing students with a chance to interact with other students and parents who may have different attitudes, resources, or levels of success.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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        Sorry, I was unclear. By “they” I meant families. Of course the kids are not going to do it on their own. It has to be instilled.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
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        Sorry, one more thing re: “a chance to interact with other students and parents who may have different attitudes.”

        In theory, that’s a great aspiration. In practice, it doesn’t often happen. In our district, once they get to high school, the kids are tracked by their college ambition goals. So if they are far behind academically, they end up in classrooms with other kids just like them. It’s a school within a school and just because they’re on the same campus, doesn’t mean they are getting the same opportunities.

        I don’t know what the solution is, but I would be against mixing kids who are several grade levels behind into classes with kids who are high achievers–it does a disservice to both groups.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
  2. collapse expand

    You can put really smart, motivated kids — or not-as-smart but highly motivated kids — into a classroom with those less skilled and see what happens. But unless, as imho says, they go home night after night to a clean, safe home where they will eat decent healthy food, sleep a full night’s sleep, not watch TV or video games but do their homework until it is done. etcetec — i.e. grow and maintain consistently good habits — nothing will change. You can’t create smart hardworking kids in a vacuum nor by simply tossing weaker kids into a room with those being prepped at $1700 a month for SATs.

    You used the word “unfairly” in discussing advantage….there is such a steeply tilted playing field already, I am amazed when less-privileged kids come out on top, or even not on the bottom.

    • collapse expand

      Hey Caitlin –

      I’m just catching up to these great comments.

      What you said about the fact that you can’t just put disadvantaged kids in a classroom of advantaged kids and expect them to do better – actually, it’s been shown that you can.

      This article here tells about it more in detail: http://www.beyondchron.org/news/index.php?itemid=7756, and I quoted it in my first article, but they’ve taken kids who lived in public housing and put them into low-poverty schools, compared to the high poverty schools where they were at, and even controlling for race, sex, ethnicity and household characteristics. The kids did better. Without extra social services or home visits or anything. They didn’t have to change the structure of the family – they just changed their environment, and on average, they scored 13 percent better on their tests.

      You can actually do that and kids do better. As a teacher, I think one of the reasons is just expectations. You go into a high poverty school, and no one expects the kids to achieve. In a middle class school, you’re expected to read, write and behave well. Kids rise to our expectations.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  3. collapse expand

    Good article, but this isuue goes much deeper than that.Students of various racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds mix during the school day but in their minds they stay separate.

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    About Me

    I'm a Teach For America alum and spent three years as a high school teacher on the west and south sides of Chicago. I've conducted research on turnaround schools with a team from the University of Virginia, consulted for school districts across the country, and done work with New Leaders for New Schools, the Consortium on Chicago School Research, and DonorsChoose.org. Currently I'm finishing my PhD from UVa's Curry School of Education.

    My work has been published in Education Week, the Phi Delta Kappan, and a number of academic journals, and I'm a co-author of the book Teachers' Guide to School Turnarounds. I also contribute monthly to GOOD, the website "for people who give a damn": www.good.is/community/MichaelSalmonowicz

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    I am a contributor for GOOD, the website “for people who give a damn.” You can read my June column here. Past columns can be found here.