Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Is Segregation the Problem?

I just finished reading "The Shame of The Nation" by Jonathan Kozol. In it he documents the de facto segregation of public education in America, apartheid if you will. His statistics are numbing and depressing. And this unofficial segregation today is as bad as it ever was before Brown v Board of Education, 1954 and the Civil Rights Act, 1964.

That Blacks and Hispanics in America perform poorly in public schools will come as no surprise to anyone. Mr. Kozol implies that the underlying cause for this is first and foremost, segregation and second, unequal spending on students in these segregated schools. Additionally he believes that the emphasis of No Child Left Behind on strict education by specific protocol and accountability testing actually harms hoped for outcomes. Again, here his observations are persuasive.

When I finished the book however, I was plagued by a sense that something was missing.

The primary emphasis was that segregation in schools in poor neighborhoods produced inferior education for their students with dropout rates of as much as 40% for black students. According to Mr. Kozol the all white schools in affluent neighborhoods rob the poorer schools of critical funding, siphon off the best teachers resulting in superior outcomes with the vast majority of students in these schools graduating and going on to college.

But aren't these also segregated schools? Has segregation hurt them?

So should we segregate schools? Of course not. It is not only illegal, it is reprehensible and immoral. Conflating the education problem in America with segregation, however tempting, is an oversimplification. Requiring integration of schools will not improve student performance of primarily non-white schools in poor neighborhoods.

Another of Mr. Kozol's observations is that poor neighborhood schools are underfunded. This is undeniably true. The conditions in these schools are too often deplorable and must be rectified. Students can not learn without books, study materials, a safe environment, clean surroundings and a sense that people care about them. Teachers are being asked to do the impossible, teaching in the typical minority school with its faulty bathrooms, oversized classes, lack of study supplies, peeling paint and leaky windows. This is a disgrace and must be reversed, yesterday.

However, if anyone believes that sprucing up these facilities to match the more affluent schools will fix education for the disadvantaged, they are foolish. It may make lawmakers feel proud that they did something wonderful for their constituents, but did they? You can rent Boston Symphony Hall, hire the Boston Pops, put Keith Lockhart on the podium, dress me in an Armani tuxedo, sit me down in front of the most expensive Steinway in the world, and you will have thrown away a lot of money. I never learned to play the piano.

No, Mr. Kozols observations, while not exactly untrue, lead him to only partial solutions. We can never really fix the education problem doing only what he suggests since he skims over what I believe is the fundamental problem.

Until we come to grips with the fact that the children most at risk have already begun to lose the battle long before they ever get to school we are doomed to more of the same disappointment and failure. None of Mr. Kozol's suggestions include the parents and families of these kids.

Who are the children's earliest teachers? How frequently do the most disadvantaged children come from homes with no father, mothers on welfare and uneducated themselves, with little or no work ethic or work experience, with no tradition of independence and productivity?

It is my belief that when any child is perceived to have a problem in school, parents and family must be involved if this child is to have any chance at survival, any chance to realize his or her potential, any chance to escape a bleak, too often abbreviated future.

No laws, no amount of money, will work until the social and cultural deficits are acknowledged and addressed. We have to stop expecting our schools and teachers to be parents and, especially in the preschool years, we have to help parents learn how to be teachers.

So, do we have an education problem or do we have a family problem? Yes.


Anonymous said...

With as many as 80% of children in some communities born to unwed mothers, there is only one parent, doomed to a life of poverty. Those kids spend 6 hrs./ day in school-the other 18 learning the life of the street. We have been working hard for the last 40 years to get to the “if it feels good, do it” ideal across all of American society.
We are afraid to make judgments, say what is acceptable and what is not. Lets continue down this road, at least we won’t hurt anyone’s feelings.

Harvey said...

Excellent points. If some government agency determines acceptable behavior is the cure worse than the disease?

Anonymous said...

Govt. agencies are setting the standards by doing things like day care centers in junior high schools. If you pay for something, you get more of it. We are sending the wrong message in hundreds of ways and getting predictable results then think if we do the same, only longer and harder, we will get a different outcome.

Harvey said...

Are you saying that government has no obligation to assure equal opportunity for all by trying to level the playing field for those whose education has been clearly inferior and underfunded?

Do you believe, for example, that "legal" racial segregation would have been overturned without government intervention?

As for the uninformed and heavy handed legislatures making laws, I too worry. There are few statesmen sent to congress.