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"What Are We Holding Our Public Schools Accountable For? The Gap Between What is Measured and What is Needed to Prepare Children for an Increasingly Diverse Society,"

by Amy Stuart Wells September/October 2012 issue of Poverty & Race

In 2011, for the first time, less than half of the babies born in the U.S. were white and non-Hispanic. Instead, the majority of newborns were Latino, African American, Asian and/or Native American, a sign that the identity of our nation is changing, as are the social and cultural skills needed to succeed here. In the coming years, when these babies go to school, a public educational system that is now about 54% white, non-Hispanic will be demographically very different from what it was only 35 years ago, when 78% of the students were white, non-Hispanic. How we prepare our children for the society they will inherit needs to be rethought.

The good news is that we know much more today about how best to educate children to thrive in a racially, ethnically and culturally diverse society than ever before. The bad news is that the policymakers who set the legislative and legal agenda in education appear to be paying little, if any, attention to either our new demographic reality or the knowledge base on what to do about it. In fact, for the last few decades, when these policymakers have addressed educational issues, they have mostly focused on testing and school choice—the two primary methods for holding the public schools accountable for better results. But the question that voters, advocates and, most importantly, parents need to ask is whether the current accountability system reflects the values and needs of our rapidly changing society, not to mention the educational needs of our children.

Evidence That We Need a Broader Focus in Educational Policy

A growing body of social science research explains why racial/ethnic diversity should be an important factor we consider when we are thinking about education policy. First of all, decades of research has shown the positive academic and long-term mobility outcomes for students of color who attend racially diverse, as opposed to segregated, schools, in part because of the likelihood that they will have access to a more challenging curriculum, better prepared teachers, and more resources in schools that enroll affluent and white students.

Secondly, robust evidence suggests there are multiple short- and long-term benefits for students of all racial and ethnic backgrounds who attend racially diverse schools. In particular, both survey- and interview-based research finds that attending an integrated school has a strong positive effect on students’ racial attitudes, cross-racial understanding and comfort levels in diverse settings. Furthermore, this research suggests that such effects are not fully realized until well after the students graduate and enter the workforce, where they are most likely to interact with people of different cultural backgrounds, races and ethnicities as adults.

Another area of research suggests that racially diverse schools provide the contexts in which educators and students can and often do grapple with cultural differences in a way that will assist all students in grappling with complex issues and exploring deeper meanings. In sync with this research on “socio-cultural” issues in education is an expanding knowledge base among educational professionals who work in diverse schools and classrooms. If this professional knowledge were more widely disseminated, it would be clear that we have many more answers to questions about how to better teach students from diverse backgrounds, drawing on the strengths and insights each brings to the classroom. We also know from the evidence, common sense and parents’ intuition that it is essential for the future of our democracy to create racially and ethnically diverse schools and classrooms in which this type of learning may occur.

Policymakers, Our Demographic Future and Evidence on What We Should Do About It

Despite significant demographic changes in the U.S. and the mounting evidence about how we might address them in the K-12 public schools, most policymakers, on both sides of the political aisle, are focused elsewhere. They argue that the best way to improve the educational system and close the achievement gap (as defined by standardized tests alone) between white students and students of color is to hold schools accountable for “outcomes” (namely test scores) and offer parents the option to “vote with their feet” if the schools are not performing. That we have been trying these reforms with little measured success for almost 30 years is rarely mentioned. Also ignored is the mounting evidence that newer “school choice” plans, including charter schools and voucher plans, that rarely include transportation for students tend to lead to greater racial segregation. Add to that important research on the negative impact of test-based accountability systems on racially diverse schools. This scholarship shows that as schools are increasingly judged primarily based on narrow outcome data, more diverse schools are regularly deemed to be “worse” than more affluent and predominantly white or Asian schools with higher test scores, despite any dynamic teaching and learning that could be occurring in the more diverse environment.

Indeed, it appears that not only are policymakers ignoring the evidence about how and why they should support creation of more racially diverse schools, many policies they are advocating are, as currently constructed, pushing us in the opposite direction. Rarely—if ever—do current policymakers ponder whether they should be holding public schools accountable for preparing our next multi-ethnic, multi-racial and multi-cultural generation of children to navigate the complexity of an increasingly diverse society.

Change From the Bottom Up?

Ironically, if you listen to many parents of school-age children—those who were born and raised in a post-Civil Rights era—they seem to know intuitively and intellectually that learning to get along with others of different backgrounds is an important life skill they would like their children to have. They also know that the current educational system, with its mostly racially and ethnically segregated schools and multitude of standardized tests, is not providing them with many options to achieve this goal.

In fact, a growing number of parents of school-age children in a U.S. public school are bemoaning the number of standardized tests their children take as they travel through different grade levels, developmental stages and subjects of our educational system. There is no escaping standardized tests in U.S. public schools, making our students some of the most “tested” students on the planet.

