Accountability Opinion

When ‘Equity’ Is Used to Increase Segregation

By Deborah Meier — May 21, 2009 5 min read
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Dear Diane,

It would have chilled Martin Luther King’s blood to see how the struggle for equality has been narrowed into a race for higher test scores in a society that abandoned Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty.” We are now one of the least equal and least mobile modem societies. Less racist than we once were, but no less disdainful of “losers.” Our individualistic modes of thought have gotten badly skewed to just mean “it’s your own fault.” Or if blame must be placed, it’s the fault of those on the next rung up the ladder.

Imagine, in 2009—the year that the business and finance worlds have exposed themselves and their shoddy notions of accountability to worldwide shame. Not a day passes without another financial scam hitting the news. Yet they still dare to preach to public school teachers about working in the interests of children vs. adults!!!!!

The poorly attended, but well-covered “civil rights” rally in D.C. led by Gingrich/Sharpton/Klein last week has nothing to say about poverty or the “gap” in black/white incarceration, or income, or health data, not to mention housing and access to paid leisure, or lobbyists.

In a speech made by David Berliner to AERA a few years ago, he opined the following: “School reform…really involves relatively little money and, perhaps more importantly, asks practically nothing of the non-poor, who often control a society’s resources,” and is accompanied by the “good feelings that come from our collective expression of faith in the capacity of the poor to overcome disadvantage on their own.”

When the War on Poverty ended we not only forgot poverty existed with its unequal impact on people of color, but we also soon lost the battle against de facto segregation of schools and communities. It’s no surprise then that the recent recession has hit hardest upon the already poor, and next hardest upon recently middle-class people of color.

I became a teacher in the midst of the Civil Rights movement in the ‘60s. The current gross distortion of that movement’s message by these masters of Orwellian doublespeak chills and outrages me.

I have spent 45 years demonstrating that schools can do a lot if we focus on challenging the intellectual and social imaginations of the young. But I never had the chutzpa to claim that I could strip away the impact of being a despised loser in a nation that claims all can be winners (if they but will it), nor that we can unlink the relationship between money and schooling. Bah humbug. I never pretended that the advantages we garnered for our own children were of no serious account in the successes they have had in their lives. Neither President Obama nor Arne Duncan can be faulted for giving their own children the best and the most expensive educations. It’s what we can do when we have advantages.

It makes me wince that such a high proportion of Obama’s current team are Harvard graduates. I suspect their secondary schooling was equally segregated, for the “best and brightest”—those born assured in their right to rule. This sense of entitlement, which should be the birthright of all children, is not easy to teach didactically. It early on suggests to some that the larger world is “their world,” one which they (or their powerful friends) can influence. The “others,” children who enter our schools with the comparable skill, savvy, perseverance, and native ability to read the world, are equally busy using their skills to influence the world—the one they were born into. Doing double-work is not easy.

We need to more equally share the same world while also honoring each child’s own special one. When I started teaching kindergarten in Chicago in 1965, the prescribed curriculum for the fall semester was: Los Angeles and Tokyo. I was “caught” in an act of subversion by teaching my 33 kindergarteners about Chicago and Tokyo instead. (I also made the mistake of not just saying, “Oops, I’m sorry.”) The prescribed view of poor and “minority” children in 1965 was similar to one we hold today: they lack “language,” “concepts,” useful families, and Culture. Not true. But there is, indeed, another kind of gap, one that we can take advantage of or view merely as an obstacle. To do so, we’d need very different kinds of schools, different relationships between families and their schools, and far greater respect for those who know the children best. That’s why control needs to be closer to “them”—those most affected by the judgments made. NAEP samples, Diane, should be mandated: to provide information. But the “data” about “Dick” or “Jane” still must be compiled from the bottom up.

My old friend Michael Harrington wrote an influential book in 1962, “The Other America.” We still have such an America, and until we confront it, the Sharptons and Gingriches will continue to cover over what needs to be uncovered.

The idea that the terms “civil rights” and “equity” are being used by school reformers to increase segregation, to attack the mothers who struggle with their unchosen poverty and the teachers who work with poor children day in and day out is painful. The public middle school across the street from my apartment in NYC (which my children attended) is being “closed” this fall, replaced by a program for children who score in the top 3 percent on IQ tests: in the name of equity! The gentrification of the West Side that began in the ‘60s (called urban renewal) has finally reached IS 44. A school that has for more than 40 years been predominantly black and Latino will become virtually all white on the whim of the mayor. We long ago lost the battle to make it a fully integrated school. Now the latest wave of reformers is solving it the 2lst Century way.

NYC has just inaugurated an expansion of “gifted kindergartens” open to all who score above the 90th percentile on IQ tests. To the chancellor’s “surprise,” it’s mostly white. He proclaims, however, big increases in the number of underprivileged accepted into such programs. Yes, indeed, by “reaching out” the numbers have gone from one to three (300 percent increase) in some poor neighborhoods. We’re officially tracking at age 5—along lines of race and class—in the name of “equity.”

You must all read a new study published by the Alliance for Childhood on where we’re heading in the 2lst Century, unless….It’s a shocker. More next week.


The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences 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.