“The job is simply too hard.”
I’ve had a hard time getting that line out of my head since I heard Ira Glass say it in the prologue to the recent “This American Life” series on school integration, which includes some impressive reporting and storytelling by journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones.
The job Glass is talking about is creating good schools for families in high-poverty communities—the job that I’ve been involved with for close to two decades.
The viewpoint of the series is, essentially: Let’s focus more on finding ways to get kids from high-poverty communities into better schools through integration programs and focus less on offering low-income families good schools of their own close to home because, as Glass puts it: That’s “never worked. I mean, like, never.”
There are, without a doubt, a lot of low-performing schools in cities across America, particularly in high-poverty neighborhoods, thanks in large part to decades of neglect in the pre-NCLB days when “local control” ran roughshod over marginalized communities and districts were allowed to be asleep at the wheel while their schools educated no one.
And as the series points out, turning that historical trend around has proven extremely difficult.
Which leads them to the case for integration: It gets kids out of high-poverty schools and into high-performing schools (they see the two as mutually exclusive). Here’s how Hannah-Jones, herself a product of integration through busing, explains the theory of integration in the first segment of the series:
I think it’s important to point out that it is not that something magical happens when black kids sit in a classroom next to white kids. It’s not that suddenly a switch turns on and they get intelligence, or wanting the desire to learn when they’re with white kids. What integration does is it gets black kids in the same facilities as white kids. And therefore, it gets them access to the same things that those kids get—quality teachers and quality instruction.
Makes perfect sense.
But it’s a complete whitewash.
It’s the phenomenon that Chris Stewart, an African-American education advocate and my colleague at Education Post, has dubbed “chasing white people” and the stuff they have access to. White kids have the “quality teachers and quality instruction,” so let’s try and figure out a way to make it okay for the kids of color to have some access to the white kids’ stuff, on the white people’s terms.
Or, how about, instead of moving the kids of color to the white kids’ stuff, we move the white kids’ stuff to the kids of color? How about instead of a white lens and a focus on hoping for tolerance among white people, we concentrate on empowering communities of color?
That looks something like this school that just opened in San Francisco.
Or this elementary school in Arlington, Virginia.
Or this state-of-the-art K-12 campus in Denver, which overwhelmingly serves students of color in a high-poverty community.
Or this charter school in Chicago.
Or this high school in Cincinnati.
Or this network of charter schools in Los Angeles.
I agree with Hannah-Jones’s point that this hasn’t been done at scale. No city has figured it out for every neighborhood. But there are signs that it’s working. Our graduation rate has never been higher, driven by the gains of Latino and African-American kids. And new schools, both charter and district-run, have made a real impact in many high-poverty communities.
I also believe that choice is a powerful tool for low-income families. My home state of Colorado has statewide choice—any family can try and “choice in” to any school in the state, regardless of whether it’s their neighborhood school or even in their home district. And that’s a good thing, as a secondary strategy.
But families, especially low-income families, don’t need just “choice.” They need good, realistic choices. And I think what most families want, regardless of race or wealth, is a good option with a guaranteed seat in their neighborhood, not just out of some Rockwellian sense of nostalgia, but because it makes their lives better to know they can send their kids to a good school that’s not two bus transfers or a 45-minute car ride from home.
And diversity through school integration does help make society better by fostering acceptance and understanding.
But so does seeing society’s ills through the eyes of the people most affected. I’m guessing that African-American and Latino families in high-poverty communities are pretty sick of “chasing white people” and waiting for acceptance to kick in. I’m guessing what they want more than anything is empowerment.
And it’s not either/or. We should be working toward both. But I’d lead with empowerment.
It’s not good enough to accept families of color visiting white privilege during the school day in someone else’s neighborhood or on someone else’s terms. They deserve that privilege itself: good schools close to home + choice.
That’s the job.
It is hard. It is also worth doing. And it couldn’t be more important.