Friday, August 14, 2015

Neighborhood Failure Factories

I am a big believer in the concept of neighborhood schools. I think schools are best as an extension of their communities. I've written pretty about why I see charterizing initiatives such as those in New Orleans as both bad educational practice and an assault on fundamental American values.

At the same time, it's important that I acknowledge the limits of the approach that I value so much, and nothing has highlighted those failings any better than this gut-wrenching story of how Pinellas County in Florida turned five thriving schools into "failure factories." I could hem and haw and hedge, but here's the brutal truth of how they did it.

They turned them into neighborhood schools.

They ended desegregation and starved the five schools of, not only the additional resources they needed to succeed, but also in some cases didn't even provide the basic level of support provided to other schools in the county.

This story, written and reported by

Though the efforts were working — black students were posting steady gains on standardized tests — many parents bridled at the tools of integration. They complained about the inconvenience and the high cost of busing and special programs.

In other words, desegregation, with its magnet schools and special programs and busing, required (White) Pinellas County to spend a bunch of money educating Other People's (Black) Children. And so they stopped.

The plan to resegregate called for neighnborhood schools. Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA told the article's authors what that gets you

“It produces schools that teachers don’t want to teach in and that are branded as failures by our state and national governments,” Orfield said. “When you go to neighborhood schools, whites and Asians get schools that function well and blacks and Latinos get schools that are impoverished and fail. This isn't a secret."

I don't want to think it's that simple, and I definitely don't care for how short a step it is from that observation to the observation that non-white students and families are somehow defective. But there's no denying what happened next to the five schools.

They had been successful by both the measures that reformsters like to use and the measures that those of us in the whole child well-rounded education community like to use. But what distinguished the new plan is what the school board chose not to do.

Giving up on racially balanced schools wasn’t the School Board’s only option.

They could have integrated schools by requiring a balance of children based on socio-economic status, as other counties were doing.

They could have carefully constructed magnet schools and special programs to attract more white children to schools in black neighborhoods.

Instead, they were ready to plow ahead, to scrap the most important parts of what they had done to guarantee black children got an equal education.


  1. Thank you for discussing this very contentious topic so intelligently and so fairly. If more people were willing to have such discussions, perhaps we could take some steps to solve these seemingly intractable problems.

  2. Given the intense residential segregation in the country it is difficult to see how neighborhood schools can be anything but segregated. Even if the local school board draws catchment lines across neighborhoods in an effort to promote integration, over time people will make housing decisions that will tend to re-segregate the school.

    This American Life did a very interesting two part episode on segregation in public schools called The Problem We All Live With. It is worth a listen.

    1. Interesting how you're bobbing and weaving here. Are you saying that if lines are drawn across neighborhoods, the black people will move away from white people? Of course not. So what you're talking about is racism, right?

    2. Dienne,

      I actually know a couple of people of color who moved across catchment lines because the they felt the assigned school had too low a minority enrollment, but I don't think race is necessarily the driving force here.

      Parents want their children to go to strong schools, and given that public school admission is based on street address, those parents buy admission by buying real estate in the catchment area. As more concerned and involved parents choose to move into the catchment area of a school that is perhaps only slightly stronger than the neighboring school, the difference between the stronger school and surrounding schools become greater. Real estate prices grow faster inside the strong school's catchment area so now only the relatively wealthy can afford to live there. This is why the redrawing of PS 321's catchment caused apartments that were formally inside the catchment area to lose value.

    3. As usual, TE, I don't understand what you're talking about. First you're talking about segregation, then you're saying, "I don't think race is necessarily the driving force" and saying that "more concerned and involved parents" make schools stronger.

    4. Rebecca,

      I think that segregation is an emergent property of people's decisions on where to attend school. Each individual family want's the best school for their children and they have to pay for it by buying into a school district/catchment area. The school/district becomes filled with evolved parents that value education, resulting in an even better reputation for the school. The school/district becomes too expensive for poor minority families and we end up with largely segregated schools.

    5. Where I live, when the city schools became "too" integrated, whites started moving in droves to the suburbs, which were already too expensive for poor families. Or they sent their kids to Catholic schools, even if they weren't Catholic. Or they moved to gated communities and sent their kids to private schools. The suburban schools didn't get better, they stayed the same level of "good," as measured by standardized tests. But my own kids got a good education in the local city public schools, in spite of the relatively low standardized test scores of the school, and both my daughters graduated college summa cum laude. And my kids don't freak out if they talk to people who look different from them. In fact, they have lots of friends who "look different" from them.

