“For most of the 150-year-history of public education in the U.S., public schools have done a pretty good job. There is no crisis in public education.”
—Salvatore Babones in Salon, May 9, 2015 (emphasis added)
If I were to base my opinion of the American public school system solely on my experience in an overwhelmingly white community of highly educated and affluent families, I could accept Babones’ assertion that “There is no crisis in public education.” But I can’t do that.
If Babones is to engage in an education debate that moves the ball forward, he needs to remove his lens of privilege and look through the eyes of parents and kids living in struggling cities.
I made the conscious choice to work in and learn about school communities that look very different than the one where I was raised. It is not an exaggeration on my part when I say it is like straddling two different worlds.
No Crisis Here
Parents and students in my hometown of Wellesley, Massachusetts, which has become a prohibitively expensive community in recent years, would likely nod in agreement if they were to weigh in on the schools within their own zip code and other neighboring towns in Boston’s MetroWest region. With a median income of $163,663, an average home price of $994,200, and 79 percent of residents holding at least a bachelor’s degree, their public schools would embody most people’s ideas of what private schools look like. Eighty percent of residents are white, 8 percent are Asian and 5 percent are Hispanic. Out of a town of 28,000 residents, 535 are black.
In addition to the $15,000 per student spent by the state and the district in schooling, it has become the norm for Wellesley parents to pay for SAT classes, college admissions coaches, sports camps, private instrument lessons, summer camps, and private tutors at $100 per hour. Though none of these additional dollars are factored into the per pupil expenditure, they certainly have a significant impact on students’ skills and opportunities, helping to build a foundation that will inevitably serve as their launch pad into academic and economic success.
There are many who believe that the public schools in Wellesley are superior to local private schools. Having taught there for four years during my twenties, I’d say there’s a very good chance that’s true. Children with a Wellesley address have the option of attending a public school that has more than they could ever need.
In a place like Wellesley, there is an assumption that all students will go to college. In fact, it is the kids who do not want to attend college who feel almost ashamed or embarrassed by their decision because it doesn’t fit the mold of the 96 percent of students who graduate and head directly into post-secondary studies, with 93 percent matriculating into a four-year college.
No crisis there. If one’s only vantage point is Wellesley, Babones may seem to have a point.
A Tale of Two Cities
Less than an hour from Wellesley is the city of Lawrence, a school district that has been in receivership since 2012 because of its chronic underperformance.
Unlike Wellesley where 79 percent of people have at least a bachelor’s degree, that number drops to less than 11 percent in Lawrence. In math, 94 percent of Wellesley students are proficient on the MCAS while in Lawrence, the number is 41 percent. Wellesley boasts a four-year graduation rate of 97 percent while Lawrence’s comes in 30 points lower at 67 percent.
But Lawrence isn’t the exception; Wellesley is. I’m reminded of this in where I live now.
My school experiences in Rhode Island have opened my eyes to much greater disparities of all kinds, with the most upsetting being an entrenched culture of low expectations for kids. In the suburban community where I live, I’ve been disappointed in low standards, low proficiency rates in math, low SAT participation rates, and alarming achievement gaps based on race and income. Although many of my friends and acquaintances are satisfied with our neighborhood school, my experience in Massachusetts makes it impossible for me to share their approval.
After three years in our district’s public system, I chose to enroll my own children in the public charter school where I was employed. And it has made all the difference, not only for my three boys, but for their mostly low-income classmates. The academics are stronger, the school culture is better, and the belief in kids—all kids—is palpable.
For my former student, Dashaun Robinson, school choice made all the difference. In his recent op-ed in the Providence Journal, School’s Faith in Me Changed My Life, he shares his story and describes how district schools either couldn’t or wouldn’t give him what another school ultimately did.
Yes, There Is a Crisis
If Babones was willing to look, he would see a crisis. He would see the splitting of our educational system along lines of race and income. He would see the dispiriting lack of encouragement given to poor children and parents in Lawrence, Providence, Baltimore, and too many other towns and cities across our nation.
He will see a crisis. The question is, what will he do about it?