Real school reform

The country has gotten serious about urban education reform. It has been a priority for both the Bush and Obama Administrations. For both moral and economic reasons we seem to understand that it is unacceptable that such a large proportion of our urban kids get an inferior education.

That is the good news. What is troubling is probably the most effective way to provide predominantly low income, minority kids growing up in our central cities with a quality education is, by and large, off the table. There is strong evidence that deconcentrating poverty – enrolling low income students in predominantly middle class schools – is the best way to leave no child behind. (See All Together Now by Richard Kahlenberg.)

As Bob Herbert wrote in a recent New York Times columnLong years of evidence show that poor kids of all ethnic backgrounds do better academically when they go to school with their more affluent — that is, middle class — peers. But when the poor kids are black or Hispanic, that means racial and ethnic integration in the schools. Despite all the babble about a postracial America, that has been off the table for a long time.

One district that has been willing to embrace integration of k-12 students is the Wake County (North Carolina) Public Schools. (Wake County includes Raleigh and much of the Research Triangle.) Since the 1970s they have pursued a policy of having all schools enroll a mix of high and low income kids.Then, as recounted in a NewYork Times article, came the 2010 elections. Which saw the election of a more conservative school board majority elected on getting rid of school assignments by class or race. But surprisingly that is not what has happened. Instead the community, with leadership from the Greater Raleigh Chamber, has designed a new plan for integrated schools. This time based on student achievement.

As the Times reports: Under this plan, no school would have an overwhelming number of failing students. Instead a school might have a 70-30 mix — 70 percent of students who have scored proficient on state tests and 30 percent who are below grade level. Why did the business community take the lead in developing the plan? The Times reports that the Chamber believes: integration by achievement will be good for business because no matter where a family lives in the county, their children can attend a high achieving school.

What is happening in Michigan? One can make a strong case the opposite. Charter schools – our main urban school reform strategy – are, by and large, highly segregated and get only marginally better student achievement. And public school choice – school districts  enrolling students from other public school districts – according to a terrific Detroit News investigation article seem to be increasing segregation. This is moving in the wrong direction.

Obviously school integration – using any metric – has been off the table here forever. Largely because of race. But if we are serious about leaving no child behind it needs to get on the table.

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