When the problems of America come out in the education systems

Two recent articles reminded me of what I wrote in the headline: for many Americans, the problems the country faces are part of the day-to-day realities of the local schools.

First, a report on a recent controversy in the schools in Shaker Heights, Ohio:

Yet in Shaker Heights, healthy race relations are a cornerstone of the community’s identity, the reason many choose to live here, a central organizing principle for the schools…

But the story of Shaker Heights shows how moving kids of different races into the same building isn’t the same as producing equal outcomes. A persistent and yawning achievement gap has led the district to grapple with hard questions of implicit bias, family responsibility and the wisdom of tracking students by ability level. Last school year, 68 percent of white 11th-graders were enrolled in at least one AP or IB course, but just 12 percent of black students were…

The racial tension coursing through the packed auditorium last November traced back to a tense exchange between Olivia and a veteran AP English teacher, Jody Podl, six weeks earlier. Olivia had been dozing in class, playing with her phone. Now, her first big assignment of the year was late. The teacher had admonished and embarrassed Olivia. Olivia’s mom fired off a three-page complaint, suggesting racism and charging bullying. The district put the teacher on leave to investigate.

Second, on enrolling students in New York City’s public schools:

The system that dominates our waking hours, commands our unthinking devotion, and drives us, like orthodox followers of an exacting faith, to extraordinary, even absurd feats of exertion is not democracy, which often seems remote and fragile. It’s meritocracy—the system that claims to reward talent and effort with a top-notch education and a well-paid profession, its code of rigorous practice and generous blessings passed down from generation to generation. The pressure of meritocracy made us apply to private schools when our son was 2—not because we wanted him to attend private preschool, but because, in New York City, where we live, getting him into a good public kindergarten later on would be even harder, and if we failed, by that point most of the private-school slots would be filled. As friends who’d started months earlier warned us, we were already behind the curve by the time he drew his picture of the moon. We were maximizing options—hedging, like the finance guy, like many families we knew—already tracing the long line that would lead to the horizon of our son’s future…

New York’s distortions let you see the workings of meritocracy in vivid extremes. But the system itself—structured on the belief that, unlike in a collectivized society, individual achievement should be the basis for rewards, and that, unlike in an inherited aristocracy, those rewards must be earned again by each new generation—is all-American. True meritocracy came closest to realization with the rise of standardized tests in the 1950s, the civil-rights movement, and the opening of Ivy League universities to the best and brightest, including women and minorities. A great broadening of opportunity followed. But in recent decades, the system has hardened into a new class structure in which professionals pass on their money, connections, ambitions, and work ethic to their children, while less educated families fall further behind, with little chance of seeing their children move up.

Many factors seem to come together in these circumstances:

1. The American belief that schools are the great equalizer or should be if they are not.

2. The expectation that parents should help ensure their kids do better than them.

3. The idea that the right education is needed to be successful in life (both for the kids and the parents).

4. A difference in opinion over whether American systems should provide equal opportunities or equal outcomes.

5. The public nature of schools where community tax dollars and identity come together in a local institution.

6. An American preference for local control thus that public schools can be responsive to local residents and leaders.

7. With declining trust in other major institutions, schools might be one of the few remaining institutions that provide hope.

8. Varying opinions on how schools should (or should not) address issues of race, class, and gender present in communities.

Put these all together and the stakes are high for local schools and conflict can arise. On one hand, this passion about a local institution may help guarantee its success. Even as Washington invokes depression, Americans can dive into and try to correct issues in their schools. On the other hand, all of these expectations plus larger social forces at work beyond the control of local districts or residents means flashpoints can be difficult to resolve. A number of the problems schools face are not just school issues; they are tough issues for the whole country to converse about and address. Every school district has to work to address community and national issues in ways that are desirable to local constituents while also considering wider standards and approaches.

