What we do and what our institutions do matters. If we do not change our institutions to reflect our expressed attitude, our attitudes will change to reflect our institutions.
-John A. Powell
Seattle has the fifth-worst opportunity gap in the nation.
I’ve mentioned that several times on this blog, but it’s still startling to really consider what it means.
In the entire United States, only four cities are doing a more discriminatory job than Seattle of schooling their kids. Only four cities are more oppressive than Seattle in their public education.
My kids are not white. Finding a good school, then, is about much more than just academics. It’s about navigating a minefield, knowing that we're dealing with an institution that systematically discriminates against kids like mine. We are forced to try to sleuth out pockets of safety within it.
But how? How do you figure out if the individual teachers and administrators at individual schools within the system will see my child as fully human? What are their biases? What are their discipline rates? Which kids are getting access to the most advanced classes and rigorous coursework?
It is a pressing need for my family to know about segregation and access within my kid’s school. I don’t just want to know about teacher biases, about discipline rates and opportunity gaps — it is so vitally important that it can cancel out everything else. If a school is teaching its white students really well and failing its students of color, that school’s overall “good” rating really means nothing to me. It might not apply to my child.
Parents of white kids have a similar investigative responsibility, I would argue, unless they want to put their children in the uncomfortable position of benefiting from a rigged system at the expense of their classmates.
Here’s what I mean: let’s say I’m a parent of a white student just looking for a “good,” academically rigorous elementary school for my kid. I might see the good rating of School A and choose it over the poorly rated School B, even though School A’s walls contain a big opportunity gap between white students and students of color. I probably have no way of knowing this is true, and I might play an accidentally active role in a discriminatory system by sending my white student into a segregated school environment.
But again, how is a parent to know any of this if we aren’t sharing vitally honest, nuanced information about our schools? If we want people to do things differently, to make the decisions that might lead to changed institutions, then we need to provide them with enough information to allow them to reach new conclusions.
The racial and social disparities in our schools are undermining the education of every student regardless of race. Unless our public school system reflects a total intolerance for discrimination and disproportionate outcomes, the racial and income-based disparities for our students will continue. We need to rethink what makes a “good” school.
A hitter who destroys right-handed pitching isn’t a “good” hitter unless he can hit lefties, too. If he can’t, he’s just a good hitter in certain situations, against certain pitchers. At best, he’s “good” with an asterisk.
A school that is really successful teaching white students isn’t “good” unless it is teaching its students of color just as well. Otherwise, it’s a good academic school for a select group of students, a bad school overall for many other groups, and a bad school for the social-emotional development of all students.
As Powell said, “what we do matters.” And what we do will determine what our institutions do.
In considering our schools, then, we need to remember that a failure of equity overwhelms any other positive factors. A school with an opportunity gap is not a good school. Period.