In light of yesterday’s post about teachers and education, I think this column by The Washington Post’s Courtland Milloy comes very close to identifying the a key problem facing urban education. Milloy:
From a commentary by D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee that appeared in the Feb. 8 issue of Spotlight on Poverty and Education:
“I believe we can solve the problems of urban education in our lifetimes and actualize education’s power to reverse generational poverty,” Rhee wrote. “But I am learning that it is a radical concept to even suggest this. Warren Buffett [the billionaire investor] framed the problem for me once in a way that clarified how basic our most stubborn obstacles are. He said it would be easy to solve today’s problems in urban education. ‘Make private schools illegal,’ he said, ‘and assign every child to a public school by random lottery.’ “
How about that? Elitism as the most stubborn obstacle to school reform. Not teachers’ unions, dysfunctional families, lazy students or black prejudice against a Korean American schools chancellor, but reluctance by the city’s haves to share classrooms with the have-nots. You most likely didn’t hear that debated at any candidates’ forum.
While I think Milloy is right that elitism–real elitism, as in the wealthy and powerful refuse to mingle with the rest of us hoi polloi–is a significant problem. But to focus on this as an urban problem misses the larger picture: urban areas serve as warehouses for the poor. As I’ve discussed before, when there are massive differences in the proportion of low-income students between schools, it is virtually impossible for the poorer school to do as well as the wealthier school. While I’ve argued repeatedly that we need to invest, not in ‘teacher evaluation’, but in poverty amelioration (e.g., summer learning programs, better nutrition, etc.), given our unwillingness to do so, the demography-as-destiny (mostly, anyhow) argument isn’t ‘the soft bigotry of low expectations’ (to use a phrase), but the unwillingness of the haves (and the ‘have-mores’) to live with the have-nots.
In the D.C. area, it is virtually impossible for low-income families to find housing in the inner suburbs (the wealthy suburbs of Arlington, Fairfax, and Montgomery counties). The housing that is available is concentrated in small areas, and those schools that cater to those communities do poorly (who coulda thunk it?). This exists largely due to zoning regulations: to build small-lot houses or apartment buildings is often illegal. In essence, low-income students are ‘zoned out’ (erm, that didn’t come out right…). Until we make our communities more integrated economically–and that means having low-income people nearby–it will be very difficult for urban schools to have the same results suburban ones do.