School Choice is Twenty-First Century Segregation

by Christopher Paslay

Charter schools do not serve the neediest children—they weed them out.

Generally speaking, there are two ways to deal with a public school that is struggling to succeed.  One—you could provide that school with the proper supports, such as doing building renovations and repairs, upgrading materials, and investing in technology.  You could revamp curriculum to make it more individualized and authentic, treat teachers with respect and trust in their expertise, and expand alternative schools and programs to remediate troubled youth.  In other words, you could invest in families and communities, and create a culture of learning available to all children within the bounds of a neighborhood.

Or two—you could deem the school a failure and turn your back on it.  Throw up your hands and say, “This school isn’t worth saving.”  You could do so by pinning all the complex challenges facing students in struggling neighborhoods solely on “lousy” teachers and “good-for-naught” principals, opting to take your resources elsewhere and start over by building a brand new school.  Yes, you could funnel tax dollars away from the school you deemed “failing” and build a charter.  You could hire new teachers (although many would come from the same pool of “lousy” teachers whose schools were shut down), you could set-up your admissions process so only students with educated parents could navigate the paperwork, and you could throw out those children who don’t follow your rules and send them back to the “failing” neighborhood school to rot with the rest of the children who couldn’t get into your charter.         

You could deal with a struggling school by doing one of those two things.  Fighting the good fight, or turning and running away.  The school choice folks, those obsessed with charters, like to run.  It’s easier that way.  Finding alternative ways to educate America’s bottom third is no easy task.  America’s bottom third is quite the pain in the butt, to put it bluntly.  They are the ones with the family issues, and the health issues, and the addition problems.  They’ve been exposed to domestic violence and often can’t manage their anger or peacefully solve problems.  And charters, which have limited space and stricter rules, keep these students out.            

KIPP charters (Knowledge Is Power Program) are a prime example.  Touted as working wonders for poor and minority children, KIPP schools are indeed achieving good results on standardized tests.  However, because KIPP schools have extended school days and hold classes on weekends, the student turnover rate is extremely high for Black males—over 40 percent dropout between grades 6 – 8.  In addition, KIPP is criticized for not serving more English Language Learners and students with disabilities.

The real kicker is that despite the added advantage of weeding out struggling students, as a whole, charters still aren’t performing any better than traditional public schools.  The CREDO study proves this reality point blank, as does the fact that in Philadelphia, only 54.7 percent of charters are making AYP under the No Child Left Behind guidelines.

This is most likely due to the fact that up to 60 percent of student achievement is based on nonschool factors.  Noted education historian Diane Ravitch wrote about this reality in a review of the film Waiting for Superman that she published in The New York Review of Books:  

“. . . teacher quality accounts for about 7.5–10 percent of student test score gains. Several other high-quality analyses echo this finding, and while estimates vary a bit, there is a relative consensus: teachers statistically account for around 10–20 percent of achievement outcomes. Teachers are the most important factor within schools.

But the same body of research shows that nonschool factors matter even more than teachers. According to University of Washington economist Dan Goldhaber, about 60 percent of achievement is explained by nonschool factors, such as family income.”

So while the quality of a teacher and school are important, if the educational issues stemming from nonschool variables aren’t properly addressed—and most charters do not address them—academic progress and student achievement will be limited.               

Tragically, school choice isn’t doing much to improve achievement.  It is, however, giving parents a legal means of separating their children from the unwanted bottom third, and allowing school reformers and entrepreneurs to turn a profit at the expense of the poor and disenfranchised.

The myth of racial inequality in Philadelphia public schools

 

 

Despite accusations of segregation, academic achievement and failure in district schools transcend neighborhoods and racial boundaries.

 

by Christopher Paslay

 

There’s a line in the movie JFK where Kevin Costner explains to the jury that theoretical physics can prove that an elephant can hang from a cliff with his tail tied to a daisy.

         

“But use your eyes, your common sense,” Costner tells the jurors.    

         

This is good advice when it comes to the racial achievement gap in the Philadelphia School District.  Recently, district and city officials have suggested that unequal school conditions are the reason why white students have higher math and reading skills than black and Latino students.

         

Philadelphia, like many other Northeastern cities, has been slow to address and remove the policy barriers that have served to keep poor and minority students in under-resourced schools,” Lori Shorr, Mayor Nutter’s secretary of education recently stated.

         

It’s not my policy to look at people in terms of skin color, but since the race card has been placed squarely on the table, it’s worth investigating the matter further.

         

Let’s start with the racial make-up of several of the highest performing public schools in the city (as well as the state). 

         

Despite claims of segregation, CAPA, Engineering and Science, and Girls High have student bodies that are majority black.  Central is evenly balanced between black (30.7 percent), white (31.7 percent) and Asian (28.8 percent), and Masterman is also very diverse. 

         

Let’s now look at the demographics of the so-called “white” schools in the Northeast.  According to school district data, Frankford, Fells, Lincoln and Northeast all have more black students than white, or any other race for that matter.  Washington is also very diverse, with more non-white students than white. 

         

The interesting part about these “privileged” Northeast schools is that all five of them are empowerment schools—which means they are failing because they haven’t met the standards set forth in No Child Left Behind. 

         

The same is true for the Northeast’s Austin Meehan Middle School and Fitzpatrick Elementary—they have more non-white students than white, and both are categorized as failing. 

         

A school that is predominantly white is Kensington’s Charles Carroll High School (54.8% white), but once again there are no extra privileges or resources here, because this school is also failing by state standards. 

         

A school that isn’t failing is Strawberry Mansion, which is 98 percent black and located in the heart of North Philadelphia.  Neither is Bok in South Philadelphia (77.3 percent black); or Communications Technology in Southwest Philadelphia (98 percent black); or High School of the Future in West Philadelphia (94.7 percent black).  And the list goes on and on.  

         

So where’s the unequal opportunity?

         

When you analyze the actual numbers, it becomes clear that Philadelphia’s racial achievement gap is more about politics than it is about a “dark stain” of inequality.  There is no legitimate racial discrimination taking place—the district’s 85 empowerment schools, as well as the ones making Adequate Yearly Progress—are evenly distributed across racial lines and neighborhood boundaries. 

         

But even if there were some kind of discrimination evident, it would clearly have to be of the black-on-black variety.      

         

Mayor Michael Nutter is black (as was John Street before him);  Superintendent Arlene Ackerman is black; School Reform Commission chair Robert L. Archie Jr. is black; 61 percent of Philadelphia public school students (and their parents) are black. 

         

This, of course, is opposed to the 13 percent of the district students who are white.

         

White students may score higher on standardized math and reading tests than their black and Latino counterparts, but educational opportunities in schools are only the tip of the iceberg.

         

In a newly released report titled Parsing the Achievement Gap II, the Educational Testing Service tracked national trends between students of different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds.  The report listed 16 factors that have been linked to student achievement. 

         

Of the 16 factors, nine were directly related to a child’s home environment.  Minority children struggle in schools for reasons such as lack of parental involvement, low birth weight, hunger and poor nutrition, exposure to lead and mercury, excessive television watching, and the fact that they are not read to enough as babies, among other things.

         

If we want all children to succeed in school, it’s time to take a holistic approach to education.  We not only need more resources in struggling schools, but we need true buy-in from parents and the community. 

         

We all must take responsibility for educating our city’s children, and resist the familiar temptation to blame our shortcomings on racism.