One reason why affluent, liberal parents often choose segregated schools, even when that may not be their intention
School segregation has been in the news a lot lately, with journalists examining the policy decisions that cause it, and the parental decisions that perpetuate it. See, for example, Kate Taylor’s New York Times article, “Family by Family, How School Segregation Still Happens,” and Patrick Wall’s Atlantic article, “The Privilege of School Choice,” subtitled, “When given the chance, will wealthy parents ever choose to desegregate schools?”
In 2012, the Fordham Institute published The Diverse Schools Dilemma: A Parent’s Guide to Socioeconomically Mixed Public Schools, by now-Fordham president Michael J. Petrilli. The following excerpt examines why it is that upper-middle-class parents often put other considerations ahead of school diversity.
Naomi Calvo is a recently minted Harvard Ph.D. who immersed herself in Seattle’s “controlled choice” program for her dissertation. The intent of that effort, which offered parents public school options from across the city, was to better integrate Seattle’s sharply segregated schools. The program required all parents to list their school preferences. Calvo later pored over these choices to look for patterns. How important was the proximity of the school to home? Test scores? Demographics? Did these preferences vary by race and class?
Calvo spoke to parents about their decision-making processes. One vignette is particularly telling:
One morning I interviewed Sylvie, a vivacious middle class white mother whose daughter attended a popular alternative school. Sylvie was thrilled with the school—it was a perfect fit for her shy daughter, a nurturing close-knit community with project-based learning and a “child-centric” curriculum. The principal knew every student, and kids called teachers by their first names. The one downside, Sylvie said, was that the school was not as diverse as she would like. For some reason it had trouble attracting students of color, particularly black students.
Later that afternoon I interviewed Bernice, a middle class black mom who had chosen a large traditional school for her “social butterfly” daughter. Although the school had low test scores and a mediocre reputation, Bernice had been impressed when she visited. She thought the principal was pushing kids to excel, and liked the “collegebound” program that encouraged students to start thinking about college early. She was also attracted by the curriculum, which focused on basic skills. As Bernice described the different schools she considered and the various factors she weighed in choosing among them, I noticed that she did not mention Sylvie’s alternative school as an option. Had she, I asked, considered sending her daughter there? “Oh no,” Bernice replied. “That school, it doesn’t have any discipline or structure whatsoever. Do you know,” she went on in a horrified voice, “they even let the kids call teachers by their first names!”
Of course, we ought not generalize from this one story; not all affluent white parents want progressive, open-ended schools, and not all black parents want highly structured, traditional ones. But there is some truth to this stereotype. It’s hardly a secret: For decades, magnet school administrators have been placing Montessori schools in black neighborhoods as a way to draw white families, and “back-to-basics” schools in white neighborhoods to draw black families. And it works.
In the early 1990s, another Harvard graduate student, Maureen Allenberg Petronio, studied the public school choice program in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She found that parents tended to be either traditionalists, who wanted their kids to learn basic skills and get the “right answers,” or alternative-school aficionadas, who sought environments that “stimulated curiosity and encouraged exploration,” as she put it. Guess what? The alternative school parents were generally white professionals, while the traditionalists came from poorer backgrounds.
More recent studies have confirmed these differences in parents’ educational values. Economists Lars Lefgren and Brian Jacob looked at data from an unnamed school district regarding parents’ requests for particular teachers. (About one in five parents made such requests every year.) What they found was that parents in more affluent schools placed a higher priority on teachers who created an enjoyable classroom environment, while parents in poor schools focused more on teachers who could raise student achievement.
It shouldn’t come as any surprise that individuals from different cultures and backgrounds might have different values and preferences when it comes to their children’s education. However, it’s not just a matter of preferences. Bernice, the black mom, was right to be alarmed by the alternative school and its lack of structure, because those types of schools have tended to be ineffective for minority kids. On the other hand, a highly structured school would have repelled Sylvie and may have bored her daughter. These moms haven’t merely figured out what kind of school they would like for their daughters; they may have determined which type of school would educate them best.
Progressive Education: Good for “White Folks” Only?
