Soon after Ben ran by, his face frozen in a state of exhaustion, Darcel Hunt, a physics teacher and the Dream Far coordinator at my school, breezed by, smiling.
Darcel logged hundreds of miles this year – in the rain, the sun, the snow – with our school’s three Dream Far runners and other teacher volunteers.
Everyone who works and learns in an urban school has no choice but to wring out the best possible results from what we have. Pursuit of higher MCAS scores and budget constraints have left enrichments for most Boston teenagers threadbare, and Darcel’s efforts to create opportunities where few exist is a model of what it means to be an effective urban educator now.
Days before the marathon, I worked with Ben after school. Students in my 10th grade Humanities classes recently developed their own research questions to pursue as their final projects. The criterion is that the question can lead to a reasonable debate. Here’s Ben’s: “Should one person get a better education just because of where he or she lives?” I hesitated at first. On its face, the question seems incapable of sparking debate. But then I came to my senses and approved it.
Ben lives in a small condominium complex through which the borders of Newton, Brookline, and Boston – imperceptibly, yet with great consequence – slice through red brick walls and piece out educational opportunity. Ben goes to school in Boston where the four-year graduation rate is 62%. If he lived in the apartment a few doors down, he would catch the school bus that stops at the end of his street and takes kids to Newton, where the student population is 74% white, and the graduation rate is 96%.
Ben is often whimsical. When I checked in on him, his computer screen was checkered with pictures of snake meat, culled from a Google images search. “Ben, why are you searching for pictures of snake meat?” I asked. “It’s because I eat a lot of fish, and fish and snakes have almost the same kind of skin,” he explained. “I wanted to see what their meat looks like.”
When it comes to the differences between the schools of Boston and its neighbors, however, Ben is serious. He can fluently navigate the DESE and Education Week websites to show that students in Newton are more likely to have classes taught by highly qualified teachers. He is well versed in the deep catalog of classes and activities that Newton and Brookline boast. Despite its seemingly comparable per-pupil spending, Boston has a far greater percentage of students with low-socioeconomic status and students with limited English proficiency, and its attendance rates are abysmal.
I often wonder: How is it that we are not out in the streets over what Jonathan Kozol calls “apartheid education”? What will it take to dismantle our fealty to the principle of local control and the premise that privilege-conferring education is a birthright that comes with living in the right zip code?
Two weeks after the marathon, Ben asked me to drive him to Newton’s central office so that he could attempt to transfer for the upcoming year. His father had signed all the papers. On the “Out-of-Assigned-District Placement” form, in the “reason for request” space, he had written: “Better educational programs, more activities, higher success rates, and closer to where we live.” After a long talk with Ben, I agreed to take him.
Later that week we drove to the central office. A nice woman told us we had to go to Newton South High School. On the way there we passed Newton North High School, which opened two years ago and cost almost $200 million to build. Kids played lacrosse on its emerald lawn and its sprawling modern façade seemed like a mirage. At Newton South, an administrator was one of the few souls left in the main office. She informed Ben that he would have to call the next day to make an appointment when the office was better staffed. The next day Ben borrowed my phone to make the call. A woman on the other end kept repeating “You have to live in Newton in order to go here.”
The conversations we have about teacher evaluation, turnarounds, and charters matter. Gotta have them. But they skirt a larger issue. I predict that performance based evaluations will reveal that in urban districts, even the most effective teachers – say the top 5% – do not produce acceptable learning gains. I say this as someone who believes that when it comes to learning, teacher quality trumps everything, including out-of-school factors.
We need to change conditions to make effective teaching more possible: smaller rosters, fewer preps, more time to plan and collaborate, more teachers. Such a paradigm shift could begin to level the playing field, but the investment required is far beyond anything currently being discussed.
Left unchecked, inequality festers. Always. The dream of desegregation – our best-ever check against educational inequality – has been all but killed by the Supreme Court. And zoning laws that prohibit the construction of affordable housing in areas with high performing schools effectively act as gates to keep out other people’s children. Dewey called education “the great equalizer.” But when schools themselves are grossly unequal, education is the great sorting mechanism.
I often wonder: How is it that we are not out in the streets over what Jonathan Kozol calls “apartheid education”? What will it take to dismantle our fealty to the principle of local control and the premise that privilege-conferring education is a birthright that comes with living in the right zip code? An equity index that measures state-by-state educational fairness and determines federal funding would be a good start. Even a move as modest as this, however, won’t come voluntarily. But with the right kind of pressure, it might.