    6. Rebecca,

      Have you listened to the recent This American Life podcast on desegregation? It is available here: . The episode numbers are 562 and 563.

    7. I don't listen to podcasts, I only read. I would read a transcript or you could give me a synopsis.

    8. Rebecca,

      This American Life provides a transcript of their podcast at url I posted above.

      You are missing something by not listening to podcasts. Before the technology of writing was invented, oral communication was the only method of education. The internet has allowed us to effectively use that very very old method of education again at a reasonably low cost.

    9. Yes, until the 15th century and printing presses, oral communication was probably the main method of teaching, though there have been scribes for probably 6000 years, and people were talking without written language for probably hundreds of thousands of years, but aural is not my preferred mode of comprehension.

      It seems like I was better at it in high school, so I don't know what happened. Too many years of reading? I just don't process auditory language input well. It may also be that I'm getting hard of hearing, and I have difficulty distinguishing consonants. Listening takes so much concentration and my mind tends to wander and I miss stuff. I can't even watch a movie - though that may be even worse because I get distracted by the visual - without having the closed captions on or I miss half the dialogue. I'd much rather read a book anyway, and imagine the visual myself. With a book it's easier for me to focus, it's easy if I want to re-read something, and if I get bored I can jump around or skim. Rewinding is more difficult and fast-fowarding, I can't skim and I miss something. And I get really mad, it feels like such a waste of time, if I watch 2 hours of a movie and then decide I hate it because the ending was stupid with too many loose ends.

      Anyway, at my age I try not to do things I don't enjoy. I'll take a look at the transcript.

    10. TE, I read the transcripts. What fantastic reporting! And so relevant to what we're talking about. It goes along with what Eric is talking about anecdotally below, and explains that integration is the only thing that really works to close the achievement gap, because kids are in a school with sufficient quality resources and teachers, and when everybody's not behind because of years of years of insufficient resources, it's easier to bring up the level of those that are."Separate but equal," besides being illegal, just doesn't work. Integration did work, people just pretend it didn't. Not to mention the advantage for everyone of being in a more diverse environment. And then the example of how not to implement it - mostly by on purpose trying to make it fail, like in Missouri - and then the example of Hartford, where it's going better but is still very difficult, especially since it's expensive because nice schools with good resources and small enough classes is expensive.

  3. The "neighborhood schools" movement is largely about race. In private discussions with white parents in my neighborhood in North Carolina it became readily apparent that they did not want their children going to school with African-American children. Of course, no one will say this in public. So, busing was ended in my community, and the schools were, in effect, re-segregated. The test scores for white students stayed the same, but the test scores for African-American students dropped.

  4. This is what I've noticed too, that the efforts to integrate schools and communities have all been abandoned. I was reading an article about #Black Lives Matter, and it talked about this and the fact that so many white people have never even talked to a black person face to face, that often blacks' main contact with whites is from being on the losing end of the power structure, or that when the two do interact, it's on a superficial level. People need to interact on a level footing to be able to understand each other and be friends. It's therefore also economic. At the very least, if schools are going to be segregated, poor neighborhoods need more resources, and community schools, that also provide services for the community at large, can be helpful. But people need to be in situations, at work, at school, where they can get to know each other. To me, integration did a lot of good, but it's all coming undone.

  5. The failing of neighborhood schools is colorblind. I have always considered myself a neighborhood school teacher. However, the neighborhood school (predominantly white) failed both of my children. I pulled both children out of that school so they had access to a better education. One currently attends a cyber-charter school where my voice is heard, recognized, and supported. The teachers actually listen to me and welcome my emails and phone calls. The other attends our local private Catholic school despite our family not participating in the Catholic faith. I found the neighborhood school did not want to listen to the me, the parent, who also holds a master's degree in science education. I know education. I know how the system works. I am a teacher. Both of my sisters are teachers... it's in the blood. My family found that the neighborhood school did NOT want to listen to the parents... our voices were present but unrecognized and unsupported. I had to find other means of educating my children in order to be heard. The neighborhood school had one way of doing things - its way. Any idea that was different from what was already being done was dismissed, ignored, or not even acknowledged.

    1. Yes, if the school personnel don't listen to parents, acknowledge their concerns, and at least take them into consideration, that's a problem.