Separate and Unequal Still: The Plight of American Schools
This American Life released the fantastic first part of a two-part series on desegregation this week. Slate released a much less dramatic article on how American K-12 private schools are getting very luxurious, very expensive, and this is leaving the upper-middle class feeling left behind and squeezed.
I highly recommend listening to the This American Life episode. Desegregation is one of the best tactics we have for reducing the achievement gap between African-American and White Students but largely has not been tried since the 1970s. When most people think of desegregation, they think of white flight and the very ugly and shameful Boston busing riots. Recently, Missouri had an inadvertent experience with desegregation. An almost exclusively African-American school district called Normandy lost its accreditation. Missouri required the Normandy school district to pick a nearby school district and pay for students to attend schools in that location. Normandy officials picked a largely white school district with middle and upper-middle class residents. The residents of the white school district were not that happy about this. A large part of the This American Life podcast is dedicated to a very angry town hall meeting. The town hall meeting is filled with all sorts of dog whistles that basically boil down to the effect and intent of “We don’t want our children to attend school with black kids.” One father wanted the white school district to do things that would make their location more undesirable like making school start very early or very late.
Normandy schools are beyond bad and seemingly nothing can improve them. The articles are covered by TAL but the basic issues are that Normandy schools can largely not attract or get teachers who are certified to teach their subjects or very interested in teaching at all. The AP English teacher is not certified and just gives out handouts.
There seems to be a death spiral here. Normandy schools were failing and this caused the state transfer law to kick in. A thousands students fled the district. Those that stayed are suffering from more underfunding and a lack of good teachers. I don’t know why the students stayed behind because it is a very personal decision for each family and a fight for their community. One of the things that makes me personally apprehensive about busing is that it often requires students to spend 4-5 hours traveling each day and I find this cruel.
The Slate story is a much more minor key variant, the story of the .1 percent vs. the 1-10 percent. K-12 private schools are going through massive spending sprees to get more state of the art facilities and extra perks. This is causing tuition to skyrocket at rates that make college tuition seem modest in comparison. You have a lot of parents who discover that they can afford to live in cities or private school tuition but not both. Public schools in these cities are also suffering from underfunding so even upper-middle class school districts in big cities have seen class size sky-rocket and cafeteria’s double as gyms.
It is very hard to feel sympathy for the upper-middle class who feel that they can afford to live Manhattan or Brooklyn but not afford private school tuition because these families can easily afford to move to a well-to-do suburb with great public schools. My generation is allegedly foresaking the suburbs for city life. Anecdotally I know plenty of people who are making good-faith attempts to do this but I wonder if they are going to change tunes when their children reach middle and high school. My take on large urban school districts is that they often have too many disparate parts and needs to create a coherent vision.
As someone who attended public school like 90 percent of Americans, I think I turned out okay. Yet some how through a variety of life experience and selection biases, I ended up knowing a lot of people who attended the top day and boarding schools in the country. Putting on my pop-anthropologist hat, I would say that these people are largely not different from people who attended upper-middle class suburban public school districts. The real difference is that many private schools operate like mini-colleges and universities in ways that even the best public schools cannot. Classes seem to be more like discussion seminars and there are more papers and projects instead of tests. Students also seem to come out of private schools with an ungodly amount of social confidence and an assured nature that they are equal or superior to many of their elders and supervisors. I don’t know if these students are taught and told that they will be future leaders or it is something that they do pick up on their own. There also seems to be a way that private schools make their students be too precocious by half in ways that would somehow get slammed down in public schools by either a lack of attention or student enforced conformity. I imagine this leadership attitude is really what parents want their kids to get more than anything else.
So it seems that American schooling operates like a ladder with the worst of our worse schools existing in absolutely appalling conditions and at the top you have maybe a few thousand or so students who receive every benefit in the world from the first day of Kindergarten. Maybe we are at the Apex of inequality in this regard but I wonder how bad things can get before they get better. The current solutions don’t seem to help the poorest school districts get the resources they need and make things worse for them. There is also something very odd when people who are considered wealthy by any definition of the word end up needing to send their kids to schools with resource issues as well. Even states that try to equalize funding end up with discrepancies as wealthier areas end up just asking parents to chip in.