Responding to “white suburbanites are exposed to more racial diversity than ever before”

One researcher explores the increasing racial and ethnic diversity of suburbia:

The scale of these national changes is too great to leave suburbs unaffected. As a consequence, white suburbanites are exposed to more racial diversity than ever before, a process that compounds annually. In 1980, a majority of white suburban residents lived in areas greater than 95 percent white, according to my analysis of the Census data. Only about one in six lived in a neighborhood where people of color made up at least 20 percent of the population. Fast-forward to today, and the numbers flip: Fewer than one in 10 white suburban residents lives in a neighborhood greater than 95 percent white, while more than half can be found somewhere that’s more than 20 percent nonwhite. Suburbs are now home to most black Americans and Hispanic Americans.

Nonwhite residents skew younger, which means diversity is increasing in schools even faster than in cities and neighborhoods. As that happens, the racial isolation of white children has been broken in spectacular fashion. In 1988, the earliest year with digitized federal data, more than half of white children nationwide attended a school that was more than 90 percent white. In 2016–2017, the most recent school year with data, that share dropped to less than one-fifth. In public districts today, more than three-fifths of white children attend a diverse school where at least 20 percent of the student population was not white; in major metros, nine-tenths of white children do.

Lest the point get lost in a swarm of statistics, these figures represent an inversion of America’s historic racial geography. As recently as a few decades ago, almost all white people in America lived their lives in places where racial diversity was minimal or nonexistent. This is simply no longer true. In neighborhoods and, especially, schools, moderate diversity is now the norm for most white Americans. The America where busing failed was a place where islands of urban diversity drifted in an ocean of suburban whiteness. Today, the metaphor must be reversed: An archipelago of white enclaves is embedded in a sea of growing racial diversity.

And since this discussion is in the context of debates about schools and busing, the author suggests this change in diversity has implications:

By every available demographic metric, those white suburbs are losing ground in 21st-century America. The problem of segregated schools, as urgent and familiar as ever, is embedded in a deeply unfamiliar context. School integration in 2019 means moving children across racial boundaries that are already looking ragged. The communities it risks outraging have ever-shrinking political clout. People should consider whether they have overlearned the lessons of history—whether the antibusing consensus is more robust than the conditions that created it. Integrated schools are more achievable than the political system believes. The missing ingredient for desegregation may just be elected officials with the courage to stop fearing America as it was, and start leading America as it is.

The article takes a pretty optimistic view of racial change in communities. Indeed, residential segregation has decreased in recent years with more minorities living in suburbs and increased immigration.

I wonder if the same data could be interpreted differently:

1. The cutoffs for diversity cited above are low bars. More than 20% non-white is not that much diversity.

2. The article does not discuss social class and its interaction with race and class. What kind of diversity are white suburbanites interacting with in terms of class and race together?

3. The emphasis here is on the public school system as well as communities though there are plenty of white students (as well as other students) in different schooling environments and social ties and networks can operate through many institutions. Diversity by community or neighborhood may not translate into diversity in a school setting or in local government or houses of worship or friendship networks.

4. What is the end goal of such efforts? Is “moderate diversity is now the norm for most white Americans” enough or even be used a way to limit further diversity? Is representation in public schools enough or is the goal similar academic achievement or access to political power or homeownership rates or wealth (all areas with disparity)?

Not just aiming to have separate school districts; secede and form whole new municipalities

Residential segregation is powerful in the United States and can include looking to secede from a city to form a new largely white community:

The parents’ first petition drive to create a city, which ended in 2015, looked as if it would be successful. Supporters of St. George, arguing that the schools in East Baton Rouge Parish were not doing enough for their children, had amassed more than 18,000 signatures, and submitted them to the registrar to be certified. But the same day as they submitted their petition, a group known as Better Together submitted its own forms to the registrar. “We did a withdrawal campaign,” M. E. Cormier, a spokeswoman for the Better Together campaign, told me. “We went door-to-door, told people about the detrimental effects of the creation of St. George, and we were able to get 1,000 people to withdraw their names from the petition.”…

In between the failed 2015 attempt and the new one, they tried to iron out a new strategy. They cut down the geographic area of their proposed City of St. George. The original map was roughly 85 square miles; the new area was 60. It would be easier to gain the signatures necessary for a new community with a smaller area. As soon as the proposed map was released, several people in favor of keeping East Baton Rouge Parish together noted that the new map, coincidentally, carved out several apartment complexes—places where black and low-income families lived.

