April 03, 2005

de facto segregation

Still sick but I have a lot of thoughts floating around in my fevered brain and I'd like to write down at least a few before I lose them all. Currently uppermost:

I read two articles back to back yesterday that seemed to fit together hand in glove. First, today's New York Times has an article about Columbia High School in Maplewood, New Jersey. It caught my eye because we'd considered Maplewood as one of the landing spots for our theoretical, hypothetical and completely uncertain move east. Anyway. Schools there have a great reputation. The high school gets good test scores, sends over 90% of its graduates to college, and so on and so forth. And this is a liberal town, known especially for its racial diversity. And the high school is in fact diverse: 58% of the kids are black, 35% are white, with droplets of Hispanics and Asians filling out the rest. (An aside: why is it that Hispanics and Asians have so little presence in Jersey suburbs?) But apparently that diversity doesn't show up in the classroom:

Though the school is majority black, white students make up the bulk of the advanced classes, while black students far outnumber whites in lower-level classes, statistics show.

"It's kind of sad," said Ugochi Opara, a senior who is president of the student council. "You can tell right away, just by looking into a classroom, what level it is."

Kind of sad? Yeah, you could say that. Apparently this so-liberal so-racially integrated town has a few blind spots. They divide kids into four levels, theoretically by ability, but it sounds like parent bullying and pleading have some effect:

The superintendent of the district, Peter P. Horoschak, acknowledged that there were, in a sense, two Columbias. The de facto segregation is most visible at the extremes. Statistics for this year show that while a Level 5 math class, the highest, had 79 percent white students, a Level 2 math class, the lowest, had 88 percent black students. Levels 3 and 4 tend to be more mixed, though a school board member, Mila M. Jasey, said, "Some white parents tell me that they know their kid belongs in a Level 3 class but they don't want them to be the only white kid in the class."

Though parents and students are granted some input, students are supposed to be placed in levels primarily based on grades and test scores. Many black students complain that they are unfairly relegated to the lower levels and unable to move up.

Kind of sad, yeah, you could say that.

Even though Jeffrey Gettleman, the Times reporter, is writing about the high school, it sounds like the divide runs deeper in this particular town. I read a long discussion in the Maplewood-South Orange forum about what had sounded like a wonderful, progressive "demonstration" school they've set up, partly to address the de facto segregation in a town where property values affect the student population of any given elementary school (more expensive houses usually means more white kids in that school). This is a magnet-style school, drawing children from the local area (primarily black kids) as well as kids from other Maplewood districts because their parents like the sound of the school. Well, hell, after reading about it online, I like the sound of the school too. But. According to a few people on this thread, guess what? Nearly all the kids in the demonstration part of the school, ie, the project-based, multi-age cluster hands-on teaching part, are, can you guess? Yeah, mostly white. And the kids in the regular neighborhood school part? Mostly not. Why? Probably because if a parent is going to send her child to a particular school because of a particular philosophy, she's going to do her damnedest to make sure he gets into the progressive classroom. And you can't blame the parents, or the school for accommodating them. But you can blame the school, I think, for not then saying, "gee, this is a popular program. Let's enlarge it to make sure we can offer it to the disadvantaged neighborhood kids." Seems to me that classroom segregation within a larger racially mixed school environment is actually worse than a school with a single racial makeup. Because this teaches that kids with different color skin have and deserve different levels of education from each other, that some are therefore inherently better or smarter or some other crap. And it exposes children to each other in such a glancing, sideways way, they'll only learn to think of each other as Other, never making friends across that divide.

(A note to cover my ass here: this is all purely from reading the forum -- I have never personally visited the school.)

Back to the high school: What if you could remove the parental persuasion factor from the decision on which child gets a higher level of educational challenge? You'd be left with grades and test scores, right? Which are objective, right?

Which leads me to the other article, F for Assessment, in Edutopia Magazine (found via this Kos post). W. James Popham cogently attacks those very test scores that the school is theoretically supposed to use to differentiate children.

For the last four decades, students' scores on standardized tests have increasingly been regarded as the most meaningful evidence for evaluating U.S. schools. Most Americans, indeed, believe students' standardized test performances are the only legitimate indicator of a school's instructional effectiveness. Yet, although test-based evaluations of schools seem to occur almost as often as fire drills, in most instances these evaluations are inaccurate. That's because the standardized tests employed are flat-out wrong.

What does he mean? Well, among other things:

Because of the need for nationally standardized achievement tests to provide fine-grained, percentile-by-percentile comparisons, it is imperative that these tests produce a considerable degree of score-spread -- in other words, plenty of differences among test takers' scores. So producing score-spread often preoccupies those who construct standardized achievement tests.

Statistically, a question that creates the most score-spread on standardized achievement tests is one that only about half the students answer correctly. Over the years, developers of standardized achievement tests have learned that if they can link students' success on a question to students' socioeconomic status (SES), then that item is usually answered correctly by about half of the test takers. If an item is answered correctly more often by students at the upper end of the socioeconomic scale than by lower-SES kids, that question will provide plenty of score-spread. After all, SES is a delightfully spread-out variable and one that isn't quickly altered. As a result, in today's nationally standardized achievement tests, there are many SES-linked items.

