Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Lessons for Corporate Education Reformers from Hamilton Township, NJ

Hamilton Township, New Jersey Schools Superintendent, James Parla, took a brave step the other day when he addressed the issue of defacto segregation in his school district. According to an article on nj.com the school leader said:

“Test scores are lagging and schools are crumbling and, more often than not, those conditions are at schools with large minority populations… [Parla] urged the school board to find ways to address "de facto segregation" in the district's 24 schools as it looks toward new school construction and redistricting.”

Good for Superintendent Parla for taking this stand publicly and good for the Hamilton Township School Board if they attempt to wrestle with the issue. Solutions will not come easily.

Hamilton Township is in many ways a microcosm of the issue of segregation in many urban areas. Hamilton is a large school district that borders the struggling city of Trenton on one side and wealthy suburbs of Robbinsville and West Windsor on the other. It will be no surprise that the relatively poor sections (with high concentrations of minorities) of Hamilton are near Trenton, while the relatively well-off (and white) sections of Hamilton border Robbinsville and West Windsor.

This geographic reality has led to segregated schools. Parla somewhat disingenuously said this was “not intentional”, but a reality. Perhaps. Certainly, it is in part a factor of socio-economics and geography. Almost certainly it is also a by-product of discriminatory real estate practices in the past. Nicholas Lippa, writing in the NCRP eJournal, summarizes the research on this topic:

“The housing market in the United States has a long history of discriminatory practices that has excluded people of color from integrating into more affluent neighborhoods and communities, which in turn, has led to the subordination of people of color.”

Even a cursory look at Hamilton Township schools puts a lie to the narrative of the corporate education reformers notion of “no excuses” education and poverty as just an excuse for the failures of teachers to provide a proper education to children and the failure of unions to police their own.

Let’s look at two elementary schools in Hamilton first. Greenwood Elementary, just across the border from Trenton, has a 96% minority population and 80% on free or reduced lunch (a typical measure of poverty). The school building is 96 years old and falling apart. At Greenwood, students scored in the 37th percentile in English/Language Arts (ELA) and at the 67th percentile in math on the New Jersey ASK standardized tests.

On the other side of the township, Alexander Elementary has 26% minority children and 15% on free or reduced lunch. Its NJASK scores are in the 75th percentile in ELA and 81st percentile in math.

Hamilton has three high schools, Nottingham, Hamilton West, and Steinert. Nottingham and Hamilton West have diverse populations and between 32 and 41 percent on free or reduced lunch. These two schools score similarly on standardized measures such as the SAT and ACT college entrance exams. About 60 -65% of the students take these tests. Steinert High school lies closer to the more affluent bordering districts, has an 80% white student body with 10% free and reduced lunch. Ninety per cent of Steinert students take the SAT or ACT and on average score 150 points higher than the students in the other two high schools.

Let’s focus on two lessons to be learned here. First of all, segregation matters. The Supreme Court got it right in Brown v. Board of Education– there can be no such thing as separate, but equal. The second lesson is that socio-economic status matters. Schools with higher numbers of kids living in poverty are going to struggle academically.

The corporate education reformers like to tell us that poverty doesn’t matter. Do they really want us to believe that the teachers and administrators at Alexander Elementary are better teachers because their children get higher test scores? Would firing all the teachers at Greenwood Elementary and replacing them with unqualified Teach for America recruits improve learning there?  If we closed down Greenwood and started a charter school in its place would this would level the playing field with the kids at Alexander? Of course not.

Hamilton Township demonstrates that this thinking is absurd. Hamilton Township has all the strengths and all the weaknesses of any large school district in a diverse area. They have well qualified and highly motivated teachers in all their schools (and a few less than great teachers as well). Those teachers all are members of the same union. They use the same curriculum. They follow the same discipline codes. If the Hamilton schools have problems, they are, for the most part,  societal problems and no amount of “teaching like a champion” or “waiting for Superman” is going to change that.

Only when we address the societal issues of poverty and segregation will we truly address the educational issues as well.

So congratulations to Superintendent Perla for shining a light on this issue. Solutions will be difficult and they will take time. Most parents would prefer to have their children attend a neighborhood school. As long as neighborhoods are segregated, these neighborhood schools will be segregated, too. 

One place to start will be to be sure that the buildings that the children attend across the district are clean and well repaired. Students and teachers should not have to learn and work in dilapidated buildings no matter what their race or socio-economic status.