The Veil of “Integration” in Public Education

The title of Emily Badger’s piece  How Diverse Schools Could Help Fight the Worst Effects of Gentrification   suggests that diversifying/integrating schools can curb the negative effects of gentrification. Believing this to be true requires an initial belief that this supposedly phenomenal moment “raises the possibility… that long-segregated schools in urban America might finally, if uneasily integrate,” which I don’t find believable. What is it that makes this moment so different from the many others that might be said to have had similar potential?

describe the image Michael Petrilli’s idea shared by Badger that being a “low-income and minority” student in a school “where basically everyone else is low-income and minority—is on average a very bad place to be” is offensive and supported by an irresponsible study that claims a student’s individual SES and his/her school’s overall SES contribute to achievement growth without enough attention paid to the need to examine what might be different in the staffing, resources, opportunities, etc, of a high SES versus those of a low SES school, but rather simply suggesting that poor black kids stifle one another’s academic achievement by purely being. The study does point out teacher expectations, amount of homework assigned, advanced courses taken, and safety of school all as influential factors. So maybe it’s not poor black kids that are failing one another, but rather the larger inequitable system that creates insufficient conditions for them.

We’re operating under the same ideologically oppressive assumption that METCO was born out of: in order to get a quality education, you can’t be surrounded by poor black kids in a city public school. This is an egregiously dangerous way of thinking. As long as this idea prevails, poor black communities will always have to fear what becomes of their children when there are no wealthy white children around.

While some might see this as a necessary approach and one that employs the lesser of two evils, it sends the dehumanizing message to poor children, black children, Latino children, that they are less than. That instead of working to provide them with the quality educations they deserve in their own right, we need the incentive of more valued children attending the same schools before we make those schools right.

As long as this scenario remains a prerequisite for the education of all children, our society will never heal from the implications of our inability to provide quality educations to all, even when they’re separate. Because we’re not stating the underlying truth of this, which is that, by operating under this assumption, we’re also admitting that we fail to educate some children based on some combination of their address, skin color, and socioeconomic status, we’ve put ourselves in the position of creating bogus “solutions.” In reality, separateness has only been configured as a problem for certain groups. If wealthy white populations can be separate and well-educated (though the conversation about what’s lost at the “best” schools is a rich conversation for another day), perhaps the separation isn’t the issue but our concealed ideas around who deserves a quality education are.

“We’re operating under the same ideologically oppressive assumption that METCO was born out of: in order to get a quality education, you can’t be surrounded by poor black kids in a city public school. This is an egregiously dangerous way of thinking. As long as this idea prevails, poor black communities will always have to fear what becomes of their children when there are no wealthy white children around.”

To come back to the problem of blaming children for issues created by adults: the call for “smart placement policies” is another example of this. When I sat in on a BPS External Advisory Committee meeting on school assignment, I heard a BPS parent say it best: “If we had quality options, then choice wouldn’t be an issue.” As long as there are failing schools, there are children who will be systematically left behind, regardless of how smartly we place them. Shuffling children around based on absurdly complex algorithms simply is not the answer. Altering policies and priorities in such a way that creates school environments that nurture the most historically undernurtured learners is.

Badger’s assessment of the inadequacy of Boston’s own complex algorithm is spot-on: “The result is that children spend their after-school hours riding the bus, neighborhoods that might otherwise coalesce around the school as a civic center don’t do that, the city spends vast resources on transportation instead of education, and minority low-income children wind up busing across town to other schools full of minority, low-income children.”

Toward the end, Badger references the danger of symbolic diversity that’s not met with innovative solutions for how to accommodate many different populations, which can lead to massive levels of segregation within the walls of an “integrated” school. I see this as one of the resounding reasons to not push for integration.

At the end of the day, choice (in this iteration) is an illusion and gentrification is a primary reason for why this is so. I find it highly believable that gentrification can improve the quality of neighborhood schools. But by the time it does, it will also have raised rent costs and brought along with it expensive grocery stores, restaurants, and coffee shops; these dynamics force families of lower socioeconomic status to move away, likely to a neighborhood with other poor people and inadequate schools. And so the cycle goes…

Badger asserts that communities have a, “Narrow window to figure out how to leverage the arrival of affluent families willing to bet on public schools before this newfound diversity in their classrooms disappears.” This window is—much like the concept of school choice—an illusion. Gentrification waits for no one and just when the hoped-for “meaningful social interaction” gains some momentum in schools and other points of contact, the socioeconomic dynamics are likely to change neighborhoods and school populations yet again. 

Whether or not the theory embedded in all of this plays out, the problem of gentrification in and of itself won’t be resolved without addressing the root cause by drastically changing policies and practices around community development and infuse them with concern for those who call a particular community home and do away with the singular focus on financial gain.

Prior to landing at Aspire, Dana worked in education in a number of different realms. She has worked in both public and private education, as well as with high school and middle school age students. She has been a tutor across all academic subjects, an English Language Arts teaching assistant, a modern dance teacher, and a dorm parent, and has been involved in efforts to increase educational access in all of her roles. Most recently, Dana worked at The Steppingstone Foundation, where her primary role was to provide assistance to Boston Public School families looking to enroll their children in Boston exam schools or independent schools. Dana’s primary concern is increasing access to quality education and services for under-resourced populations. Dana is also a dancer and choreographer and continues to choreograph and perform as her schedule allows. She received an A.B. from Vassar College in Urban Studies with concentrations in Sociology and Black Studies.

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