The Wisdom Of The New York Times Magazine’s Special Issue On Race And Education

By: John Thompson

All sides of our education civil war need to see our internal battles within the context of the travesties recounted in this amazing special magazine issue.

Which was the more tragic fact reported in the New York Times Magazine’s special issue on “the persistent legacy of racism in American education”? Is it worse, as Alice Yin reports, that “81.7 percent of black students in New York City attend segregated schools (less than 10 percent white),” or should we be more appalled by the increase in segregated Southern schools?

Largely because of geography, by 1972, Southern schools were the most integrated in the nation. In 1988, 43.5 percent of black students enrolled in majority-white Southern schools. By 2011, “enrollment of black students in majority-white Southern schools declined to 23.2 percent.”

What are the reasons for the rise of resegregation?

Nikole Hannah-Jones’ “The Resegregation of Jefferson County” makes the case that the “fight for civil rights over so many decades” reveals “the way that racism does not so much go away but adapts to the times.” The decades of Southern resistance to Brown v. Topeka was obscene. But now, why would the 88 percent white town of Gardendale, Alabama fight so hard to reject its black students, which are 25 percent of the school population?

Hannah-Jones, as well as Mosi Secret’s report on segregation, can only be explained in terms of racism. However, the Times Magazine’s Mark Binelli makes us ask whether today’s resegregation is also driven by the unrestrained efforts to maximize profits on the backs of children, or whether it’s also due to the ideology of school choice.

Binelli “writes about Michigan’s gamble on charter schools — and how its children lost.” Many true believers in charters blame that state’s failure on the deregulated nature of for-profit choice schools pushed by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. And Binelli gives evidence that the profit motive increased inequality and damaged the entire state’s education system. He also provides evidence that the competition-driven culture, that isn’t limited to for-profit schools, undermined public education. Binelli writes:

In little more than a decade, Michigan has gone from being a fairly average state in elementary reading and math achievement to the bottom 10 states. It’s a devastating fall. Indeed, new national assessment data suggest Michigan is witnessing systemic decline across the K-12 spectrum. White, black, brown, higher-income, low-income — it doesn’t matter who they are or where they live.

And that brings us to more subtle questions about why segregation persists. As Binelli reports, “Charters continue to be sold in Michigan as a means of unwinding the inequality of a public-school system.” The same continues to apply to charters across the nation. Some argue that most charters are not-for-profit, even claiming that their draining off of money and the easier-to-educate students hasn’t damaged neighborhood schools. They tend to remain silent about an even more worrisome issue ― the resulting test-driven, competitive school cultures that are imposed disproportionately on poor children of color.

The dubious education values articulated by Kathy Tassier, a charter’s curriculum specialist, has spread to other high-poverty schools. The Tassier acknowledged disappointing outcomes but “pointed to selective testing gains.” Binelli explains how she suggested that:

The students had been motivated to “really take ownership for that growth” after learning of another local charter’s slated closure. Tassier meant the remark as a compliment. But inadvertently or not, she’d applied the language of market capitalism, of increasing productivity via brutal Darwinist competition, to a group of K-7 students. They could have been assembly-line workers being warned that the factory would close if the Chinese kept eating their lunch.

If the special issue on racism and it’s legacies’ continued role in undermining public education isn’t depressing enough, it also reports on the Trump administration’s cruel attack on “Dreamers.” Even so, some corporate school reformers hope to stay their course, even though it means cooperating with DeVos and Trump.

Most reformers who I know despise Trumpism and face a conundrum similar to the one that has worried me since the election. I had underestimated the persistence of racism, and now I must admit my mistake and ask whether I should view education policy differently. I wonder how many reformers are willing to face the facts about test-driven, competition-driven reform, and rethink their ideology.

When reading Hannah-Jones’ previous work on school segregation, I painlessly adjusted my policy priorities, incorporating her lessons about integration and accepting the need to invest political capital in that controversial approach. I was much, much slower in altering my wider worldview, and acknowledging how pervasive racism remains.

Some reformers have explicitly repudiated alliances with Trump and DeVos, but I fear that few of them will look into a deeper, darker issue. When the profit motive and extreme competitive values are unleashed on children, the resulting damage could be as persistent as other legacies.

Regardless, all sides of our education civil war need to see our internal battles within the context of the travesties recounted in this amazing special magazine issue.


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John Thompson

Award-winning historian who became an award-winning teacher after his neighborhood became overwhelmed by crack and gangs and he became attached to the kids in the drug houses. Author of A Teacher's Tale: Learning, Loving, and Listening to Our Kids.

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