Mike the Mad Biologist

Education, Elitism, and Zoning

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.

Comments

  1. #1 hibob
    September 14, 2010

    Back in the mid ’90s Chicago was looking at dismantling much of its highly concentrated public housing projects in favor of small footprint developments scattered throughout the city. Chicago’s city council eventually killed that project. But it wasn’t the aldermen who didn’t want public housing added to their wards who put up the biggest fight, it was the ones who were starkly honest and said that getting rid of the slums in their wards would rob them of their power base who really killed it.

  2. #2 BaldApe
    September 14, 2010

    Another consequence of grouping poor people together is that they don’t get to see what their more successful neighbors do to get that way. Same thing in the schools. They are surrounded by bad examples.

  3. #3 joemac53
    September 14, 2010

    As a Massachusetts guy, Mike the Mad Biologist knows that along with a plethora of private school options, Mass students have access to “charter schools”, several of which set themselves up to be elitist. Private school experience on the public dime. You won’t have to go to school with the great unwashed!
    No one wants to talk about the real problem: poverty of means, parenting and opportunity is a tough hill to climb.

  4. #4 Burberry handbags
    September 14, 2010

    Eh, I see his point. I do drop comments, then essentially leave. I’ll check back on a thread for a few hours to see if there are any interesting responses to a thread I’m interested in, maybe check back after a day if I were really invested – but after that, I’m not likely to see anything.

    There is community here in that there are a given set of people who read and respond, and eventually one gets to know the most vocal. There is not community in that this model is top-down instead of networked; it’s difficult to discuss amongst ourselves in the comments instead of just responding to an upper level post.

    I’m not sure I’m stating this well, but again I’m also not sure I would see a response to this because there is no notification to me if anyone picks up on my theme, even to tell me I’m silly! So you have fewer options to interact with me, other than starting a new post that I’ll see at the top level. If you’re Isis, or someone else’s blog that I read, rather than one of the other commenters, that is. Otherwise you’re out of luck.

    I like having the top-down model of certain people who put a lot of time and effort into collating interesting topics to discuss. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have your sites bookmarked to visit every other day. That is a value this new place (that I won’t sign up for because it’s too much of a time sink) apparently wouldn’t have. I just wish there were better comment/discussion options here.

  5. #5 Paul Murray
    September 15, 2010

    It continues to amaze non-USAians that your schools are funded by local property taxes and the curriculum controlled by local school boards.

  6. #6 Vicki
    September 15, 2010

    One thing that would help is much larger school districts: rather than funding being different in rich and poor areas because the rich parents can afford to pay for better schools, a single pot for the entire state. Rich Suburb doesn’t get to buy a new tennis court until every school has a roof that doesn’t leak.

    That also removes some arbitrary boundaries. If I had children, they could in theory go to a school an hour and a half away by subway, because the whole city is one school district. But if we lived fifty feet from the city line, I couldn’t send my kids to a school in the suburb across that line. (“Some” boundaries because someone living near the Massachusetts-New York border might want to send their kids to school in the next state.)

    But everyone whose reasons for living in the suburbs include “better schools” would be up in arms against this.

  7. #7 harold
    September 15, 2010

    not in ‘teacher evaluation’

    The whole ‘teacher evaluation’ meme is one of the stupidest and most obvious scams anyway. You don’t attract better, more skilled people into a profession by making conditions worse. The idea that threatening to play teachers against one another based on the poorly controllable variable of student test scores, and (implicitly) firing teachers based on that type of data, will improve teaching, is so fake that it’s mind-boggling. What it would do is to drive anyone who has any choice away from a thankless, insecure job. It would actually de-professionalize teaching, taking away any collegiality. (If the meme were associated with a plan to markedly increase teacher compensation, it would be internally coherent, although not necessarily a great idea.) Note – I am not and have never been a teacher. And I realize that both major parties tend to parrot this meme.

    it was the ones who were starkly honest and said that getting rid of the slums in their wards would rob them of their power base who really killed it.

    Still, of course, it makes more sense for poor people in an urban area to vote for those who at least partly represent their interests. It’s not as if the Republicans are offering anything better. People actively apply for public housing because it’s the best housing they can afford. Simply eliminating it and providing no alternative cannot honestly be claimed to be an idea which would be beneficial to public housing residents. If they’re stuck between those who merely won’t support improvements, versus those who actively support policies that will make their lives worse, the former are the logical alternative.

The site is currently under maintenance and will be back shortly. New comments have been disabled during this time, please check back soon.