Investing in Public Schools: An Open Letter

Dear Progressive, Privileged Friends,

I went into teaching eighteen years ago because I believe deeply in the power of education to make a difference in our world.  It often seems to me that the only way to make a change is to truly understand–empathy and intelligence are the possibilities of a great education.

I think you agree with me, but we all too often disagree about what exactly this means.

As someone who has worked as a public school teacher now for nearly two decades, I have come to believe that we need to protect public schools, but all too often the conversations we are having are about how much the public schools disappoint–you would rather homeschool or send your kids to a private school.

And I am with you to a certain degree–plenty about how we do school in this country disappoints me too, but mostly I am sad: sad about the systemic failure that seems to be happening despite all the people who seem to care about powerful education.  I live in a city that offers our kids “schools of choice,” and the district I teach in, just across the Bay, also offers “schools of choice,” which means that one’s neighborhood is no longer the determining factor in where a kid goes to school as a way to account for the extent to which our cities are still segregated, to ensure an excellent education for all students regardless of neighborhood or family income.

But desegregation is not what is happening, which is obviously a systemic failure.  This failure has made it possible for, for instance, what is happening in my neighborhood: the Sequoia and Global Family dichotomy.  Here are two schools that are about two miles apart, potentially, in a more traditional model of schooling, a distance that would draw students from the same neighborhood, and yet the two schools are very different demographically.  Global Family is 92% Latino, 4% Black, and .4% White. It is 98% “socioeconomically disadvantaged.” Sequoia, on the other hand, is 29% White, 22% Black, 19% Latino, and 12% Asian. Forty percent of its students are “socioeconomically disadvantaged.”

The segregation is not stark, and, to be fair Global Family is a dual immersion English/Spanish school, so obviously it is going to appeal to Spanish-speaking families, which may account for its large Latino population.

But, still, this feels off to me–it doesn’t feel like what Schools of  Choice was designed to address, in that one school can be 98% poor and scoring very low on the standardized test scores (a dubious measure of success to be sure, but, of course, even us progressives who know the limitations of these test scores can’t help but notice them and, even unconsciously let them affect our perception of the school’s quality)  at 14% and 10% proficient in language arts and math respectively; whereas Sequoia’s proficiency rates are 49% in both subject areas. Sequoia is considered “highly desirable;” Global Family is not.

Districts such as this one where I live and the one where I teach–districts who espouse values of rigor and social justice, equity and diversity–shouldn’t have let this happen.  But it has happened–our schools reflect and reproduce social inequity.

So where do you come into this?

I’m writing to you, my progressive and privileged friends,  in the first place because, like I said, I know you care about social justice.  If you live in an urban area, you may likely recognize your district in the one I’m describing, even if the particulars aren’t exactly alike, and, especially given the ways that cities have been changing in the last couple decades, you are likely concerned with issues of gentrification; you, like me, may even feel some responsibility for the fact that, simply because of the color of your skin or relative economic privilege you yourself are contributing to gentrification and the fact that more and more low-income folks of color are being pushed out of their homes.  If you have school-aged children or ever plan to have children, you are inherently part of this conversation.

So as someone who is inherently part of this conversation, I hope you’re thinking about what we can do about this inequity.

My answer is that you need to invest in your public schools.

One of the things that makes Sequoia so sought after is that new families recognize the value of its very committed family base; for instance, despite the larger financial woes of the district, families joined together to help raise money for a music program.  While counting on funding from families cannot be an answer if we care about serving well even the poorest kids, the spirit behind that—invested families working to make the school better because they see a shared value, a shared purpose—is an important example of the kind of investment all schools need.  Sequoia is a perfect example of how, when community members feel invested in the school they make it better, and that, in turn, improves the community.

Sequoia is also recognized for its leadership and the spirit of the kids, which obviously comes from quality teachers.  Academic research shows that quality teachers are one of the key factors in student achievement. And, while districts need to think about their policies of hiring and placement, community investment goes a long way to addressing this particular issue as well.  For years I was part of a teacher-led think tank, Teacher Leadership Institute, and we looked at the question of teacher attrition, which has a pronounced negative effect on “low-performing” schools that mostly serve poor kids. Our research showed that only one in five teachers stays in teaching longer than five years, and when we studied why, the primary answer was the workload—specifically, teachers don’t mind working hard, but they want to feel like their hard work is getting them or their students somewhere.  If they feel like it’s not, they burn out. So then, at some point a certain kind of inertia takes over: a school may be “low-performing.” Teachers burn out quicker, but then it becomes harder for the school to attract highly-qualified veteran teachers, highly-qualified veteran leadership…and so then fewer families want that school, or the families that do attend that school are poor, lack resources to advocate, don’t feel empowered to organize for change the way, say, Sequoia families did to create that music program.