In 1986, Lisa Delpit published “Skills and Other Dilemmas of a Progressive Black Educator,” an article that soon became one of the most requested in the Harvard Educational Review’s history. Delpit was born in Louisiana, where, as she put it, her teachers “in the pre-integration, poor black Catholic school that I attended corrected every other word I uttered in their effort to coerce my Black English into sometimes hypercorrect Standard English forms acceptable to black nuns in Catholic schools.”
But in her own teacher training, she learned from her professors that this “traditional” approach to education was shortsighted or even racist; that “people learn to write not by being taught ‘skills’ and grammar, but by ‘writing in meaningful contexts.’” She took these theories and tried to implement them in an integrated school in Philadelphia. “The black kids went to school there because it was their only neighborhood school,” she wrote ruefully. “The white kids went to school there because their parents had learned the same kinds of things I had learned about education. As a matter of fact, there was a waiting list of white children to get into the school. This was unique in Philadelphia—a predominantly black school with a waiting list of white children. There was no such waiting list of black children.”
While the older black teachers at the school focused on traditional skills such as handwriting and arranged their students’ desks in parallel rows, Delpit embraced all of the progressive methods: open classrooms, learning stations, carpeted sitting areas instead of desks, math games, even weaving to teach fine motor skills.
“My white students zoomed ahead,” Delpit wrote. “They worked hard at the learning stations. They did amazing things with books and writing. My black students played the games; they learned how to weave; and they threw the books around the learning stations. They practiced karate moves on the new carpets. Some of them even learned how to read, but none of them as quickly as my white students. I was doing the same thing for all my kids—what was the problem?”
Delpit eventually adopted more traditional methods, which helped her black students improve their reading and writing skills. That’s not to say that she rejected the tenets of progressive education entirely. But her article sparked an enormous response from other black teachers, who believed that the fashionable progressive methods were good for “white folks” but not for kids of color. And those teachers might have been right.
Poor Kids, Promising Results
So if progressive education—at least the kind that downplays the teaching of knowledge and skills—is not generally the best approach for the neediest kids, what is? What kinds of curriculum, pedagogy, and culture are seen in schools that teach disadvantaged children effectively?
One of the most compelling investigations of high-performing high-poverty schools is David Whitman’s Sweating the Small Stuff: Inner-City Schools and the New Paternalism. Whitman, a former U.S. News reporter, looked at six highly successful secondary schools—four charter schools, one Catholic school, and one regular public school. All are achieving phenomenal results as measured by test scores, graduation rates, and success in college, and all serve predominantly poor and minority students.
Whitman’s unique contribution was to identify a secret ingredient in the schools’ success: They are all benignly paternalistic:
Each of the six schools is a highly prescriptive institution that teaches students not just how to think but how to act according to what are commonly termed traditional, middle-class values . . . The schools tell students exactly how they are expected to behave and their behavior is closely monitored, with real rewards for compliance and penalties for noncompliance. Students are required to talk a certain way, sit a certain way, and dress a certain way.
For example, Whitman wrote about the Cristo Rey Academy, a Jesuit school in Chicago that sends high school students to internships in professional office environments.
The dress code . . . is remarkably detailed—and sure not to send teen hearts racing. Boys wear long-sleeved cotton or poplin shirts with collars and buttons and free of lettering and logos. Shirts must be buttoned all the way up and worn over plain white undershirts. A solid black or brown belt must be worn at all times. Trousers must have a crease and hem in the leg, and pants must be worn at the waistline. Leather or leather-like shoes in solid black or brown must hold a shine. A boy’s hair cannot be long enough to cover his collar or longer than a #2 clipper attachment. Boys are shown, and practice, how to tie a tie. All the markings of teenhood and teen rebellion—earrings, facial piercings, sun glasses, or corn rows—are flatly forbidden.
The dress code for girls is similarly drab: blouses buttoned all the way up, no white socks, no tight pants, no earrings larger than a quarter, and only soft colors used for eye shadow. Wearing a watch is recommended. But the watches cannot have sports logos or cartoon figures on the timepiece.
Ready to enroll your kids?
