March 5, 2009

The End Game is Not Diversity, Its Education

Brother KMyles at the Wichita NAACP blog sends out an impassioned plea to resist the movement back to neighborhood schools in Wichita without concurrent redistricting.

"Saying that neighborhood schools "may not be as diverse as we'd like", but they will be "equitable" is essentially no different than saying that the races of children will be "separated" into different, "but equal" schools. That battle has already been fought and the very notion discredited."

In his view, permitting resegregation into neighborhood schools again will produce a host of enumerated bad outcomes;

  • a return to practically single race schools
  • a gradual migration of highly qualified and experienced teachers from the predominantly African American Schools to the predominantly White and suburban schools (which is a feature of teachers union contracts that allow them to move with seniority)
  • the replacement of those highly qualified and experienced teachers with newly minted and inexperienced teachers
  • a precipitous decline in test scores
Leading to:
  • adapted curriculums (more block hours on NCLB testable disciplines to the exclusion of civics, the humanities, and some science courses)
  • increased focus on basic proficiency and a decreased focus on high achievement
  • a 'hardening' of the achievement gap
To put it bluntly, I think he's all wet on this. There is an underlying assumption in his discussion, namely the idea that securing educational achievement for black children is synonymous with diversity, where diversity = the presence of white children in their classrooms. What are we saying; that the presence of white children in the classroom apparently flips an educational switch in the brains of black youth and they have better educational outcomes? This is really an absurd way to secure educational excellence and achievement for our children, and I'm stunned that in 2009, we fail to see it. KMyles cites the distressing results of the 2007 replications of the Kenneth Clark Doll tests as proof of the urgency of the issue.

It is indeed sad and distressing to watch these tests that seem to indicate a crushing lack of self worth or esteem on the part of these children. But for the love of Mike, will someone explain to me how the remedy for that is ensuring they are educated in a classroom with white children!!? How does doing that cure this? More to the point, why is a desegregation strategy pursued to address things such as migration of experienced teachers or deficiencies in curriculum? Why not attack those problems directly, which are not caused by a lack of diversity, but by the deficiencies of centralized, bureaucratic school systems.

Diversity has now become an end in and of itself, ferociously pursued on the faulty assumption that it is an appropriate proxy for educational quality. Its quite ironic that local chapters of the NAACP of 2009 continue to pursue this strategy. Ironic because I do not for one second believe that the architects of the legal strategy that over turned segregation pursued a desegregation course because they believed being educated in a diverse classroom was the route to better educational outcomes. They pursued that course to break out of a separate but equal regime that was only separate. In order to gain the equal part of the equation, they knew they had to be able to send black children to the schools white children went to, because those schools were better resourced and provided for. It wasn't about diversity or being educated with white children, it was about escaping the shoddy conditions of the schools black children were confined to.

Look at the history of the cases which were consolidated and argued before the Supreme Court by the NAACP's legal team. Every one of them was about getting black kids out of crap schools that were purposely maintained that way. This is the historical backdrop against which KMyles makes his argument for resisting movement back towards neighborhood schools without redistricting that would presumably ensure substantial numbers of white and black children would be educated together. What is the theory here, that the presence of white children equates to a better school? If the school is all black, by default its children will recieve an inferior education? If thats our approach to education for our children, is it any wonder that a 2007 replication of the Kenneth Clark doll tests produces such horrific results? We are telling the kids that they are less when we behave this way.

Diversity does not equal quality education and should not be pursued as a primary, secondary or tertiary strategy for delivering better schools to black children, but it has become an end in itself.
It doesn't appear that anyone is really being critical about the issue and recognizing that the integration strategy pursued in Brown vs. Board of Education was really about getting black kids out of inferior schools and into the better schools whites maintained for themselves. This was the real point of the battle. Black kids were forced to attend poorly supplied and resourced schools and denied access to the well resourced and supplied schools of whites. I'm quite certain that Thurgood Marshall didn't think we needed to attend white schools because diversity was so wonderful and necessary for black children. He fought to reverse the forced denial of education to our kids and get them better schools. The doll tests and the self esteem arguments were simply emotional sweetners for their arguments, essentially filling the same role that WMD did in making the case for the war in Iraq. That was the point then and it should be the point now. To deliver better schools to our kids.