Meanwhile, the wealthier, more resourced families are looking elsewhere.  They pull out. They divest by sending their kids to private school. The vicious cycle continues.

I suppose it’s not any one family’s responsibility to step up and invest in the school, but if it’s no one family’s responsibility, then it becomes no one’s responsibility: the inertia is in place.  The school suffers, the district lacks equity.

Progressive, privileged friends, I understand your concerns.  I really do. I spend an enormous amount of time thinking about what good education looks like, and I know the power of an engaged, rigorous, relevant classroom.  When it comes time to send my kid to kindergarten and beyond, I worry about how I’ll be as a parent because I have such high expectations for teachers–I know what we’re capable of.  And, just like every parent, I want the best for my kid. The parents of children at Global Family want their kids to feel smart and capable, want their kids to be their best selves. They may not always have the resources to advocate for this; they often don’t have models from their own lives of what invigorating and rigorous education looks like, but regardless, their children deserve to be inspired by school in the same way that my kid deserves that and your kid deserves that.  Privilege does not make our kids more deserving.

All too often we are thinking only about our kid, not about all kids.  Investing and integrating benefit all children–test scores and graduation rates increase in integrated schools, and isn’t part of what we want for our children that they feel themselves as connected to a larger whole, not somehow separate from or above others because of their privilege?  Even small children can begin to understand the ideas of social justice inherent in this.

Given this, dear friends, I think it’s also useful to really actively work to redefine what we see as “quality education.”  Test scores aren’t the only factor. Is the school diverse? Will your kid get a number of different points of view from kids of varying backgrounds and life experiences?  How will they learn to be connected to and part of their community? Powerful learning is bigger than the individual lessons the teacher imparts. These are important qualities in our kids’ schooling in part because school is the primary way they will get these lessons.  As an individual parent, I can work to instill a love of reading in my kid. I can encourage their creativity and provide resources for these pursuits. I can work to teach them how to communicate well–all of which schools should strive for as well. It is however much harder as a family to provide my kid a number of diverse points of view or life experiences.  It is much harder to create the conditions through which my kid can learn to communicate and negotiate across differences, discovering all the things that make him like his peers and all the things that make him unique. All too often, families who divest from the local public schools and send their kids to private schools are choosing a more heterogeneous and privileged environment.  What does that teach children?

This isn’t just a local issue.  The national conversation about public schools has encouraged divestment.  Our current Secretary of Education made her mark being an advocate for private school vouchers and charter schools at a time when more and more public school teachers feel beleaguered by lack of resources, low pay, and general waning support for the work they do serving the vast majority of school-aged children.  In practice, in seems we can’t have both a strong, invested public school system and robust support for private school vouchers.

Of course, there are many ways to be engaged in your community and even ways to help support your local public schools even if you don’t send your kid there.  But schooling is so universal, and schools tend to be a place where many of our cultural values get debated and worked out. Talking about the politics of schooling is a conversation about race, class, justice, and all the things we want to pass on to our future generations.  My hope is you’ll be part of this conversation in ways that make our world better for everyone.


Letter to the Editor

Dear New York Times:

I’m dismayed by the Ethicist’s advice from January 10 regarding public schooling choices  in part because he accepts the assumptions that the letter writer makes in suggesting that something is “seriously wrong” with the neighborhood public school because of test scores. As a veteran public school teacher, I know that standardized test scores are only one measure of a school’s quality, and a questionable measure at that. Since the letter writer says the school seems “perfectly fine,” the Ethicist should at least be encouraging more questions: Are the teachers kind, caring, and empathetic? Is the student body diverse? Does the school serve a number of bilingual students? (We know, for instance, that bilingual children take much longer to achieve proficiency on standardized tests, yet bilingualism is an asset, not a deficit.) The ethics around school choice should be viewed with more complexity; to only look at standardized test scores as a measure of the quality of an education seems shortsighted.