Elizabeth Weise

What can parents and communities do to create socioeconomically integrated schools?

Are emerging urban demographic trends creating a new generation of private school families?

Is a desire for equity actually making some school districts less socio-economically integrated?

I ask not because I have the answer, but because I see indications it might be the case—and am seeking more data to find out whether it is in fact so. And if it is, what can be done to shift the tide which I believe is fundamentally corrosive to our nation.

The issues:

First is a trend among middle and upper middle class families who once would have moved to the suburbs as soon as they had children instead staying in large cities and in fact moving to urban cores.

At the same time, the public schools in these cities have turned their focus on children coming from poorer and often non-English speaking families, because that’s what their school populations have shifted to due to the white flight that began in the 1950s.

So now in some areas of some urban school systems, we’ve got a new influx of kids from economically better off families who have been very well supported (preschool, sports, lots and lots of enrichment) who haven’t previously been in those schools. There they find themselves in classes and schools with kids from families that haven’t always been able to provide those things for their children.

Let me be clear, this is an excellent thing. We want schools that are set up to deal with the needs of kids from a wide variety of backgrounds.

We want schools that challenge the kids (of all colors and socio-economic groups) who are ready to be challenged and support the kids who need more remedial work. Having kids grow up knowing and interacting with people who come from all walks of life and all types of circumstance is a wonderful thing. In fact, I would say that it’s a basic underpinning of a functioning democracy. We want schools that work for all students.

But I hear anecdotally that it’s not happening like that everywhere, which worries me.

In certain cities (I’ve heard stories from San Francisco, Portland, Seattle and Philadelphia) school districts focus their teaching on underserved students. The enriched kids (some call them over-enriched) whose parents want them to be challenged and pushed, are told that their children’s needs will be met by differentiation (i.e. the teachers teaching at different levels to different students.)

Unfortunately many parents say it doesn’t work well in their children’s classrooms, or it doesn’t work if the teacher’s not up to it. They feel their kids are getting shortchanged. Remember that these are the families who ten or 20 years ago likely would have moved to the suburbs where there’s tracking and acceleration galore, which they would have reveled in.

So this is where the issue that keeps me up at night comes in.

I believe that a larger than usual number of families in cities where this is happening are sending their children to private schools, because they feel that their children’s education needs are not appropriately being met.

Note that it doesn’t matter if they’re right or wrong—what matters is what they’re doing. Even if the level of educational attainment between kids in the public and private schools is exactly the same, the families perceive it to be different and they appear to be acting on that perception.

My fear is that we are in the process of developing a schooling culture similar to the one Great Britain used to have. Poor and working class families go to public schools. Upper middle class and wealthy families go to private schools. Middle class families muddle through as best they can.

Again, I can’t say this is happening everywhere. But I keep hearing stories from parents that make me worry it’s not uncommon. And I think it’s fundamentally corrosive to a functioning democracy. Public schools expose children to  a cross-section of their neighborhoods or towns. That’s a good thing. Private schools (at least non-Catholic private schools), however much they talk about being diverse, don’t.

What’s especially of concern to me is that many of the parents who are seeking out private schools because they think the public schools where they live are going to let their kids languish are in fact products of public school educations.

We’re at a turning point. I fear that we’re raising a generation of middle and upper middle class kids whose families have always thought of themselves as public school families (albeit in the suburbs) who are now shifting their thinking to being private school families. And I worry that once that shift takes place, it becomes ingrained. That their children, the generation growing up now, will think it’s perfectly reasonable and acceptable that if you can afford to, you go to private schools as a matter of course.

That is troubling. It’s not much of a step from there to thinking that public schools aren’t worth funding, that there isn’t a value to a shared educational and social experience during childhood.

If I didn’t have a full-time job, I’d spend a year researching this and finding out if it’s really happening, and if so how widespread it is and what effects it’s having on families and their feelings about the very nature of living in a heterogeneous society.

However I (thankfully) do have a full-time job, so I can’t do that.

So I throw the question out to anyone who might read this. Is this happening? Is someone researching it? Who’s writing about it? And if it is happening, what are urban school districts doing to stem the tide?

Because whether it’s true or simply an incorrect perception that some urban school systems don’t provide adequate challenge for high-achieving kids, the outcome would be the same—the acceptance of a two-tiered education system among a group of people who hadn’t previously experienced or expected one.

And that is a bad thing.


Written by Elizabeth Weise

August 19, 2015 at 3:38 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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