Equity & Diversity Opinion

Schools Alone Can’t Resolve Problems of Race and Poverty

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — May 10, 2016 7 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

At the Education Writers Association’s 69th National Seminar, held on Monday, May 2, Secretary of Education John B. King, Jr. focused much of his talk on racial diversity and socio-economic integration of schools. Quoting from an article on the Education Writers Association website

King also highlighted what he said results from the “systematic lack of investment in high-needs communities” and how that impacts not just school funding, but also how communities tackle problems such as subsets of schools educating an extremely high share of students in poverty..."There’s a new sense of urgency in the country of talking about race and class,” King told education writers.

Much of the country still treats racially segregated schools and schools dealing with a high share of disadvantaged students as if they are simply part of the natural order of things, but that’s simply not the case, King said..."The reality is that segregation is the result of policy choices, policy choices around schooling and around housing.”

Schools Remain Segregated by Neighborhood
We choose to address this portion of the conversation because it highlights a point of cognitive dissonance in education policy and social policy and values. Educators have typically not been involved in the conversation about a path toward reconciliation. In a recent post, we wrote about American’s love of their local schools. For most of us, schools sit within neighborhoods and exist as part of the locally defined community. But, neighborhoods are often also defined by socio-economic conditions. The proud, highly performing neighborhood school or the poorly funded, low performing and deteriorating neighborhood schools are reflections of the neighborhoods in which they exist. There are notable exceptions but generally King’s point is well founded.

It is a fact that, in our country, race and poverty remain connected and neither can be resolved by schools alone but neither they can they be resolved without education. Schools may be segregated by a socio-economic gravity pull toward sameness. The historical phenomenon of moves to the suburbs was motivated by families pulled toward schools and communities where resources were more plentiful. It is also part of our history that schools can help students out of poverty, one by one, and attain higher achievement and be better prepared for college and career. Everyday educators struggle to do that. But, the segregation mountain created by race and socio-economic level is a resistant one, deeply embedded in the fabric of our society and it does not want to erode away.

Now, again, a voice from the national stage raises the painful truth. Race and socio-economic levels have resulted in segregated educational system that can be demonstrated by student achievement. It is obvious to educators. But, it is not in most educators’ wheelhouses to advocate for a changed system where school funding closes the gaps or school choice or some other policy change results in greater integration on any level. These are jobs left to legislators who are unprepared with wisdom to make these decisions. Effective educational policy choices require the strong and articulate voices of wise and selfless school leaders.

The inextricable link between schools are rooted in communities and communities being segregated is the dilemma that policy has not attacked effectively. Just as in the 1960’s when schools were integrated by law, the work on the ground was left to school leaders, whether they agreed with the legislation and court decisions or not. Perhaps Secretary King’s current articulated concerns provides an opening for educators.

We Need to Establish Partners for Change
We write often about the value of partnerships for schools in this century. Partnerships with business, healthcare, and higher education all can improve the quality of the education we can offer students. They can offer embedded professional development for teachers, offer students authentic opportunities to apply what they are learning to real-world problems, and offer professionals from the field in which their subjects live to teach and offer students authentic feedback on their thinking and work. Partnerships also acknowledge the investment of businesses, healthcare organizations, and higher education in the preparation of future workers and students. Schools are beginning to build these partnerships and those who have them boast the advantages and the results. Now, we have an opportunity to advocate for an extension of this partnership strength. These partnerships need to be at the table with our lawmakers as they wrestle this very tough issue.

If our Secretary of Education is calling for the nation to confront this century’s segregated schools, we need our voices raised and our partnerships active with the decision makers. Educators cannot argue in defense of a system that maintains winners and losers among our children. But what shall our voices say?

We know for certain that neighborhood schools bring together mostly students who have similar socio-economic families. We know for certain that some neighborhood schools have more minority students or students in poverty than others. We know that cities face different challenges than suburban and rural schools. We know the myriad of options that have been tried....school closings, mergers, bussing, school choice, magnet schools and charter schools. Yet, the mountain stands, unconquered.

We can learn from those who study the importance of “place” and its value in the social and psychological lives of children and adults. Columbia University’s Dr. Mindy Thompson Fullilove explores and explains what she calls the “psychology of place.”

... In her book The House of Joshua, she discusses racism and bigotry, displacement and homesteading, ostracism and acceptance, politics and empowerment, and learning and teaching (Harvard Educational Review).

How can we reconcile the competing truths that neighborhoods matter and schools are segregated as a result of neighborhood segregation? It is easy to say we need to deal with race and poverty and we are glad that a voice on the national level is speaking out boldly. But this is a much larger issue that schools and it has been with us a very long time. We cannot solve these problems as schools alone.

We need to protect the valuable aspects of neighborhoods and of belonging. We need to change the way schools are funded and, perhaps, governed. We need the best teaching and learning with all children, especially with those who need it most. But, this is a social and a political issue and expecting schools to solve it is short sighted. However, if school leaders remain silent and focused on their own “place” only, they will exclude themselves from the conversation. No good policy will come from that.

Do We Want to React or Lead?
Whose job is it to take the 10,000 foot look and bring it to intersect with the daily work in the classroom and school building? Where are scholars and institutes wondering about the power of neighborhoods, both the value of familiarity and the dangers of limiting resources? The limits of high poverty schools cannot remain the “natural order of things”. This century’s issues regarding race and class are a manifestation of the last century’s inability to solve them. Schools both reflect and lead societal change. So, this is the decision moment for educational leaders. Which do we want to do on this ever troubling issue....reflect or lead? Money and resources matter so perhaps we begin there. But money will not solve the deeper underlying issue of differences in America. It has been a source of pride and of despair. But none of us can feel proud at watching thousands of children lose their moment to succeed because the staggering poor results last decades and longer. None of us can feel proud where infrastructures are crumbling and conditions deplorable for children and adults alike. None of us can feel proud if educators are not respected professionals who are learning experts. Nor can we settle in despair. What we need are ideas, crazy, new ones that might never have worked before but now we are 21st century leaders in a 21st century world. The answer may not be a single one. That troubles policy makers. But, with our partners, we need to push policymakers into their own unfamiliar places. And the urgency, this time, needs to come from us and it needs to be on behalf of every child not just the ones whose names we know in the neighborhood.

Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or by Email.

Photo by iophoto courtesy of 123rf

Related Tags:

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.