Many affluent parents won’t send their children to “paternalistic” schools because they’re worried that the experience would be stultifying. Like Sylvie, they prefer something much more warm and fuzzy, progressive, and creative. Yet the evidence is clear that many poor students would flounder in such a laid-back environment, that they generally benefit from highly structured lessons, an initial focus on basic skills, the development of background knowledge, and careful cultivation of their habits, behavior, and aspirations.
As researcher Naomi Calvo put it to me bluntly: “The types of reforms that are considered best practice for disadvantaged kids are exactly what middle-class parents hate. I don’t know how you are going to have a meeting of the minds on that.” When asked about the attributes they want their children to develop in school, affluent parents tend to name “creativity” and “thinking outside the box.” Poor parents, on the other hand, “don’t use language like that,” Calvo said. They speak in more concrete terms, and are focused on making sure their kids can read and do math and get ready for college.
A school can’t be both paternalistic and loosey-goosey, both structured and open-ended. Students either call their teachers by their first names or they don’t. Either they wear uniforms or they don’t. It’s hard for schools to meet the needs of poor kids while also meeting the expectations of affluent parents.
And that is one of many “diverse schools dilemmas”: It’s hard to come up with a type of school that would appeal to both Bernice and Sylvie and serve both of their daughters well. It may be possible, but it’s surely challenging, for an integrated school to meet the needs of a diverse student body effectively, when backgrounds, needs, and preferences vary so significantly.
Epilogue: In the five years since I wrote this, there have been several important developments. First, many of the “No Excuses” schools that Whitman wrote about have worked to become more flexible, especially when it comes to student behavior. Second, a new crop of charter schools that are “diverse by design” have sprouted up across the country, trying to prove that it is, indeed, possible to create schools that appeal to parents across lines of class and race, and serve all of their students well. I hope both efforts succeed, but we shouldn’t underestimate the challenges. –MJP
Those who follow federal education policy or work on education at the state level are well aware of a few big changes wrought by the Trump team (with some help from Congress) in its first hundred days, including wiping out the late Obama ESSA accountability regs and easing off on bathroom access rules.
But another quintet of recent ed-related developments in Washington begs for attention by anyone wondering what may actually be changing (or hoping or fearing that change will occur) in our schools and for our children in the Trump era.
First, the latest IES evaluation of the D.C. school-voucher program, which showed that voucher users lost ground (compared with non-users) during their first year in private schools, when judged by test scores. This isn’t going to stop Congress from reauthorizing and re-funding the program, mind you, but it’s already been seized on by voucher haters and added to a spate of recent statewide studies in Louisiana, Ohio, and Indiana that found little or no gain for the voucher kids. (Choice boosters though we are, Fordham is responsible for commissioning the Ohio study.) There are beaucoup reasons why the new D.C. study ought not be taken too seriously—kids often do worse during their first year in a new school and an earlier IES evaluation of the DC program found significant long-term gains (notably high school graduation) for voucher users. Still and all, it was the first such federal report on Betsy DeVos’s watch and it surely won’t help advance the private-school choice agenda that’s important to her and that Trump offered up during his campaign. (He may now be losing interest—one of many reversals—as his team has signaled that no big choice plan is making it into the administration’s tax-reform bill.)
Second, while the voucher push may be stalling, at least in Washington, there’s good progress on the charter front. These independently operated public schools of choice got a nice reputational boost from the latest U.S. News list of best public high schools—with nine of the top ten schools and sixty out of the top hundred fitting into that category. As if to reward the sector, the budget deal emerging from Congress adds some dollars to the federal charter-support program. Nobody is claiming that we aren’t still stuck with way too many mediocre (or worse) charters, but the mounting evidence that many of them are, quite simply, terrific schools is bound to help the quest for more choice, not to mention hundreds of thousands more needy kids. Charters lack some key features of private schools—notably the opportunity to educate one’s child in one’s religious faith—but they are more reliably accountable for their academic results.
