Your editor originally planned to give his thoughts on Thomas B. Fordham Institute research czar Mike Petrilli’s latest book on diverse school, and his continued (and wrongheaded) move to join forces with ivory-tower civil rights activists such as Richard Kahlenberg for pushing socioeconomic integration as school reform. Sure, I have made the case ad nauseam that six decades of evidence has shown that socioeconomic integration doesn’t improve student achievement (and that the data used to show otherwise often fails to account for the effects of teaching, curricula, leadership, and school cultures). I’ve also pointed out, more-importantly, that black, Latino, Asian, and even Native families, have long-ago realized that integration is a false promise that weakens opportunities for their kids to both get high-quality education and build pride in themselves by learning alongside peers who share their racial and ethnic background. But, hey, so long as traditionalists and otherwise-thoughtful reformers keep insisting that somehow putting black kids in classrooms with white kids will substitute for overhauling teacher training and recruitment (along with other reforms), I’ll keep making the case that they need to think their views over.
But then, Petrilli wrote a piece in Bloomberg arguing in part that reformers should learn from this month’s election results — especially Indiana Supt. Tony Bennett’s re-election defeat — that they should stop pushing for systemic reform in the nation’s suburban districts. And, well, the argument Petrilli makes is both overly simplistic and terribly wrong.
Even before Bennett, the hard-charging reform-minded schools chief, lost his re-election bid at the hands of National Education Association-backed opponent Glenda Ritz, some reformers were arguing that the movement should focus less on overhauling the mediocre districts that serve our children in the nation’s suburbs. Arguing that suburban districts (and even the families they serve) would never embrace teacher quality reforms and school choice measures they don’t feel they need, these reformers (often Beltway types comfortably ensconced in suburbia themselves) insisted that reformers should just throw in the towel and focus more on transforming the big-city dropout factories that tend to get more attention (and whose communities are more-likely to embrace the expansion of charter schools and other initiatives). The Obama administration has even embraced this thoughtless view through its effort to eviscerate the No Child Left Behind Act and its Adequate Yearly Progress accountability provisions;. The administration has allowed 33 states and the District of Columbia to only focus on the worst-performing five percent of schools — which are often in the big cities — while allowing suburban districts to hide their soft bigotry of low expectations for kids, especially those from poor and minority backgrounds who were helped greatly by No Child’s accountability measures, in plain sight.
Now with data showing that Bennett’s voter tallies had declined in suburbs surrounding Indianapolis and Fort Wayne, Petrilli is also now arguing for the leave-the-suburbs-alone course. While rightfully arguing that reformers need to get better at working the grassroots and the political ground game in order to advance their efforts, Petrilli takes the wrong course (and reverses a more-thoughtful and correct stance he took seven years ago), by declaring that the movement needs to “angering suburban parents and teachers by subjecting their schools to changes they don’t want or need”. From where he sits, reformers will do poorly so long as they focus on pushing suburbs to embrace what he calls “formulaic teacher evaluations” that use objective student test score growth data, because testing supposedly “takes the joy out of learning”. As far as Petrilli is concerned, the only way reformers can put together winning coalitions is to make the suburban districts happy.
The fact that Petrilli fails to note that Bennett actually won the Indianapolis suburbs and most of the suburbs surrounding his home base of Allen County (albeit by smaller percentages) and actually did poorly (by wide margins) in the Democrat-dominated areas such as Indianapolis proper and Lake County, makes the suburban anger argument hard to sustain. [StateImpact Indiana’s own map detailing Bennett’s defeat displays this.] Petrilli also fails to mention the role of movement conservatives annoyed by Bennett’s push for Common Core reading and math standards, and philosophical conservatives that are as opposed to a stronger state role in education as they are to the idea of ending township governments in Indianapolis. While Bennett’s aggressive reform efforts certainly turned off plenty of traditionalists and philosophical conservative types in the Hoosier State, the reality is this was not some suburban problem. Spend enough time in Indiana and one will be amazed that systemic reforms pushed by Bennett and other reformers in the state have stuck at all.
