On Monday at a press conference, NYC Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina was asked about the De Blasio Administration’s lackluster efforts to integrate the city’s highly-segregated public schools:
“We’ll never do anything without community input,” Chancellor Carmen Fariña said… Otherwise, “if you mandate something, that then will cause a revolution and people might strike,” she said, citing a children’s book about sheep who go on strike.
I don’t know the book that Farina references, but somehow I doubt that it offers an apt parable for the intense racial and socio-economic segregation of the city schools. Is it possible for the city’s educational leadership to dig a little deeper?
For example, you could check out two Upper West Side elementary schools, P.S. 191 and P.S. 199, which were recently in the news (see NJLB coverage here). While they’re within a few blocks of each other, they have wildly-disparate demographics. P.S. 191 is almost entirely black and Hispanic, with 71% of students qualifying for free lunch. Ten percent of students are on grade-level in reading and 9% are on grade-level in math. In contrast, enrollment at P.S. 199 is almost all white and Asian, with only 8% of students qualifying for free lunch. Seventy-two percent of students are on grade-level in reading and 91% are on grade-level in math.
What would it take to integrate 191 and 199? Not much: a bigger enrollment catchment area, perhaps? But at a community meeting last week at 191, Farina told parents that you can’t force integration and — ironically, given her aversion to expanding school choice — pointed to school choice as the reigning mechanism for achieving diversity. Via Chalkbeat: “Parents make choices,” she told the crowd. “When you have choice, then parents have to decide what’s their biggest priority.”
Here, the Chancellor raises an issue too complex for picture books about sheep. What is a city government’s responsibility for integrating public schools? Does the onus fall on the vagaries of parental enlightenment? Are segregated classrooms, at heart, an affordable housing problem, as City Councilman Ritchie Torres suggested Monday during a panel on diversity?
Or is the onus on the city’s school administration to propel classroom diversity through rules and regulations? Yes, forced integration, like that much-maligned albeit transiently successful tool of loading kids on busses in order to diversify schools.
Remember that “This American Life” two-part report that aired this past summer called “The Problem We All Live With?” Ira Glass interviewed Nikole Hannah, an investigative reporter for the New York Times. In the first part Hannah recalls meek, non-controversial attempts during the 1970’s and ’80’s to increase student achievement in Durham, NC. Glass sums it up: “it never worked. I mean, like, never.” Here’s an excerpt from the interview:
And my question is, all of these different ways that we say we’re going to address this issue aren’t working, so what actually works? And that’s what I really began to look at. And I find there’s one thing that really worked, that cut the achievement gap between black and white students by half.
By half. But it’s the one thing that we are not really talking about, and that very few places are doing anymore.
That thing that is so effective but never discussed is not one of the tools that educators reach for normally. Can you guess?
You mean just integrating schools? It was getting black kids and white kids together in the same schools.
Old fashioned, Brown versus Board of Education, 1954 technology, load kids on buses?
That’s right. Actually, what the statistics show is that between 1971, which is where the nation really started doing massive desegregation, and 1988, which was the peak of integration in the United States…shows that kind of the start of real desegregation, the achievement gap between black and white students was about 40 points.
In other words, on standardized reading tests in 1971, black 13-year-olds tested 39 points worse than white kids. That dropped to just 18 points by 1988 at the height of desegregation. The improvement in math scores was close to that, though not quite as good.
And these scores are not just the scores of the specific kids who got bussed into white schools. That is the overall score for the entire country. That’s all black children in America– halved in just 17 years.
When I asked Nikole if that was fast, she said, well, black people first arrived on this continent as slaves in 1619. So it was 352 years to create the problem. So yeah, another 17 to cut that school achievement gap in half, pretty fast.
Pretty radical, right? Old fashioned Brown v. Board of Ed, load kids on buses (not so much an issue on the Upper West Side), “getting black and white kids together in the same schools.” Someone page Rand Paul. Or Save Our Schools. States’ rights! Parents’ rights!
Well, not to worry. At that meeting last week at P.S. 191, Chancellor Farina told parents that suggested remedies like bigger catchment areas or mindful school assignments were a no-go because “it raised logistical concerns, such as which teachers would be held accountable for students’ test scores.”
“Logistical concerns.” Yes, okay. But how long should the parents at 191 endure this sort of inequity? How long before educational leaders look squarely at data that shows that almost four out of five NYC high school graduates who attend CUNY two-year colleges have to take remedial coursework? What would it take for the de Blasio Administration to mix it up a little bit? According to Farina, meaningful action at addressing school segregation is stalled by fear of “revolution,” which might mean (I’m guessing here) an abrupt evaporation of all Upper West Side rich people, or “strike,” like teacher dissent at misappropriated student growth metrics.
So we condone apartheid neighborhood schools because we’re afraid to implement, as Nikole Hannah says, “what actually works.” Well, like in the days of Brown v. BOE, leadership takes courage. Right now NYC schools could use a dose of that.