For all the things that we try to improve in our schools, some deeper realities have not changed in many classrooms around the country. Sure, the laptops are there, along with smaller class sizes, bilingual teachers, learning specialists, and many other tweaks to education policy have been implemented. However, despite all these improvements, the achievement gap between affluent White students and others has persisted. In New York City, the nation’s largest school district, the Department of Education, headed by Chancellor Joel Klein and closely monitored by Mayor Bloomberg, has worked on changing everything but what matters might end up mattering the most.
The changes proposed by New York City Department of Education all follow sound education policy in theory. For example, the City review process of schools represents strong accountability within the school district by closing big comprehensive high schools and replacing them with smaller schools. However, despite this improvement in accountability, the community’s support for the students that use the public school system has shown little to no change. Where one would expect outrage and a state of emergency, one finds apathy and complicity that speak volumes of where we find ourselves in the process of closing the achievement gap.
On February 4 of this year, Javier Hernandez of The New York Times wrote an article about the closing of “an Upper West Side behemoth” – Louis D. Brandeis High School. (Never mind that the article was written by another Manhattan behemoth that may also become outdated and “anachronistic”–luckily for the Times that stones from failing Upper West Side high schools don’t reach their glass offices 40 streets downtown.) That February 4 morning, Brandeis students awoke to the news that their school was in the Times for the first time since 1993 when the paper reported on an 8-student arrest that followed a disturbance at the school. The article describes the students as the city’s “most disadvantaged,” from “the poorest regions of the Bronx, Manhattan and Brooklyn,” and having landed at the school “after failing to list any preference on their school choice forms.” Their own teacher, Mr. Bhattacharjya, argued that the school failed “because the students we have come from socioeconomically disadvantaged families, making it impossible for them to get any homework help.” Almost 2,300 City kids, some as young as 13, woke up to read that they and their families were being described as the City’s unfortunate and directionless poor. The story was reread to them throughout the school day as teachers at Brandeis sought comfort and shared outrage from their students.
The situation at Brandeis certainly has been alarming and newsworthy for the last two decades during which the newspaper chose not to report on the school. The state of urban education has been alarming and newsworthy throughout the whole country, as we have allowed the systemic failure of our schools and students to determine the impossible access to opportunity, higher education, and profitable jobs for much of the population. While I support some of the new policy changes being explored in schools and districts across the country, I also know that if we do not pair those changes with outrage toward the current conditions and the achievement gap between rich and poor students in this country, nothing will end up changing. Real change can only happen when newspapers like The New York Times stop publishing articles that treat these students as part of another community, not the one that The New York Times represents. We must be advocates and champions for these students and refuse to allow excuses like socioeconomic difference to determine access to equal opportunity.
The New York Times and many others that fail to understand the commitment we need to make to our kids often propose in-vogue new “can’t miss” solutions to our old problems. It is important to look more at ideas that we can possible stick with over time. One such idea for making a really lasting improvement has been put forth by education policy scholars David Tyack and Larry Cuban in their book Tinkering Toward Utopia. Tinkering argues that although some researched solutions fall short of more revolutionary aspirations, they are still incredibly important as they allow more and more students increased access to opportunity. Far from ignoring important research in the sociology of education and education policy, it must be understood that change needs to be paired with long-term commitment, and there is a need for engagement at multiple levels. Education policy cannot just be about the latest fad.
Real improvements in educational outcomes will entail a long term commitment to closing the achievement gap from many different actors. It is not only the system of education, but also the attitude and apathy of the community that create and tolerate that system that we must work to change. While perfecting outdated systems is helpful and necessary, the most meaningful and transformative change of all may need to happen outside the school. This is something to which The New York Times and others should be more attuned.