St. George supporters vehemently denied the suggestion that the map was drawn with any malicious racial intent. “The decision on what areas to include and not include was based exclusively on the amount of previous support for the effort,” they wrote in a post on their official Facebook page. “If a precinct had a small percentage of signatures and clearly did not want to be in the new city, they were not included in the updated boundaries.” But practically, that meant that the proposed area of St. George became whiter and more affluent.

The organizers did something else significant as well, Michael Beychok, a political consultant who lives in what would become the new city, told me: They stopped talking so much about the schools. “They know, and we know, that the school argument is not their best argument to incorporate,” said Beychok, who is one of the organizers of One Baton Rouge, a group opposed to the creation of St. George.

The United States has a long history of communities being formed to avoid people of particular groups. This could work in multiple ways. For example, many suburbs at the turn of the twentieth century resisted annexation by the adjacent big city. Or, suburban communities incorporated in order to pursue particular zoning or development policies that could exclude certain people.

That this conflict started with school districts should be of little surprise as issues of race and class often are contested through this particular institution. While the issues can be phrased in terms of school performance or behaviors, it is often about race and class. This reminds of a chapter in Rachel Heiman’s book Driving After Class where suburbanites battle over redistricting lines with the goal of preserving privilege in certain school buildings while other students do not get the same access.

If a new municipality is formed, it would be interesting to see how its reputation develops. On one hand, the racial reasons for its formation could dog the community for decades. On the other hand, the residents of the new community may not care about outside opinions as they get to use their resources as they desire.

See a similar case last year outside of Atlanta.

Another use for vacant retail buildings: schools

The Chicagoland suburb of Palatine is considering converting vacant retail space into a school:

Under the proposal, a shuttered Whole Foods Market and other adjacent space totaling about 80,000 square feet would be renovated for a maximum of 32 classrooms for kindergarten through sixth grade. The school would be in the Park Place shopping center opposite a Walmart, southeast of Dundee and Rand.

Stuckey Construction Co. Inc. of Waukegan would buy the space for about $4.1 million and spend another $13.8 million renovating it, Thompson said. He said District 15 would lease the building with an option to buy it within seven years if the idea receives school board approval…

As part of the plan, Park Place’s owner would build four retail buildings closest to Rand. The former T.J. Maxx/Home Goods portion of the plaza would be demolished to make room for the new retail section and a playground and sports fields covering 2 acres for the school.

District 15’s school at the mall would serve 750 to 800 children in the northeast area, where about 22 percent of the students live but don’t have a neighborhood school. Thompson said he projects the new school would have 74 percent Hispanic students and an overall low-income population of 70 percent.

As retail locations struggle, many communities are looking for answers as to how to use the vacant structures. There a number of possible options but rarely have I seen the idea of schools. I suspect converting these spaces to schools has several distinct advantages:

  1. It could reduce the amount of money needed to provide school buildings. Referendums or tax levies to build new structures often face opposition in suburban communities because of the cost. Additionally, the new school buildings might be in response to a relatively new need in the community tied to new growth but the building may not necessarily be needed in the long term. Converting an existing building could save money.
  2. Retailers often locate in key locations near major intersections. This could make accessing a school easier for a broader range of residents.

Yet, there would also be disadvantages to pursuing this strategy:

  1. Converting the retail structures into schools takes possible land off the tax rolls. Many communities hope vacant structures will be filled by land uses that will contribute property taxes and sales taxes. Schools provide neither.
  2. The location may be central or at a key point but residents often have images of what neighborhood schools should be: located in or very close to residential neighborhoods. Several concerned residents are quoted in this story and they raise safety concerns of being located near major roads and higher-crime areas.

I wonder if a school could also be viewed as a community anchor for a larger mixed-use plan in a redevelopment setting like this. Having some new residences alongside some retail space plus new community (school plus parks, plazas, etc.) could create a new neighborhood setting.

