Monday, February 23, 2009

Sunday Commentary: The Charterization of Urban Schools Districts

In a discussion of vouchers last week, a professor argued that when legislatures propose statewide vouchers three groups dominate the discussion: private schools not willing to exchange autonomy for government money and suburban parents with access to good community schools oppose them, while inner-city parents favor them. While doubtless an oversimplification, such a division makes sense because it reflects the self-interest of all three groups. Based on who has access to power, such a division would also explain why no statewide voucher scheme exists. Though the politics behind statewide voucher proposals are interesting, the ramifications for our schools are more important.

Why? The same division exists around charter schools. And while vouchers seem temporarily halted, charters continue to fly high. Democrats and Republicans alike push charter schools as the largest part of any solution to our education system's woes. More importantly, they push such schools predominantly in impoverished urban areas. With few exceptions, well-to-do suburban neighborhoods seem (relatively) satisfied with their choice between high-quality neighborhood schools or paying for an elite private school.

Politicians often refer to parts of the world as "Balkanized" when they divide into many small countries. In the same sense, urban districts are currently becoming "charterized." Where students once attended a few large schools they now can choose among many small schools. And the trend seems unstoppable. Not only do charter schools continue to spread, but new charter-style public schools seem spread at least as fast as districts rush to break-up old monoliths into multiple themed academies and open new specialized schools.

As a result, the trajectories of urban and suburban districts differ distinctly. Suburban students will attend community-controlled schools with nearly every other student from their neighborhood. Urban students will almost-randomly fan out to find the small school that best fits their interest (or is most convenient) and attend with fellow wanderers.

Suburban and urban schools, of course, already differ greatly. But the distinct dichotomy at is developing often goes unmentioned -- and may have important ramifications. Knowing who will benefit more is likely impossible, but we can predict a few things that will happen:

Suburban schools will build community and social cohesion -- local residents will attend the Friday night football games, the school play, and discuss how the local schools have changed since they attended them. Urban schools will not. Students from the same block may attend ten different schools.

Suburban schools will be comprehensive. Since they must cater to the needs of everybody in the community, they will stretch themselves thin to offer every subject and activity they can. Urban schools will be specialized. They will all, essentially, attempt to be magnet schools. One would not expect an advanced physics course at the the Literature Academy or a football team at the Choral Academy.

Urban parents will face a myriad of choices -- possibly, but possibly not, including a default community school. Suburban parents will try to decide if the local community school is good enough, or whether to pay to go elsewhere.

While it remains unclear whether one experience is necessarily better, such distinct differences necessarily mean that urban and suburban students will experience school differently -- which is rather ironic when one considers that reforms were begun to eliminate differences between suburban and urban schools. Is different better? Only time will tell.

The charterization of urban schools seems inevitable, and we anxiously await the post-charterization test scores. But the ramifications go beyond student achievement; we are witnessing the decoupling of school and community in urban America, and we need to figure out what this means for both students and society.

Corey Bunje Bower is a Ph.D. student in education policy at Peabody College, Vanderbilt University. Before beginning his studies he taught sixth grade at a low-performing middle school in the Bronx that has since been shuttered. His research focuses on issues surrounding high-poverty urban schools -- including teacher retention, discipline, and school climate.

Sunday Commentary is a running feature on Thoughts on Education Policy. Submissions are open to all who are knowledgeable about education and willing to write a concise, thoughtful piece. Submissions may be sent to corey[at]


Brian Rude said...

Very interesting post, Corey, and I plan to study it more closely as time permits. But I have a question. You say, "reforms were begun to eliminate differences between suburban and urban schools". What reforms are we talking about here? When did these reforms start? And what differences are we trying to eliminate? And why?

Everyone, it seems, wants reform, as if it were obvious what "reform" means. Maybe I'm not too quick, but it is not at all obvious to me what reform we are talking about. Clue me in.

Corey Bunje Bower said...

"reforms" speaking generally

Think back to Savage Inequalities -- suburban schools have it good while urban schools suffer. To say that they want to "eliminate differences" is a bit of a generalization, but those who support this position want to eliminate inequality and level the playing field. And they don't think that suburban schools should offer so much more than urban schools.

So whether we're talking about school funding lawsuits, class size reduction, bonuses for teaching in hard-to-staff schools, or a million other reforms, people are trying fix urban schools while holding suburban schools as superior.

tft said...

...people are trying fix urban schools while holding suburban schools as superior.

Which is a misnomer, eh? Suburban schools have a very different population than urban schools. There are fewer educated parents with time or skills to help their kids in the urban schools (to generalize). The opposite, of course, is true for suburban schools.

So, when you say "schools" do you refer to a school's population of students, or something else, like say, teachers?

Attorney DC said...

I agree with TFT that it's the students that make most of the difference with regard to suburban and inner city schools. As a former teacher with experience teaching both low-income and high-income student populations, I've seen low-income urban students perform poorly in the same school district, in virtually identical school buildings, with identical resources as higher income kids across the county.

You won't be able to effectively eliminate the achievement disparity until you eliminate the differences between the students themselves, in my opinion. I note that many "Savage Inequality" references are built on the assumption of Northeastern U.S. cities/suburbs. I taught in other regions of the country, where low-income students do not attend decrepit, older school buildings - they attend virtually identical buildings (sometimes nicer buildings) to those attended by the higher income kids.

Before taking "Savage Inequalities" at its face value, try applying it to places other than Philly and Chicago. Statistics show that lower income students (and especially black and Hispanic students) generally perform worse than higher income kids (and low-income Asian students), even in nice buildings with highly paid teachers. The solution to these problems can't lie solely at the feet of the schools.

Corey Bunje Bower said...

TFT: I'm referring to prevailing wisdom throughout this post. Regardless of why students in urban schools score lower, people perceive them as being worse. And, hence, often want to make them more like suburban students where students score higher.

Attorney DC said...

Corey: I think there's a fine line between wanting inner city students to be like suburban students and wanting inner city schools to be like suburban schools. I think many people believe that it's the schools that are somehow creating low-performing and high-performing kids, not the inherent characteristics of the students themselves.

In my view, it's mostly the differences between the student populations that matter, with the school factors interacting somewhat with the characteristics of the students. For example, it's easier to convince good teachers to stay in a suburban school, because the school is often a more pleasant teaching environment. But in my opinion the suburban kids would still do well even if you assigned them only the inner city teachers, and the inner city kids would still struggle even if you gave them all suburban teachers.

There's also a practical effect of students on teaching quality: If a teacher is forced to spend most of his or her time on issues like discipline, attendance and classroom procedures, he or she will likely not be as effective as if he or she were not distracted by these issues. Thus the "bad" teachers in an inner city school might miraculously become "good" teachers in a suburban or private school. Other teachers may perform better in an inner city school. It's not as simple as many people wish to believe: "Good teachers in the suburbs create good students; bad teachers in the city create bad students."

tft said...

But the prevailing wisdom is actually ignorance, not wisdom! Let's not pay lip service to nonsense. Let's be truthful.

Prevailing wisdom is not all it's cracked up to be.