Third, the Administration’s “war on Common Core” seems more relentless than its assault on the Assad regime in Syria. Trump himself has again made clear that he wants these standards to go away. Secretary DeVos, perhaps to please her boss, has declared that to all intents and purposes they have gone away. What might have gone away, had they never opened their mouths on the topic, is the political argument over Common Core, which was quietly receding into implementation challenges in the states that still acknowledge that they’re using those standards—and something similar in places that put new labels on the same (or very similar) content, as well as a few jurisdictions that are still struggling to come up with anything nearly as good on their own. (New York State may just have taken a step backwards in latest tweaks to Common Core-based standards.) What DeVos and Trump are unnecessarily doing is continuing to act as if Uncle Sam has something to do with Common Core—in this way foolishly following in the footsteps of Messrs. Obama and Duncan.
Fourth, on the regulatory front, the President issued a wholly unnecessary executive order instructing Ms. DeVos to review the Education Department’s existing regulations with an eye toward curbing federal overreach. Yes, there’s much need to ferret out and smash the regulatory causes of that overreach, and perhaps the executive order will spur swifter and more thorough movement on this front, but it’s something Secretary DeVos could easily have undertaken without White House direction. Even as the Cabinet members in charge of foreign and defense matters seem to be gaining in discretion and authority, one wonders how tight will be the White House reins on the domestic side.
Fifth, and finally, way over in the Agriculture Department, the White House has also directed at least a partial rollback of the (Michelle) Obama-led effort to make school food more nutritious. This isn’t my bailiwick, to be sure. I’m all for well-nourished and fit children, but I also like to cook myself, and I know from experience that it’s truly unrewarding and wasteful of effort and money to set out food that nobody—especially fussy kids—wants to eat. Unlike Common Core, Washington’s micromanagement of what can and cannot be served in school lunchrooms—half the kids in America are now eligible for these federal subsidies—and whether and how it can be seasoned truly constitute an example of federal overreach. That’s one reason we keep reading that the Obama reforms, at least as implemented by some schools, are causing more kids to refuse to choke down what’s being served. (The most widely reported examples involve vegetables with no salt or other seasoning.) Let us acknowledge that tastes differ—and that what tastes good isn’t always good for you. Then let’s hope that the geniuses who write and revise these epically complicated food guidelines can manage, this time, to allow the kids some ketchup (or whatever) on their food without defining ketchup itself as a vegetable.
What will the next couple of hundred days bring? Can hardly wait.
Slowly, slowly, a small but persuasive body of work is emerging which raises curriculum to an object of pressing concern for educators, and expresses long overdue appreciation for the idea that the instructional materials we put in front of children actually matter to student outcomes. A welcome addition to this emerging corpus is a new Aspen Institute paper by Ross Wiener and Susan Pimentel, which makes a compelling case—equally overdue—that professional development and teacher training ought to be connected to curriculum. A primary role of school systems, states, districts, and charter-management organizations, the pair write, “is to create the conditions in schools through which teachers can become experts at teaching the curriculum they are using and adapting instruction to the needs of their particular students.”
Note the italics, which are Weiner’s and Pimental’s, not mine. It underscores that regardless of how unremarkable this may sound to lay readers (“Wait. Teachers should be expert at teaching their curriculum? Aren’t they already!?”), what the duo are suggesting is something new, even revolutionary. Sadly, it is.
Practice What You Teach begins with a discussion of research demonstrating the frustrating state of teacher “PD,” which, like the sitcom Seinfeld, is a show about nothing. Next, they discuss curriculum materials, which “have a profound effect on what happens in classrooms and on how much students learn.” When average teachers use excellent materials, Weiner and Pimental note, “student learning results improve significantly.” The general disregard for curriculum as a means to improve teacher effectiveness and student outcomes is reflected in the observation that “many teachers do not have access to strong, standards-aligned curriculum; in fact, most teachers spend hours every week searching for materials that haven’t been vetted and aren’t connected to ongoing, professional learning activities in their schools.”
This is a state of affairs that would be a national scandal if an analogous situation existed in healthcare or any other critical public service (Help Wanted: Firemen. Bring your own hose). Many school districts have nothing that would meet a reasonable definition for a curriculum. Local “scope and sequence” documents are suggestions; the subjects they list may or may not be taught. When USC professor Morgan Polikoff wanted school-level data on what textbooks were in use in several states, he had to file hundreds of Freedom of Information Act requests to find out. The issue wasn’t secrecy. States and districts seem to think it’s just not worth keeping track of.
