Friday, June 29, 2007

Equal Opportunity and Diversity: A Teacher's Perspective

In response to yesterday’s Supreme Court rulings on school integration, Michael Petrilli of the National Review published a 10 item “to do list”, directed towards educators and activists who “really care about the future of black and brown students.” Petrilli argued that surest way to achieve an integrated society is to improve the quality of education in urban school districts by hiring better teachers, giving principals control of budgets and hiring, implementing strict discipline programs, and holding both teachers and schools accountable for their academic results. Such an approach, he argues, will “make more difference to [minority] kids than the skin color of those in the adjoining desks.” As a former teacher, I agree with many of Petrilli’s recommendations for improving the quality of urban school districts,but I disagree with his proposition that the goals of integration and educational excellence are mutually exclusive.

I spent the entirety of my teaching career in segregated schools, many of which produced outstanding students. I taught for three years in a public school in a large city that was 100% African American and Hispanic, but my students scored higher on the state achievement tests than any urban students in the state, and as high as students in the wealthy suburbs nearby. The school I taught in had a small student body, complete control over hiring and finances, a strict discipline policy, and teachers from Ivy League universities. I cannot say that my students’ ability to learn reading or math was compromised by the fact that there were no white students in the school. However, I am certain that their cultural understanding was limited as a result.

I taught world geography and culture, and was constantly amazed by how isolated my students were from other cultural groups. Many of them had never eaten Chinese food and had no idea that Judaism even existed, despite the fact that there were large Chinese and Jewish neighborhoods less than 1 mile away. Though my African American and Hispanic students were curious and eager to learn about the world around them, I always felt that their understanding of other cultures and experiences was purely academic. With no personal connections to what we were learning, other cultures remained profoundly foreign.

I had similar experiences when I taught for a year at a private school in Seattle with no African American or Hispanic students. One day, my students were studying imperialism and reading Rudyard Kipling’s poem The White Man’s Burden. We talked about Kipling’s use of the n-word in the poem, a conversation which I concluded by saying, “But, of course, we don’t use that word today.” One of my students, a bright, kind, and funny kid, raised his hand, and said, in all earnestness, “Why not? There aren’t any black people here.” Though I expected that my students would want to discuss the statement, they were completely disinterested in the impact of racial slurs on society as a whole. Without any contact with people of other ethnic or racial groups, my students had no clear sense of empathy for them, and no desire to delve deeply into the experiences of other people.

What scares me most about the rollback on Brown’s promise of school integration is not the impact it may have on academic achievement (although I do think that school districts, spooked by this ruling, will be reluctant to even talk about race in schools, thus making it extremely difficult to provide at risk students with the additional resources they need). Rather, I’m troubled by the possibility that more children in this country will be educated in a segregated environment, lacking the understanding, empathy, and personal connection to people of other backgrounds which is necessary to participate in both American democracy and a global society.

In light of yesterday’s ruling, those of us who truly care about the education of students of color must continue to advocate for BOTH educational excellence in our schools AND for diverse and integrated learning environments. To reach one goal and not the other would be a specious victory.


Cornelia said...

Keep up the good work.

Anonymous said...

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