Meanwhile, our research on parents of school-age children suggests that many are conflicted between doing whatever they can to get their children in schools with high scores (and thus high status) and finding schools that better reflect their values and beliefs about education in a diverse society. Indeed, our center at Teachers College, Columbia University, the Center for Understanding Race and Education (CURE), is conducting cutting-edge research into these issues as they play out in demographically changing communities in both suburban and urban contexts. What we have learned is that today’s parents feel caught between an accountability system that is being imposed on them and their children by policymakers and their own understanding of what matters to them as parents as they see the society become increasingly racially and ethnically diverse.

For instance, a recent study Allison Roda and I conducted and will publish next year in the American Journal of Education is of one New York City community school district—called “District Q”—that is racially diverse overall but extremely racially divided either at the school or classroom level. At the school level, neighborhood schools are divided by attendance zones that circumscribe racially divided pockets of private apartment buildings and public housing units. Despite the geographic proximity of the public and private housing in this district, the school boundaries, in most cases, lead to more separation between the children who live in the two different types of homes. As a result, almost all of District Q’s white elementary school students were enrolled in only 6 of the 18 elementary schools.

At the classroom level, students enrolled in the few public schools that are more diverse overall tend to be divided into special “gifted and talented” (G&T) versus “general education” classrooms based on testing and an application process that occurs when they are in pre-school. In these more “diverse” schools, G&T and general education classes are remarkably distinct racially and ethnically, with all the white and Asian students in the G&T classrooms and virtually all the black and Latino students in the general education classes. Of the six District Q elementary schools with student bodies that are 22% or more white, three house G&T programs that separate their students in this way.

Walking down the hallways of these schools evokes in researchers and parents alike a sense of racial apartheid. All of the parents we studied were uncomfortable with this within-school segregation. Many parents of school-age children today grew up believing that such stark racial segregation was a thing of the past, and many moved to New York City so that they could raise their children in a more diverse and cosmopolitan city. They did not anticipate choosing among public school programs that resemble those in the deep South prior to the Brown decision and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Yet what was painfully clear about the findings to emerge from our study of mostly white and middle- or upper-middle-class parents who were choosing elementary schools for their children in this district is that giving parents only the choice of racially and socio-economically separate and unequal schools and programs despite overall district demographics that are very diverse is basically no choice at all. In other words, the way in which the school choice policies are written, regulated and implemented had huge implications for the kinds of outcomes they foster—both in terms of their short-term effects on school-level racial diversity and their long-term effects on political support for public education. Thus, despite the history of NYC’s public school system, to use the separate and unequal G&T programs to keep white, middle-class families from leaving the public schools, our interview data strongly suggest that more diverse and undivided options would ultimately help keep more of these parents in public, as opposed to private, schools for kindergarten. In fact, there was a waitlist of such parents for the only elementary school in the district that is far more racially and ethnically diverse at both the school and the classroom level than the other schools in the district.

We believe that public school officials in New York City and elsewhere could learn from our analysis of how white parents in District Q make sense of their school choices. For instance, our findings suggest that it’s not surprising, given the lack of racially diverse schools and programs available in District Q, that these parents struggle with the choices they make. Given their lousy options of putting their children in segregated almost all-white or segregated almost all African-American and/or Latino classrooms, they usually end up making the choice to be with other families like theirs, a choice that reinforces the segregation and inequality.

Given the lack of other options, these race-driven parental choices are logical at some level, especially for white and more affluent parents, given what we know about the relationship between racial segregation, educational inequality and concentrated poverty. If the burden to ending racial apartheid in District Q schools and classrooms is left entirely up to them, it will most likely never happen. Yet when we examine this sense-making in progress, on the ground, we see the missed opportunities in school choice policies that could have tapped into parents’ interest and demand for more diverse, equal and challenging educational environments for their children.

Even small amendments to school choice policies could appeal to white parents’ intuition about the importance of school-level diversity and work against some of the forces that continue to push the system toward more segregation. But those with the power to make change within District Q and thousands of school districts across this country with racially segregated schools and G&T programs within schools must be open to learning from the parents we studied and their understandings of the missed opportunities for providing better choices for all children within an increasingly diverse society.

Questions our Policymakers Should Answer: Holding Those in Power Accountable

How did we end up with an increasingly diverse society and increasingly racially and ethnically homogeneous public schools? How did our system become one in which students, educators and communities are not held accountable for teaching and learning life skills that a silent majority of Americans know matter in the day-to-day reality of our increasingly diverse society? Why do we have an educational system in which so much time, energy and resources are spent on achieving narrow educational outcomes—e.g., those measured by standardized tests—while ignoring key goals that are important to our children and our future?

While testing students in reading and math skills is not necessarily a bad idea, we need to question whether or not we have gone overboard in terms of the amount of time, energy and resources currently spent on testing, test prep and organizing an educational system around the consequences of test scores. It could well be that the more time our children spend on tests—which only measure some of knowledge we want them to gain by going to school—the less they learn about how to make their way in the real world with the diverse mix of people who will be their future co-workers and fellow citizens. Thus, the central question we should be asking is whether we can hold our policymakers accountable for a different set of results to better meet the challenge and promise of our increasing diversity.

Amy Stuart Wells is Professor of Sociology and Education and the Director of the Center for Understanding Race and Education (CURE) at Teachers College, Columbia University.

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