For schools, districts, and CMOs ready to jump aboard the instructional materials bandwagon (c’mon up, there’s plenty of room), Weiner and Pimental offer case studies from Louisiana, the District of Columbia, and a teacher-led initiative in West Virginia documenting how thoughtfully vetted instructional materials can form the foundation of professional learning at the state, district, or local level. In each case, the authors note the goal is not merely “orientation” to new curriculum materials but “a vision of fully integrating chosen curriculum into ongoing, job-embedded professional learning.” Having personally spent some time in Louisiana recently studying the curriculum-based reforms engineered under state superintendent John White gives me confidence that Weiner and Pimental have done an equally fine job reporting on the Washington, D.C., and West Virginia case studies. Ultimately a theme emerges: “Professional learning cannot live up to its potential unless it’s rooted in the content teachers teach in their classrooms,” Weiner and Pimental conclude. “Similarly, the resulting professional learning won’t be excellent unless the underlying instructional materials are excellent.”
A reader’s initial reaction to all this might be, “well, this all sounds obvious. Why isn’t this already happening?” There are myriad reasons why we have failed to put curriculum at the heart of not just teacher training and PD, but professional practice at large, as well as research and reform efforts, which Practice What You Teach, for all its strengths, mostly elides. We have a long tradition of local control in this country, which tends to make curriculum a third rail. Witness the Sturm und Drang over Common Core, which isn’t a curriculum at all, but merely curriculum standards. We also tend to valorize teacher autonomy to a fault. In a recent paper on Louisiana’s curriculum reforms, Ashley Berner of Johns Hopkins described how schools of education “turned from academic subject mastery to developmental psychology as the foundational resource for teacher preparation” a century ago. This relegated curriculum to a thing not just beneath the notice of teachers, but beneath their dignity. We are encouraged to “teach the child, not the lesson” and other empty platitudes: Education is not the filling of a pail, it’s the lighting of a fire. Students won’t care what you know until they know that you care. Ad infinitum.
The standards movement has been a mixed blessing, too. Many educators will rise to the challenge of higher standards, choosing instructional materials that raise rigor. In less expert hands, the language of standards merely reinforces the content-agnostic, skills-driven vision of schooling drummed into teachers in ed school. “Determine central ideas or themes of a text?” Which text? Which books and works of literature should we use? Doesn’t it matter?
What part of “teach the child, not the lesson” do you not understand?
All of this is a long way of saying that while the emerging appreciation of curriculum as a critical lever for improving practice and outcomes is long overdue and gratefully welcome, there remain significant hurdles to be cleared before the sensible recommendations offered by Weiner and Pimental become standard practice. It will require nothing less than a wholesale reimagining of the role of the teacher—not as an instructional designer, but expert instructional deliverer. In theory, this should not be controversial. It does not diminish our appreciation of the actor’s talent that he performs Hamlet but didn’t write it. No one expects their doctor to repair to the lab every night to prepare pharmaceutical compounds on the theory that she alone knows what her patients need. The master carpenter begins his day in the lumber yard, not in the forest.
We flatter teachers’ professionalism by telling them they alone can best determine what will engage and enlighten the children before them, but the price of that flattery is that we make their jobs impossible to do effectively, forcing them to spend fruitless hours on Google and Pinterest hoping to find materials that a well-run and coherent system would provide to them—along with training on how to implement it effectively. Add Weiner and Pimental to the small but bracing chorus of voices aiming to rescue teachers from this impossible situation—and students from its well-intended but deleterious effects.
Editor's note: A comment was made during this week's podcast suggesting that Mark Dynarski is married or related to Susan Dynarski. This is incorrect, and we apologize for this error.
On this week's podcast, special guest John Bailey, a Walton Family Foundation Fellow, joins Mike Petrilli and Alyssa Schwenk to discuss the federal budget deal for the current fiscal year and its effects on education. During the Research Minute, David Griffith examines the effects of Washington, D.C.’s school voucher program on student outcomes and parental satisfaction.
