Getting?and giving?a good education: diversity is overrated; the code, underrated

I have been stewing for more than a week about diversity and excellence?ever since Mike issued his Hubris alert!, warning those who claim they've ?cracked the code? that they probably haven't, and then publishing a post, a few days later,?to raise the difficult question of whether to send his children to an inferior school in order to do his civic (ed reform) duty to help improve that school.

Petrilli has a knack for getting to the heart of difficult things.

I shouldn't take on both in one post, but the two?issues?are related, so I will try. First, the easy question: cracking the code.?My friends at Brighter Choice Charter Schools did it ?by studying ?what works? all over the country and then replicating it in Albany (NY). They have also scaled it up, now serving nearly 25 percent of the public school population in Albany, and closed the achievement gap?essentially meeting Mike's three standards for cracking the code. ?But I wanted to suggest that the ?scaling up? standard is a false one; at least, an increasingly irrelevant one. ?Brighter Choice is successfully educating hard-to-educate kids. KIPP is doing it all over the country. Eva Moskowitz and Geoffrey Canada are doing it in Harlem. Even traditional public schools are doing it?see Checker's ?Bravo Brockton!?:

Dynamic, focused, sustained leadership. Clear educational goals. A unified team effort. Lots of hard work, including nights and weekends. High aspirations for kids succeeding. ?Best practices? curriculum and instruction, including serious academic content for students who once would have been tracked into ?job skills.? Uniform standards for everybody, even the athletes.

With so many dozens of success stories, all of them following similar prescriptions, is it any wonder that Davis Guggenheim, after making his movie, would suggest that ?we've cracked the code??

Of course, as Checker points out, the ?policy environment? is important. ?But it is a different question.?And I would suggest that we need to de-link the educational challenges from the policy ones.?It is not hubris for professional educators?or even smart, entrepreneurial noneducators?to claim to know how to educate poor, inner city children. And it is no secret that ?political will? and policy smarts is an important ingredient in turning schools and school systems around?but they are different animals.

Which leads me to Mike's second recent post:? ?Done `Waiting for ?Superman?'? Send your kid to a Diverse public school.?? This too was prompted by a Davis Guggenheim comment, as Mike explained it, that:

[H]e would drive by inner-city public schools to which he couldn't imagine sending his offspring. But if he and his friends all made a collective decision to send their kids to such schools, they would improve overnight. This isn't just wishful thinking; all around the country, affluent families are choosing to send their children to racially and socio-economically integrated schools, in places like Cambridge and Berkeley, but also in less likely spots such as Alexandria, Virginia; Stapleton, Colorado; and Miraloma Park, California.

The question then posed by Mike is this:

[W]hat if you really want to make a direct impact on the?system, and especially on the education of low-income kids? There's one obvious step you can take: choose a diverse public school for your own children.

Stafford weighed in, pointing out that UVA professor Jim Ryan had already written a book on the subject and had concluded that (Stafford's words) ??without sparking vested middle class (suburban) parental interest in poor (urban) schools, we will never close the achievement gap.?? It is, as Stafford says, ?a whopper of a thesis.? ?(Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children's Defense Fund and?once reining queen of Capitol Hill lobbyists,?once told me that her strategy for fighting teenage pregnancy, then a plague on the inner city African American population, was to?advertise on billboards along interstate highways leading to the suburbs because, she explained, ?you can't get anything done, politically, unless the white middle class is with you.)

The question for Mike is whether he should risk his children's educational future on the altar of engagement. Checker brings what seems to be some adult common sense to the question: ??For once, Davis Guggenheim is right. For once, Mike is wrong?.? You send your child to a school that will improve him (or her). You should drive past bad schools in search of a better one for your kids??

Barack Obama, all of 49 years old, said the same thing just the other day.

Mike says that the research in support of diversity ?is much more compelling than for charter schools??? which, I would again argue, unnecessarily conflates policy and pedagogy.? Both diversity and choice are ends, not means to ends. Neither is, nor should be, an educational strategy.? (The hubris problem, as Rick Hess suggests in his National Affairs essay, is believing that choice is a pedagogy instead of a market strategy.)

Here, I will offer my own personal experience on the question of choosing diversity over excellence, since my wife and I, after much soul-searching, decided to send our son to a local public school that was both racially diverse and academically troubled.? And on hindsight?the kid is now attending a top-ten (per U.S. News) college and I'm still on the Board of Ed?I would not recommend it unless you have a firm grasp on the difference between educating kids and fixing a system of education (not to mention have some thick skin and political skills?or, as in my case, if you don't have political skills, a hard head helps.)? There are ?some enormous challenges.? ?Pete, why do you say those things?? said one of my board of ed colleagues after I had complained about some medieval school practice. ?Don't you know they have your kid??? I told part of this story in Ed Next in 2004, and am pleased that it seems to have worked out well?for my son, if not the schools!?I know this:?the education of my son part of the equation?would not have been possible without E.D. Hirsch, whose body of work has taught me one thing: knowledge is color- and class-blind.

In fact, early on in his classic, Cultural Literacy (1987), Hirsch addresses the issue of diversity and education head on, by pointing that the newspaper of the 60s Black Panthers, educated, most probably, in segregated schools, was extremely literate.? ?I have not found a single misspelled word,?? wrote?Hirsch, pointing out that as radical as they were in their politics, they had a ?rigorous traditional education in American history, in the Declaration of Independence, the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag, the Gettysburg Address, and the Bible, to mention only some of the direct quotations and allusions in these [newspaper] passages.?

And listen to this, from Charles Payne, the black sociologist, from the Epilogue?to?his brilliant work, So Much Reform, So Little Change: The Persistence of Failure in Urban Schools:

When I was a boy, I thought all Black men recited poetry and prose. When my father got together with his boyhood friends, it was not at all unusual for someone to start reciting Shakespeare and for someone else to follow that with some quatrains from the Rbuaiyat, which might be followed by bits of Paul Laurence Dunbar or James Weldon Johnson.

So, it is not color and it is not even class; nor is it that we don't know what works. Payne then recounts the story of William Moore, the black man who started the school that educated his father and his friends. Moore, it seems,?had cracked the code. Here is how Payne describes his pedagogy:

Give them teaching that is determined, energetic, and engaging. Hold them to high standards. Expose them to as much as you can, most especially the arts. Root the school in the community and take advantage of the culture the children bring with them. Pay attention to their social and ethical development. Recognize the reality of race, poverty, and other social barrieriers, but make children understand that barriers don't have to limit their lives; helmp them see themselves as contributing citizens of both a racial community and a larger one. Above all, no matter where in the social structure children are coming from, act as their possibilities are boundless.

My son understood the challenge of getting a good education in a relatively dysfunctional school?something I didn't know he appreciated until graduation day, when, in his salutatorian address he told his classmates and their parents that his parents had wanted to move him to a private school for high school.? (I had not seen the speech and wondered where this would go.)? But he had said ?No??I certainly remembered that traumatic time?and then explained the difference between the two schools.? At the private school, he said, he would have had to make just one decision?to go there?to get a good education. Sticking it out in his public school, he said, he had to make that decision every day.

I wonder if he would have gotten such insight in a ?good? school?

Good luck, Mike.

?Peter Meyer, Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow

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