Race Matters. A Response to Rick Kahlenberg on Integration

Written by: Chris Barclay

Why did I tell the Washington Post reporter Bill Turque that I do not believe in white supremacy when asked about school boundaries and integration as a strategy for addressing the achievement gap?  Because, I strongly believe that until we all confront the impact of race on ourselves and the way we see the world, children of color will not benefit honestly and equally from any so-called educational reforms.

I am sure that many things that I will write will make some people uncomfortable, but that is okay.  I hope that our discomfort will lead to honest, meaningful dialogue and growth ― for us all.  Economic diversity is a laudable goal for our schools, and eliminating economic isolation will be good for all students; but before we can get to that, we cannot ignore the real impact that race plays.  Just look at the issue of dis-proportionality in suspensions and special education.  Racism is a factor in education that cannot be eradicated by a silver bullet or putting our heads in the sand.

While Mr. Kahlenberg recognizes my very real concerns with the issue of school integration, he simply substitutes class for race.  Racial integration is replaced by economic integration.  Unfortunately, Mr. Kahlenberg still misses the fundamental issue that must be addressed and the issue I deal with daily both as a parent of three Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) graduates and a school board member ― Race matters.   We still live in a country, state, and county where all children are not equally valued.  In the discussion to look at school boundaries as a way to address the achievement gap, the assumption is that by lowering poverty levels in some schools there could be room to increase achievement for lower-income students.  In my eyes that construct is the subtle foundation of the problem.

I agree with Mr. Kahlenberg when he states that “low income students of all races benefit from being in a middle class school setting – in which students are, on average, more academically engaged, parents are more likely to volunteer in class and participate in school affairs and stronger teachers are found.”  Here is my problem, two of those three factors that make for “good schools”  are fundamental to any school system, especially one as wealthy as MCPS.  Strengthening curriculum and constantly improving teacher quality will have a significant impact, but that is not enough. We have to address the issue of who are the children in our classrooms and what do we expect of them. Two things have happened that I believe Mr. Kahlenberg knows, but is not acknowledging.  The majority of our school enrollment is now Black and Hispanic, and our poverty rate (we use Free and Reduced-price Meals System services – FARMS as the proxy) has risen above 30 percent.  In my eyes, that means you cannot ignore the intersection of race and class or put them on the back burner.

Mr. Kahlenberg further supports his reform strategy by quoting from the 2010 Century Foundation study conducted by Heather Schwartz.  Again, more evidence that low-income students in lower- poverty schools do better than low-income students in high-poverty schools.  No arguments there. What I am not sure gets highlighted in the study is what is the racial compositions of the low-poverty schools.  If you are talking about high schools with FARMS rates below 10 percent, all of them have a combined White and Asian student enrollment between 69 and 82 percent.  The racial compositions of those schools helps define their academic culture.  In Montgomery County, no high school exists that could be considered low poverty (FARMS below 20 percent) where Black and Hispanic students are the majority of the enrollment.  So again, it is hard for me to decouple race and class.  The high-poverty students in low-poverty schools are almost definitely Black or Hispanic going to predominately White and Asian schools.

When Mr. Kahlenberg mentioned choice programs as a tool for alleviating economic segregation, I shuttered because what I believe underlies that strategy is the expectation that middle class families will be involved and demand excellence from those schools.  What then happens in those situations where low income kids are in schools far outside of their home neighborhoods? How do families get and stay involved in the PTA?  How do they stay engaged with the school during the day?  While that model may work for parents with transportation, flexibility in their schedule and means, it may not be as simple for those without.

Looking at the numbers and the economic geography of the county, there is no way to avoid the need to move large numbers of high- and low-poverty students far distances to create the economic diversity Mr. Kahlenberg wants to promote. Changing the dynamic of the geographic concentrations of poverty in Montgomery County is not a function that the school system can address.  We can work with the County Council and the Planning Board, but housing decisions are not in our wheelhouse, nor should they be.

In this formula based on my read of Mr. Kahlenbergs arguments, low-income children will benefit from being in lower-poverty schools because those schools will have students who are more engaged, parents who are more involved, and better teachers.  (For arguments’ sake, I have reduced his argument to these three main points.)  My argument is, if you want to see those three factors strengthened in our schools, you have to tackle the biggest elephant in the room and that is RACE and RACISM.

Karin Chenoweth wrote eloquently about high-performing, high-poverty schools in her book, Getting It Done.  In writing about principals and school leadership, Chenoweth says “…the role is the same or at least the responsibilities are, but that there are additional challenges and barriers about which the principal needs to take immediate and strategic action.”  Many of those challenges and barriers in fact are critical to students feeling a sense of empowerment or agency.

I cannot emphasize enough the need to address the issue of race with the staff in our schools.  That work gets to the root cause of so many important issues from teacher expectations to student discipline.

Until we understand who is in our classrooms and learn to value them equally, changes in the demographics of schools based on socio-economics will not bare the academic achievement fruit we all want.

So, how does all of this relate to the issue of the achievement gap?  When we talk about gaps we speak in terms of how students are performing instead of looking at how we, the adults, are doing at providing the skills students need to be successful.  Over and over students tell me that they hear the message that Black and Latino students, low-income students, and students receiving Special Education services are less able than their White and Asian peers.  By discussing academic achievement from that construct, it is easier to address changing the “under-performing” students instead of changing behaviors and actions of the adults.  And there we have the subtle inference of white supremacy.

From my vantage point as a parent and a member of the Board of Education, I want to put the majority of the burden back on the adults in both the school houses and central office to do more and do better by all of our children.

Race continues to be a fundamental part of the political landscape, therefore, a part of the educational landscape.  Look, I don’t have a visceral disagreement with Mr. Kahlenberg’s theory, I just think it is out of sync with the work that needs to go on in this county.

2 Responses to Race Matters. A Response to Rick Kahlenberg on Integration

  1. Phil Piety says:

    Excellent point that when students would move from one school area to another for special programs that that this would often be harder on lower income families who are often working multiple jobs. This is a burden more easily taken on by affluent families.

  2. Elena Silva says:

    I’d add that the conversation about race needs to continue to evolve as the county changes. When I was a student in MCPS in the 70s and 80s it was mostly Black and White (which made for interesting identity choices for those of us who didn’t fit nicely in either camp). We are now looking at a county where almost half the population is neither. My kids’ elementary school, for example, is majority Latino. Professionals in MCPS need to have a certain level of sophistication in their understanding of race and class and how the two intersect, especially as teachers are increasingly expected to analyze achievement data by demographics and then try to make sense of what this means for their instruction.

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