Amber’s Research Minute
Mark Dynarski et al., “Evaluation of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program Impacts After One Year,” Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (April 2017)
A new Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis study examines a simple yet largely unexamined question: How does school transportation relate to student absences?
Author Michael Gottfried asks whether children who take the school bus to kindergarten have fewer absences, and if there are key differences by child and family characteristics. Apparently elementary school absenteeism is highest in kindergarten, though we don’t exactly know why. In fact, prior research has suggested that at least 25 percent of all kindergarteners miss about a month of school. We know that absences in general are linked to lower test scores, higher chances of grade retention, more difficulty with social development, and other negative outcomes.
The study uses data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Kindergarten Class of 2010–11, which includes nationally representative cohort of children in public-school kindergarten in 2010–11. Data were collected in the fall and again in the spring of that year, mostly from surveys of teachers and parents and from direct assessments of students. The author deploys an array of control variables relating to the child (like race, gender, and whether the parent considered their child to be healthy), entry skills in kindergarten, kindergarten and pre-K experiences (such as distance from school and attendance at a before- or after-school child care) and household characteristics (such as whether the child lived in a two-parent household and maternal and paternal education).
Descriptive findings show that 24 percent of the sample took the school bus, while most got to school in other ways (cars, public transportation, walking, etc.). Turns out that the bus riders had fewer days absent and were also less likely to be chronically absent, defined as missing more than ten days. Specifically, school bus riders were 3 percentage points less likely to be chronically absent. When controlling for variation between districts, results were more tempered; specifically, bus riders had a 2 percentage point reduced likelihood of being chronically absent. Surprisingly, though, the author finds almost no differences in absenteeism by subgroup or other characteristics, including poverty level or distance to school. He chalks that up, in part, to the study’s descriptive design and its imprecise measure of distance.
The study takes on more significance as more states look to include chronic absenteeism in their ESSA accountability plans. We tend to think that’s a good idea. But beyond simply including it in their plans, states (and districts) might also now ask themselves: How many of our kids take the Big Cheese Wagon and does riding that wagon impact their attendance?
SOURCE: Michael Gottfried, “Linking Getting to School With Going to School,” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis (April 2017).
A new EdChoice report examines the potential effect of charter schools on family relocation and urban revitalization. The authors focus on the Orange County School of the Arts (OCSA) in Santa Ana, a charter school serving grades 7–12 that was established as part of an urban renewal effort in one of the poorest places in Southern California. Families with school-age children were avoiding the area, worsening its economic issues. Indeed, they appeared to be fleeing. Compared to all of Orange County, 11 percent fewer elementary school kids lived in Santa Ana than would be expected based on the number of preschool children. The question, then, was whether a charter school could draw families (and school employees) into the area and stimulate the local economy.
The authors looked at home residence data for 7,000 students who attended OCSA between 2000–01 and 2013–14, and separated them into students who started at OCSA in ninth grade and those who enrolled in one of the other five grades.
Of those 7,000 students, 1,217 changed addresses after being admitted, with 55 percent of them relocating closer to the school. For students who entered the school in ninth grade, their families were 50 to 59 percent more likely to move closer to OCSA than would be expected by random chance, compared with 37 to 43 percent for those entering in other grades. (The researchers speculate that this is likely because ninth grade is a “gateway grade” for high school.) Add to this the daily commute of several hundred OCSA employees into downtown Santa Ana, as well as the school’s many evening activities that keep families and faculty there into the later hours, and its plausible to posit that OCSA has helped reverse Santa Ana’s blight. And indeed, this coincides with an influx of business and a reduced crime rate.
This was simply a case study, so authors could not establish causation, and factors unique to OCSA must also be considered, along with neighborhood characteristics. OCSA, for example, is an arts-based charter and serves just six grades. Still, it’s likely that opening appealing charters could help revitalize struggling communities in other parts of the country. How great it would be if that happened in more places.
SOURCE: Bart Danielsen, David Harrison, and Jing Zhao, “New Case Study Research Out of Santa Ana Finds School Choice Plays Role in Urban Renewal,” EdChoice (March 2017).