Defining the suburban aspects of the movie “Eighth Grade”

Defining the suburbs, whether considering geography or social life, can be complex. So when the film Eighth Grade claims to depict “the tidal wave of contemporary suburban adolescence,” how is suburbia depicted? Here are some key traits according to the film:

  1. People live in single-family homes. Kayla is shown going from house to house and acts as if her bedroom is a personal sanctuary from the outside world.
  2. The story revolves around the lives of children, a key emphasis of suburban life. When not in a home, Kayla is at school. Her social life revolves around school. Family life is critical as the primary relationship Kayla has is with her father who tries at various points to encourage her.
  3. A land of plenty. No one in the film lacks for anything and all the teenagers apparently have phones and devices to connect with each other and broadcast their lives. Some people in the film have more than others but consumer goods are not an issue in the suburbs depicted. Everyone is middle class or above even though we see little of what people do for work.
  4. The shopping mall is part of a key scene, one of the iconic places where teenagers can interact and consume.
  5. There is a good amount of driving required to get from home to home or to the shopping mall.
  6. The teenagers and families depicted are mostly white.

On one hand, the movie depicts a fairly typical residential suburban place. Many of the features of the suburbs listed above are on my list of Why Americans Love Suburbs.

On the other hand, the film does a lot with Kayla engrossed with her phone and social media. Could this take place anywhere? Or, is the film suggesting the particular combination of suburbs and social media leads to a negative outcome (too much online immersion) or positive (the values or features of suburbia help give her a broader perspective about live)?

Furthermore, the film primarily works within a well-worn depiction of suburbia: largely white, middle-class and above, revolving around teenagers, school, and families. Thinking like a sociologist in terms of variables, would it have been too much to situate a similar story in a more complex suburbia with more racial/ethnic and class diversity and a different physical landscape?

Deciding at which social level to counter a social problem

Once groups of Americans agree that an issue in society needs to be addressed, they encounter an important question: at what social level should we target our efforts? There are numerous options for many important issues. For example, see an earlier post about how efforts to fight smog in Los Angeles did not seriously address driving but rather pushed Detroit to create more efficient vehicles.

Two social institutions regularly come to mind when I think about how many Americans want to address social problems: schools and the federal government. Even as different sides might not agree which problems they think schools or the federal government should, the country has regular debates about how these institutions should be doing something different.

Start with schools. Because attendance is compulsory, children spend so much time there, learning may be the universally recognized need in a knowledge economy, and what is learned as a child can carry through a full lifetime, they seem like they are great places to address issues.

For similar reasons, it may appear prudent to operate at the level of the federal government Because it has broad oversight over the United States, it has the potential to shape numerous lives. Certain issues are so big and/or affect so many people that the federal government may seem to be the only way to adequately address a concern.

Both institutions are important in our society yet enacting change at these larger levels can be very difficult. Change brings a lot of attention. Politicians on all sides get involved. Those opposed to large-scale government action can be energized. Crafting one-size-fits-all policies is difficult.

What, then, are alternatives? Here are three common ways Americans go if they do not want to go large-scale:

Work through local or national voluntary associations. This can range from the local Rotary to religious congregations and a group of neighbors who get together to do something. With de Toqueville’s oft-repeated quote about the zeal with which Americans joined such groups, this option could offer hope (even as Americans are not participating in these like they did before – see Bowling Alone).

Voluntary associations benefit from the eagerness of their members to participate but Americans can also work through local governments which are always present. Americans tend to like smaller-scale government activity and oversight. Why get the federal government or the state involved when a city or community, township, or county could try to address the matter? For some issues, this social level may be too local – larger issues are hard to deal with one community at a time. At the same time, these smaller governments could try a variety of options and this can provide information on what might work at larger levels.

Finally, Americans can work through individual action. There is a reason that we celebrate certain notable individuals who worked tirelessly and successfully to fight for their convictions: it is rare to see such individual level success (and often, these famous figures benefited from organizations and support behind them). The actions of one person may typically not accomplish much but the aggregate actions of thousands or millions of people can add up or passionate individuals can help start movements.