Petrilli’s proclamation that standardized testing somehow makes learning less joyful is rather ridiculous on its face. This isn’t shocking though; Petrilli made the same unsophisticated argument last year when he complained that using test score data leads to narrowing of curricula. As Dropout Nation pointed out then, such arguments fail to consider the growing evidence that standardized testing, along with formative assessments, can help students learn, or that test prep, used judiciously as a small aspect of overall instruction, can be useful. More importantly, Petrilli fails to realize the fact that the real issue is that the fact that some teachers simply “teach to the test” and school leaders use testing to narrow learning, are signs of a deeper talent (and training) problem within American public education.
The biggest problem with Petrilli’s argument is that reformers can’t afford to ignore or placate suburbia. This is because suburban districts face many of the same challenges that bedevil big-city counterparts — and have been less-willing to embrace systemic change.
Suburban districts are increasingly more diverse, thanks to poor and first-generation middle class black, Latino, and Asian families who are seeking better educational opportunities for their kids (and often mistakenly think that suburban schools can provide them). As Petrilli himself noted recently, some of the nation’s schools with increasing levels of diversity are found in suburbs such Upper Darby outside of Philadelphia. With minorities making up the majority of students in districts throughout the American South and West Coast — and that shift coming to every other reason of the country — even more suburban districts will resemble Maryland’s Prince George’s County than the almost all-white Carmel-Clay district outside of Indianapolis (and even Carmel will eventually look like the districts within Indianapolis outside of the center city, which are now far more-urban than suburban in demographics). Thirty-three percent of suburban kids — and three out of every five black and Latino kids in suburbia — attend schools where more than half their peers are on free and reduced lunch (which essentially means that there is at least a one-in-two chance that they are poor themselves).
These demographic shifts are showing that suburban districts are often as terrible at providing high-quality education to poor and minority kids as their big-city counterparts. Just 66 percent of Latino ninth-graders who made up Fairfax County’s original Class of 2011 graduated four years later, five points lower than the state average, according to Virginia Department of Education data; given that just 10 percent of Latino students took at least one Advanced Placement course in the 2009-2010 school year, it is unlikely that those who did graduate got the college preparatory curricula needed to be successful in the traditional colleges, technical schools, and apprenticeship programs that are gateways to middle class incomes. The Hazel Park district outside of Detroit, is another example of a suburban district that is failing on the job in providing high-quality education to poor children (and middle-class students as well). Given that the rate of black fourth-grade suburban counterparts who are functionally illiterate is only four percentage points lower than that of big-city peers, it is clear that suburban districts are often doing as poor a job of improving student achievement as the mega-dropout factories harming kids in big cities.
Meanwhile poor and minority parents are ruefully learning that many of the teachers and school leaders working in suburbia can be just as condescending to them — and think as lowly of the potential of their kids — as the instructors and school leaders in the big-city districts these families left behind. As University of Michigan Associate Professor Karyn Lacey noted in Blue-Chip Black, her sociological study of middle-class black families in the suburbs surrounding the nation’s capital, black families living in Fairfax County found themselves battling teachers and guidance counselors who wanted to relegate children to academic tracks that keep them from getting high-paying white- and blue-collar jobs. This is not unusual. When one looks at the low level this country, these families are often not informed about their options for preparing their kids for success in school and in life, including opportunities to take Advanced Placement courses or participate in the growing number of dual-credit programs that allow them to take community college courses that they can use for getting ready for the rigors of higher education.
