Third Of Four Parts
BY JOHN THOMPSON
This is the third in the series about alternatives to the risky school choice experiment known as SB 68. This “under the radar” bill is the latest education gamble based on the idea that the stress of high stakes testing and extreme competition can overcome the educational legacies of the stress of poverty.
With spring comes familiar smells, sights, and emotions. Daffodils bloom, children ride bikes, play basketball, and explore. Many front and back yards in my neighborhood are now filled with neighbors conversing, relaxing and working on projects with each other. The once-beleaguered Central Park neighborhood currently feels like the Oklahoma City of my youth. But today there are two huge differences – both to the better.
Nowadays, Millennials walk, push their children’s strollers, and ride bikes and skateboards, and they don’t just drive everywhere. The new urbanism is based on the principle of “Placemaking,” and young citizens seek a sense of place within their community.
Vastly more important, all of this socializing is multi-cultural. We now have the ability to extend the opportunities that accompany great neighborhoods and schools to Oklahoma City residents of all races and nationalities.
It won’t be easy to create educational equality, but the United States of America has conquered far tougher challenges.
As the New York Times Magazine’s Paul Tough explains, school “reform” came from “liberal PTSD” from losing the War on Poverty. Even though we didn’t actually lose the war against inequity, a generation of reformers decided that fighting the legacies of poverty and Jim Crow was too difficult, so they adopted a supposedly cheap and easy shortcut.
To borrow from the great education historian, Larry Cuban, they “deputized” teachers as the agents for reversing the damage done by poverty. The result was scapegoating schools and educators who weren’t able to create a quick fix for intense concentrations of generational poverty and trauma from within the four walls of the classroom.
The defeatism known as school “reform” has been brazen in playing the “race card” but it has been shockingly oblivious to the conditions faced by our poorest children of color.
Moreover, it has been irresponsibly cavalier about the damage done by segregation. Since the U.S. Supreme Court has killed efforts to integrate schools based on race, reformers have ignored the damage done by sorting children by race and class. In fact, the market-driven reform movement has actually increased segregation.
While I must stress that reformers did not mean to do so, and they sincerely sought to help children, the unintended effect of competition-driven reform has been “neo-Plessyism.”
The answer to the “Big Sort,” or the self-segregation of contemporary America, is not the corporate reform policies of test, sort, reward, and punish. An overwhelming body of education research points to high-quality early education, full-service community schools, and socio-economic integration as the most effective school improvements.
The next post will address the potential for early education and full-service community schools to improve the quality of life of all of Oklahoma City, not just the performance of our schools.
This post makes two points about common sense steps that would greatly increase the quality of education provided by the OKCPS to all students. The same two points would produce just as great of a bang for the buck in terms the Oklahoma City economy.
Ask the young professionals who are moving to Oklahoma City what they want. Few desire a return to the artificial homogeneity produced by Jim Crow and suburban flight. Like almost everyone else, they are embarrassed by overt racism, such as the disgraceful behavior of the University of Oklahoma SAE fraternity. They are also savvy enough about the global economy to understand why such displays of prejudice are bad for a city’s business climate.
Millennials, perhaps even more than other generations, would love to send their children to socio-economically [and racially] diverse schools. If Oklahoma City and the OKCPS made a top priority out of schools where children of all races, cultures, and economic classes would learn together, this would be a no-brainer of a win-win strategy. Build socio-economically diverse schools, and 21st Century Oklahomans will come to them.
Second, let’s ask a deeper question about why Oklahoma City’s “A” schools are great; after all, patrons could have chosen equally great instruction in the top suburban schools. One outstanding magnet high school has a low-income rate of 87% and one equally high-ranked charter high school is 82% low-income.
All of the rest of the “A” grade high schools have socio-economic diversity. All of the non-charters are “no majority” schools, meaning different races interact with each other, at school at least, with no one demographic group being seen as a “minority” in a school with a definable majority.
Even at the height of our 1960s anti-integration shame, the best in Oklahoma City was displayed when the Wildewood Neighborhood posted the sign: “Color Us Together.”
What if Oklahoma City repudiated competition-driven school policies where some children can win but only if others lose? What if we respond Superintendent Rob Neu’s challenge and commit ourselves to wrapping our arms around all children?
A fourth post will explain why such a strategy would be good for business, as well as for our souls.
– Dr. John Thompson, an education writer whose essays appear regularly at The Huffington Post, currently is working on a book about his experiences teaching for two decades in the inner city of OKC. He has a doctorate from Rutgers University and is the author of Closing the Frontier: Radical Responses in Oklahoma Politics.