All together, it is not easy to figure out which option might be the most effective in order to address important social problems. For many issues, it is likely that people are trying to find solutions at all of these levels: schools, the federal government, voluntary associations, local governments, and individual action. Actions at these various levels can occasionally intersect and enrich each other, helping provide energy for a broader movement or consensus. Indeed, truly finding solutions to social concerns likely requires broad action, even if the efforts began at just one of these social levels.

Why Americans identify their communities as urban, suburban, or rural: quality of schools, safety

A recent study in City & Community by sociologists Chase M. Billingham and Shelley McDonough Kimelberg titled “Identifying the Urban” includes these findings:

To do so, we utilize data from the 2010 Soul of the Community (SOTC) survey, a joint effort of the Knight Foundation and Gallup “focused on the emotional side of the connection between residents and their communities” (Knight Foundation 2017) in 26 metropolitan regions of the United States. While specifically designed to explore the factors associated with residents’ loyalty to and satisfaction with their communities, the SOTC project also yielded data that allow for an analysis of how people describe the communities they inhabit. We first compare the labels that individuals attach to their residential communities (“urban,” “suburban,” “rural,” etc.) to a categorization of those communities based solely on ZIP code designation, exploring the extent to which people whose ZIP codes reflect a central city, suburban, or rural residence actually characterize their communities as urban, suburban, or rural. As we demonstrate, the data indicate a fair amount of disjunction, with approximately one‐third of respondents embracing a residential identity different from that suggested by their ZIP code…

“Urban” is an imprecise term, open to multiple interpretations and contingent upon a variety of physical, demographic, and social factors. The label that a government bureaucrat or social scientist attaches to a given community does not necessarily reflect what those who inhabit that community believe about their geographic identity. Similarly, next‐door neighbors might disagree about whether they live in an urban, suburban, or exurban area. Municipal boundaries matter, of course. Overall, our findings indicate that a postal address that places an individual within the official city limits is the best predictor of whether that individual identifies his or her community as “urban.” Yet municipal boundaries alone cannot account for the wide variation in individuals’ perceptions of their communities. When most people characterize their communities as “urban,” “suburban,” or “rural,” they do so not by pulling out a map, but by reflecting on how they experience daily life in that community.

As the analyses presented here indicate, two factors in particular — individuals’ assessments of the local schools and how safe they feel in their neighborhood — play a significant role in the identity ascribed to place. A person residing outside the borders of a region’s central city, but in a community where she felt unsafe and had little faith in the local schools, was about equally likely to say that she lived in an urban area as someone with the same characteristics who lived within the city borders, but who felt safe in her neighborhood and had high confidence in the local schools.

Importantly, however, the understanding of place also varies by race. Even when they inhabit similar parts of their respective metropolitan regions, black, Hispanic, and white Americans have different experiences and report different community identities. Most U.S. metropolitan areas no longer resemble the stark “Chocolate City, Vanilla Suburbs” pattern (Farley et al. 1978) that prevailed in the late 20th century. The lived experience of community is still racialized, however, even as racial and ethnic minorities increasingly settle in suburban communities and gentrification brings new cohorts of whites into central‐city neighborhoods that their peers avoided in previous generations. For blacks, the geographical divide, at least as operationalized by ZIP code designation, is far less salient than it is for Hispanics and non‐Hispanic whites. Rather, our analyses suggest that blacks see the distinction between urban and nonurban living more as a function of community characteristics, especially personal safety. These social factors influence the perceptions of place for all respondents, but they are particularly meaningful for blacks.

Summarizing: the study suggests how residents rate their local public schools and their safety in their neighborhoods affects whether they view their own location as urban or not.

This study sheds light on a long-running American tension between urban and non-urban life. From the beginning of the country, people debated whether city life or more rural life was preferable. They likely did not overlay the issues of public school performance and safety on the conversations but the debates could take on moralistic tones. Move to the mid-1800s and beyond and the arrival of new immigrants as well as industrialization and urbanization changed perceptions of cities. In the twentieth century, suburbs emerged as the morally safe places for many Americans, due to some of these issues as well as changing demographics in cities and increased support for suburban living. At the same time, the image of rural life lost luster.

Ten, twenty, fifty years from now, will the meanings of urban, suburban, and rural places be the same? It will be interesting to see what stays the same and what changes.