Unfortunately, this kind of test tends to measure not what students have been taught in school but what they bring to school. That's the reason there's such a strong relationship between a school's standardized-test scores and the economic and social makeup of that school's student body. As a consequence, most nationally standardized achievement tests end up being instructionally insensitive. That is, they're unable to detect improved instruction in a school even when it has definitely taken place. Because of this insensitivity, when students' scores on such tests are used to evaluate a school's instructional performance, that evaluation usually misses the mark.

Socioeconomic status. Right. That'll really help the kids from disadvantaged backgrounds, won't it? And if you start to use those very tests to choose the kids who then get more high level teaching? You're going to continue segregation, sure as a winter night is long, dark and depressing.

I'll grant you that it's a difficult conundrum. I know for myself as a parent, I've become very concerned with the fact that there is absolutely NO differentiation in Damian's current school, so that he may be a grade or two above his classmates in reading or science aptitude but won't be given a chance to stretch his brain even a teeny bit. But can it really be that hard in a liberal town to figure out a way to ease the ratio, to pick out smart kids from lower socioeconomic brackets who might not test well but sure want to learn and sure seem to soak up knowledge, and yes, you as teachers can in fact pick those kids out if you use your eyes and brains. What if you give those smart black kids (and in this situation most of them are black) a chance for that Level 5 class? Y'know, just to see if they can keep up? And maybe, y'know, to help them with some extra tutoring to, y'know, potentially give them a leg up FOR THE REST OF THEIR LIVES?

And this is a liberal town. I have to assume it's a question of, well, yeah, I'm liberal, but this is my KID. And like I said, I can understand that. To some extent. I too want the best education for my child. I may differ on what that means (hint: has less to do with test scores than with interactive, engaging teaching methods) but I want that too. But so does every parent. And for this ugliness to crop up in a town that prides itself on its diversity, well. Wow.

Um. Anyway. That's what I've been thinking about.

Posted by Tamar at April 3, 2005 06:31 PM | TrackBack

I'd say, "Wow. Intense." Except that was my high school experience as well. I went to a school on the border between a rich white area and a poor black area, and so the school was 'naturally' integrated at a time (the late 70s) when there was plenty o' bussing going on to maintain desegregation of high schools. Still, in my advanced honors classes of 30+ students each, there were, hummm....three black kids? Maybe? I don't know why. I don't know how they tested us, even, as we didn't take those kinds of tests at that point. Personally, i think it was a simple case of cultural bias among the school and its teachers. (I can't think of a single black teacher in the school, now that I consider it.) And this, my friends, was in New York City. (Well, Queens. But still, officially NYC, and certainly part of the NYC school administration's purview.)

Hard. Hard choices.

Posted by: Tiny Coconut at April 4, 2005 12:18 PM

TC, you remind me that I was going to mention this in my blog post. I went to a magnet high school which was racially integrated. I do know that when I started being in honors classes (tenth grade, maybe? can't remember), my sense was that the racial composition of my class did change. I wish I remembered that more clearly. But anyway, one difference here is that there are four distinct levels, not just an honors class here or there. (I also seem to remember a smattering of subjects which had no honors class option, forcing ongoing integration.) Also, this is a community that prides itself on diversity, etc. Your school and mine were both part of the huge NYC school district. Pride? Yeah, right. I'm not saying they did well by the black kids in school back then. But this is so blatant, this discrimination, and in a small town that should know better.

Posted by: Tamar at April 4, 2005 01:58 PM

My sister lives in Maplewood. She really likes it - although she doesn't have kids so I can't speak to the school issue. Your mileage may vary but she finds it very convenient to Manhattan (she's a director/stage manager and works in the city). I would say, from my several visits there, that that area does in fact have a distinct personality.

Posted by: Jennifer at April 4, 2005 02:18 PM


You should think of tracking as reserve Affirmative Action. If a school district like Maplewood did not have tracking, I would guest that many of the white parents would pull their kids out by either moving or spending them to private school.

Columbia High School sounds like most high schools in medium and small towns throughout the south. If it were not for tracking, the whites would not attend at all.

I would also guess that if you closer at the school, there are the "white sports" and the "black" sports; the "white" electives and the "black" electives; and the "white" extra-cirricular and the "black" extra-cirricular just like in most of the public schools in the south.

Posted by: superdestroyer at April 5, 2005 03:49 AM

Jennifer, yes, I've heard nice things about Maplewood, which is why this gave me pause.

Superdestroyer, I think you're right, but what does that say about a community where people -- white middle/upper middle class folk -- move there specifically because of the diversity, often saying they want their kids to grow up around all ethnicities and not be segregated? Does it mean they talk one way and act another? I find that just so sad.

Posted by: Tamar at April 7, 2005 09:36 PM

I go to Columbia High School, (no I'm not lying) and I'm one of those people who proves the stats wrong. I'm black and in all level 4 classes (level 4 is the highest) and my brother, who is also black (but you probably guessed that) is in all AP (advanced placement) classes

Posted by: Anique at May 8, 2005 05:04 PM

I attend Cooley High school in detroit,Michigan(one of the most segregated states in America).that only known and went to school with two white kids in my eleven years of schools. to me interacting with whites is unusual other than the few teachers i've had.i got two questions. one, was intergretion of schools the best way to better the education of blacks? now that we tried intergration can we now focus on things that would better our education?

Posted by: Caso Jackson at March 15, 2006 08:48 PM
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