The Hidden Fault Lines Of Class And Geography In The Education Reform Debate

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Something I liked about E.D. Kain’s post on two recent education policy movies, the broadly anti-“reform” Race To Nowhere and the pro-“reform” The Lottery is that it draws out the class fault lines are too often submerged in a debate that’s unduly focused on labor unions. As Kain observes, in the film about how too much emphasis on testing and accountability is driving our children insane “nearly all the students and families in the film were from upper-middle-class families.” By contrast, in the film about how crusading charter school operators are saving American education from bloodsucking teachers unions “focused exclusively on these poor neighborhoods and the bad situation so many of the parents in these neighborhoods faced.”

As a childless city-dweller, I’m not exactly kept up nights worrying about the plight of Vicki Abeles and other middle class suburban parents across America. Like the bulk of the center-left “reform” wing of the Democratic Party, I’m very concerned about the plight of low-income black and Latino students in large urban school districts. But it’s important to recall that most American children aren’t poor, most American schools aren’t in large urban districts, and that in a very large country we actually have all kinds of different school systems.

If you think about a town like Brooklin, Maine which has about 100 children in it (some of whom are too young to go to school) the idea that you need highly formalized assessment systems to tell if the school is working well or not seems absurd. People can engage in direct inspection, and the teachers and school administrators are probably people the parents know socially. All the kids in the town go to the same school, so the children from low-SES families can free ride to an extent on the monitoring abilities and political clout of the high-SES families. And instead of “school choice” people might just move to Sedgwick or Brooksville if they perceive some persistent gap in school quality.

I was looking at some basic data on Wisconsin the other day, and you see that there are actually only three districts that score worse than 60 on a simple “state achievement index.” By contrast, 15 districts score over than 90. But those 15 range in size from 3,808 students (of whom 5% are low income) to 407 students (of whom 18% are low income). The lowest performing three, however, include Racine (22,552 students of whom 49 percent are low income) and Milwaukee (86,192 students of whom 77 percent are low-income). So this relatively tiny number of low-performance districts is a really big deal, especially if you’re interested in the opportunities available to low-income Wisconsinites. And of course the high concentration of poor people in the Milwaukee school system is part of the reason why it performs so poorly. But by the same token, the poor performance of the schools is part of why there’s such concentrated poverty—prosperous people who work in Milwaukee are going to tend to move to the suburbs rather than send their kids to these schools.

At any rate, this is basically just a long post of throat clearing, but the point is that it would behoove all of us at times to be a bit more specific about what exactly it is we’re talking about when we talk about “schools” or “education.” Different schools and school systems in America are very differently situated.