But the consequences of suburban district mediocrity aren’t just visited on the brown and the penniless. Twenty-eight percent of suburban fourth-graders were functionally illiterate in 2011, no better than the levels four years ago; this compares poorly to the one- and two-point declines, respectively, among big-city and rural districts. One out of every eight white suburban fourth-graders not on free-or-reduced lunch are struggling with reading equal to the levels of illiteracy in big-city districts. A mere 32 percent of white students in Fairfax County, for example, took at least one A.P. course, a level similar to that for white students in big-city locales such as Philadelphia. And when one looks at how poorly suburban districts fare against peers in the rest of the world — a matter about which education thinkers such as former Teachers College president Arthur Levine, Jay P. Greene of the University of Arkansas, and Josh McGee have illustrated in the past two years — it is clear that the nation’s education crisis can’t be solved without overhauling how teaching, curricula, and school cultures are provided by suburban districts.
Then there is the lack of school choice in the suburbs. As anyone who lives just outside of major epicenters of school choice expansion knows by now, a resident in D.C. or Chicago is more-likely to have a wide array of school options than their counterparts in Montgomery County or Des Plaines. Some suburban districts offer a limited form of intra-district choice in the form of magnet schools. But those options are often limited, with quotas on the number of students from each race who can attend, because they are often geared toward meeting federal desegregation orders, and toward fulfilling the belief of ivory-tower civil rights traditionalists that socioeconomic integration is some elixir for what ails American public education. Given that in many districts, teachers and other school personnel get first dibs on those prime spots as part of collective bargaining agreements, there are even fewer choices for the families who pay the school tab. Given that zoned schooling remains the norm, and that districts often arbitrarily change zoning policies — especially based on the clout of the families who live in a particular area — families (especially poor households of all backgrounds) can’t simply move residences and get their kids into the few high-quality traditional schools they seek.
In short, reformers such as Petrilli who argue that the movement shouldn’t push for suburban districts to shape up or ship out are thinking irresponsibly. They have forgotten that the mission of the movement is to help all kids get a high-quality education no matter who they are or where they live — and that includes the children, black and white, poor and middle-class, who live in the cul-de-sacs of our suburban communities. Leaving those kids behind is simply politically, intellectually, and morally unacceptable. Ignoring the suburbs also gives traditionalists the chance to accuse reformers of being hypocrites, unwilling to accept reforms for the suburbs (in which a good number of them live) that the push hard for big cities in which they don’t reside.
This isn’t to say that the tactics used by reformers to great success in big cities will work well in suburbia. Certainly reformers must embrace strong grassroots advocacy, especially with poor and minority families and the churches that are the hubs of their social and political lives. This includes actually walking into a black church and meeting with pastors (who are often the key political forces within those communities) and teaming up with those churches on addressing the other social concerns — from food pantry efforts to voter registration drives. But simply focusing on the academic failures of suburban districts isn’t enough. Reformers would also do well to learn from the NEA and AFT, and provide financial support to new and emerging organizations — as well as old-school groups — to which a younger generation of black professionals now raising families belong. Certainly the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation haven’t done well in handing out cash to the NAACP (which continues to do the bidding of its traditionalist allies). But backing black and Latino fraternities and sororities, many of which are heavily-engaged in community efforts, as well as working with outfits such as Black Alliance for Educational Options, would lead to better results.
Arguing for school choice and Parent Power as ways for suburban families to meet the particular needs of their children, for example, is more-likely to win over white families who realize that how they are hurt by school zones and other Zip Code Education policies (and are also condescended by teachers and school leaders when they want more for their kids), but don’t see any other way to avoid those problems beyond paying for private schools out their own pockets. Explaining the impact of teacher quality. Another idea starts with recruiting newly-graduated teens to run for state school board races, which will lead parents to think about how schools affect their kids. One model can be found in Dropout Nation‘s home base of Prince George’s County, where two young collegians ran near-successful races for the district’s school board (and put more focus on how that district has been poorly-serving kids for far too long).
Reformers can’t afford to not focus on suburban districts. The education crisis hits the students in those districts as harshly (if not as visibly) as kids in big cities. Certainly tactics may have to better-tailored to win greater support for systemic reform. But our children and this nation can’t afford to leave the suburbs alone.