Facebook Twitter

Commentary: The shoe, the gourd & integration

Alan Gottlieb is publisher of Education News Colorado. The views expressed below are his alone and do not reflect the positions of EdNews or the Public Education and Business Coalition.

I can think of no better preface to this piece than this wonderful clip from Monty Python’s Life of Brian:

A lively comment stream last week on an Education News Colorado story about Denver’s new SchoolChoice system prompted me to take a journey into the not-too-distant past. From 2001-2007, the second two-thirds of my decade at The Piton Foundation, I focused a lot of attention and a fair number of dollars on promoting socio-economic school integration.

I believed then, as I do today, that integrated schools serve society well in a number of ways. While I subscribe to the softer arguments about promoting diversity and tolerance, what I found most compelling were the data on how low-income students fare better in economically mixed schools.

I won’t rehash the arguments here, but you can look back at some of the research I commissioned while at Piton. More here and here. Back in 2006 I wrote:

The more deeply one studies the topic, the more obvious the conclusion becomes: racially and socio-economically isolated schools are bad for low-income children… …(A recent study makes) a compelling case that the current trend toward segregated schools works directly against efforts to close achievement gaps.

While I continue to believe in integration as a student achievement strategy just as strongly as I did a decade ago, new evidence has surfaced since then that has convinced me that integration is not the only strategy that can drive better results for low-income students.

I’ve seen a breed of schools develop that is succeeding with high-poverty high-minority populations. These schools didn’t exist when the research I wrote about was conducted. I believe we need to support these schools and promote their growth and expansion. This is where I part company with some of my former allies.

At the same time, I believe we need to continue pushing hard for socio-economically mixed schools, ultimately a more scalable strategy than hoping the KIPPs and West Denver Preps of the world can spread far and wide without outgrowing their nimbleness and effectiveness. This is where I part company with some of those in the “ed reform” community.

So I haven’t changed my mind, I have expanded it to see new possibilities without crowding out my old, strongly held beliefs. In so doing, I’ve experienced first-hand how dug in people are on various sides of the education reform debate, and how unwilling some are to take seriously the validity of other points of view.

On one side, people seem to view charters and school choice as segregating forces and therefore inherently inequitable. Last week, on the aforementioned comment stream, Mary Naninga, a teacher, wrote:

Children–all children–should attend their neighborhood public school (or enroll in private schools that they pay for themselves)… All this choice nonsense really does nothing but undermine the schools that need the most help–but I suspect, no I KNOW, that’s really the entire point.

I replied that a slavish adherence to neighborhood schools in a segregated city leads to…you guessed it, segregated schools.

And retired Denver teacher Ed Augden has commented countless times (and not always accurately) on the Piton study I referred to at the top of this piece. Here’s a representative example:

Exclusive charter schools are contributing to the growing inequity for poor and special needs students. Many qualified students are deprived of the opportunity to attend a school such as Denver School of Science & Technology (DSST). Equity must be achieved before any reform can succeed.

A shout-out here to DSST, which Augden unfairly maligns as exclusive. A commitment to diversity is baked into DSST’s DNA, which is why the school holds a dual lottery to ensure that at least 40 percent of its students come from low-income households.

On the other side, there is a tendency to dismiss integration as a nice but naive strategy that will never be realized in most urban settings because not enough middle-class families send their kids to urban schools. Back in 2008, Alexander Ooms, a leading proponent of this line of argument, commented:

I wish I thought this was a viable idea, but I am afraid it only works in Districts that have low FRL numbers to begin with, and otherwise makes no difference. In urban systems — for example DPS, which is about 2/3 FRL — for every school that tries to balance socio-economic status (SES), some other school has to absorb it.

While Alex is right about the numbers, he’s assuming the pie will always be the same size, when the most viable strategies for promoting integration focus on drawing new middle-class families into high-poverty urban districts and locating school options most attractive to them in lower-income neighborhoods.

Why is it so difficult for us to hold competing ideas in our heads? Why can’t we push hard for integrated schools as a student achievement strategy and simultaneously support the “benign paternalism” model of charters that have demonstrated success with low-income kids? Why can’t some proponents of integration stop themselves from trashing the charters, or finding reasons to dismiss their success? Why can’t some advocates of these charters acknowledge that there may be a parallel path worth pursuing?

I hope no one out there is naive enough to presume that the answer lies in any one strategy; not shoe, not gourd, not neighborhood schools, not a portfolio of charters, not STEM, not fixing ed schools, not Teach for America, not revamping teacher evaluation. If only it were that simple.

If anything is clear, it’s this: Unless and until people stop digging in and hardening their positions, the internecine war will continue and the hope for real change and improvement on a large scale will wither away.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.