Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Herbert: For school success, bring children out of poverty

Bob Herbert of the New York Times published a column today (another one that I didn't see reprinted in today's Spartanburg Herald-Journal) titled "Separate and Unequal." With a title like that, I instantly assumed that he was talking about South Carolina, and I wasn't much disappointed.

"Educators know that it is very difficult to get consistently good results in schools characterized by high concentrations of poverty," Herbert writes. "The best teachers tend to avoid such schools. Expectations regarding student achievement are frequently much lower, and there are lower levels of parental involvement. These, of course, are the very schools in which so many black and Hispanic children are enrolled."

If you live in South Carolina and still haven't seen "Corridor of Shame," Bud Ferillo's award-winning documentary film about the "corridor of shame" along our state's section of Interstate 95, I'm sure you can still buy a copy. I fully expected Herbert's column to refer abundantly to the film, but maybe he hasn't seen it yet.

Still, he rang many of the film's themes in his text:

Breaking up these toxic concentrations of poverty would seem to be a logical and worthy goal. Long 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.

More than a half-century after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation ruling, we are still trying as a country to validate and justify the discredited concept of separate but equal schools -- the very idea supposedly overturned by Brown v. Board when it declared, "Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."

Schools are no longer legally segregated, but because of residential patterns, housing discrimination, economic disparities and long-held custom, they most emphatically are in reality.

"Ninety-five percent of education reform is about trying to make separate schools for rich and poor work, but there is very little evidence that you can have success when you pack all the low-income students into one particular school," said Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation who specializes in education issues.

Read that again: Kahlenburg says, "Ninety-five percent of education reform is about trying to make separate schools for rich and poor work, but there is very little evidence that you can have success when you pack all the low-income students into one particular school." What part of that sentence doesn't make perfect sense? It's all common sense. But it's part and parcel of our culture here.

Herbert then declares, "If you really want to improve the education of poor children, you have to get them away from learning environments that are smothered by poverty."

I've been re-reading some South Carolina history recently -- I highly recommend it to our elected leaders and, more importantly, their qualified electors. The major themes of our entire past -- from the settlement of Barbadian English at Charles Towne in 1670 to the present day -- have included maintaining separateness among our peoples: Charlestonians withholding power from Upstaters for generations, one race holding another bound and gagged, and "economic royalists" keeping the mass of our families in economic bondage from sharecropping through mill villages to the present-day "right-to-work-for-less." The notion of keeping ourselves stratified and separate is so ingrained in our culture that our leaders convulse at the thought of taking children out of poverty and guaranteeing them opportunities to thrive. One such convulsion taught us the phrase "minimally-adequate education." Is there anywhere else in America that "minimally-adequate education" is used to describe a state's goal?

Studies have shown that it is not the race of the students that is significant, but rather the improved all-around environment of schools with better teachers, fewer classroom disruptions, pupils who are more engaged academically, parents who are more involved, and so on. The poorer students benefit from the more affluent environment. "It's a much more effective way of closing the achievement gap," said Mr. Kahlenberg.

About 80 school districts across the country are taking steps to reduce the concentrations of poverty in their schools. But there is no getting away from the fact that if you try to bring about economic integration, you're also talking about racial and ethnic integration, and that provokes bitter resistance. The election of Barack Obama has not made true integration any more palatable to millions of Americans.

It's difficult, but there are ways to sidestep the politics. What I think is a shame is that we have to do all of this humiliating dancing around the perennially uncomfortable issue of race. We pretend that no one's a racist anymore, but it's easier to talk about pornography in polite company than racial integration. Everybody's in favor of helping poor black kids do better in school, but the consensus is that those efforts are best confined to the kids' own poor black neighborhoods.

Separate but equal. The Supreme Court understood in 1954 that it would never work. But our perpetual bad faith on matters of race keeps us trying.

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