But its not. We fight tooth and nail for integration as an end in itself. But we are missing the forest for the trees. We should be fighting to get our kids educated well, not whether or not they can attend a school with white students and achieving the latter does not assure the former. Its not a necessary fight in the modern age, because we can attend most any school if we can afford it or if we live in its attendance zone if its a public school.

But we are wasting time with diversity while our kids are falling further and further behind, refusing to face facts, one of them being that centralized public school systems lack the management and educational fire power to address the educational needs of urban populations stressed by a variety of socioeconomic conditions. Like the auto companies, they are saddled with legacy labor costs they cannot shed and union structures that are part of the problem, not the solution. These centralized bureaucratic systems are not nimble enough to deal with whats happening to our kids in and out of school. Furthermore, they are expensive and inefficient. We are spending two or three times what we should because these systems allocate their resources for education poorly and our money is not doing the work it should.

I'd also argue that far from being a detriment, neighborhood schools, properly implemented, are a benefit not only to the educational outcomes of black children, but also to the value of our neighborhoods. Anybody who's left the hood to live in the suburbs knows that quality of schools has a material impact on the value of homes in a given area and its a major attractor for people to invest in a home in a particular locale. If we pursued excellence in neighborhood schools, we would have not only better educational outcomes, but the value of home assets owned by the people in that neighborhood would rise because the presence of a high quality neighborhood school makes that neighborhood more desirable.

I'm not just long on critique. I've got the big gun answer - charter schools. Why are they the answer? Because when properly implemented, a charter school system drives accountability for performance down to the school level, is driven by market forces such that the good ones will thrive and the bad ones will fail, is open to a variety of configurations and approaches and does it all for about a third of what public schools do it for, particularly with regard to physical plant.

Lots of places in the US have charter schools, but there are only a few that get it right. The one that has the best system in place in my view is Indianapolis. The mayor of Indianapolis is the only mayor in the country currently with the power to charter schools. In nearly all big cities, Mayors are confronted with failing public school systems, but since they don't hire the superintendent and they are not on the school board, they have little ability to actually affect how school systems run. However, they have to deal with the consequences of a failing system such as aversion to homeownership investment in the city and poor workforce preparation.

Why are charters better? In my view, all of the accountability for performance is right at the school level. You don't have to mediate accountability for performance through superintendents, school boards or teachers unions. Charters must exercise care to serve the needs of their students and their families or lose their enrollment to another. Secondly, the charter approach permits tremendous variation in educational approach and philosophy. It is far more flexible in responding to the needs of students.

Sadly though, the charter approach is often hotly protested in the cities where its needed the most. We fight tooth and nail to preserve a public school system that consistently under performs for our kids, that promises to improve and rarely if ever does. We fight to preserve centralized bureaucratic school systems as though they have a right to exist, as though they are the only way to do education. I have conversations with people about education and they argue strenuously for more propping up of centralized bureaucratic education systems, but they are never very clear about why it can't be or should not be done any other way. Case in point Detroit. In 2003, Michigan millionaire and philanthropist Robert Thompson offered the city $200 million to build 15 Detroit charter high schools. His offer started a full scale war by the teachers unions on the Mayor and the Governor and when the dust had cleared, Thompson was run out of town along with his $200 million. Lest you think I'm just harshing on Detroit, I lived there for 8 years and I was around for that particular fiasco.

Education is an imperative for the African American community, but we are going to continue to lag in this area if we do not divorce ourselves from dependence on centralized bureaucratic public education systems in our urban centers. They don't work, have not worked for decades now. The charter approach, as exemplified by the Indianapolis model (which won a Harvard Innovation in Government award) should be speedily adopted by mayors of urban centers across the country. The black activists for education who fight to preserve these poor performing systems need to start championing what works, rather than what doesn't.