“We’ve tried: standardized tests, charter schools, smaller classes, longer school days, stricter discipline, looser discipline, tracking, differentiation. We’ve decided the problem is teachers. The problem is parents. What is true about almost all these reforms is that when we look for what’s broken we look at who they’re failing: poor kids, black kids, brown kids. Why aren’t they performing better? Why aren’t they achieving more? Those are not the right questions. There is a powerful force shaping our schools; arguably the most powerful force. It’s there even when we pretend not to notice it.…If you want to understand why our schools aren’t better, that’s where you have to look. You have to look at white parents.”1
Research has demonstrated over and over again that the most powerful method of closing the gap between black and brown students and white students is integration. And the level of integration required to make a noticeable difference in achievement is 25%; if a quarter of all the students in a school are white, that school will be able to pull in more resources for programs that benefit all kids and achievement for everyone will go up. But integration is not without its difficulties, and the newly-acquired resources and programs often reflect the values of the white parents rather than those of the pre-existing black and brown community.
The quote at the beginning of this post comes from the podcast Nice White Parents which examines one middle school in Brooklyn, New York and its long history with white parental involvement. In Part 5 of this series, we talked about New York’s position as the most segregated school system in the U.S. for Black and Hispanic kids. The school we’re looking at today was majority Black and Latino and mostly poor before 2015, when a group of wealthy, white parents came en masse to the school because they weren’t sure they could get into their top choices for middle schools. They believed they could marshal resources and make changes to the school and the curriculum that would benefit all the students. What resulted was a simmering frustration among the original parents in the school, and a fundamental misunderstanding among new parents of why there was widespread resistance to and resentment of such positive change.
This wouldn’t necessarily be of interest to education as a whole, except that the podcast also traces the history of segregation in the New York City schools, how school choice has exacerbated that segregation and forced schools to compete with each other for students (marketing!), and how the needs and desires of majority non-white schools and non-white students have consistently taken a back seat to the demands of white, middle and upper-middle class parents. The eye-opener here is that those demands took precedence even when the children of those parents didn’t attend the schools in question.
This podcast should be required listening for everyone trying to improve equity in schools and for every district leader trying to meet the needs of black and brown students. It raises some issues that are seldom talked about but absolutely critical. Here are a few things that jumped out at me as I listened:
- Everyone in this story is well-meaning. No one is deliberately trying to hurt anyone else; everyone wants to help the school and the kids in it. What’s uncomfortable is the way that those with good intentions failed to consult the mostly Black and brown parents already in the school about what they saw as needs for the school. The newly-instituted French immersion program (to build on the learning of the white students who were coming from a French immersion elementary) took precedence over things like P.E. uniforms and microscopes, because no one thought to ask what the school actually needed.
- The changes to the school weren’t bad. Again, good intentions, but it’s hard to ignore the somewhat tone-deaf way in which changes were implemented and the lack of input from non-white parents and students. Over and over, the question has to be asked: Who is driving the changes? And: Why that group and not another?
- The very clear lines drawn between money and influence that allowed a group with money and resources to come in and decide what’s best for everyone. One Hispanic parent expressed it as being “saved against their will.” The number of times this one school experienced this kind of intervention in its history is frankly staggering.
- Some truly cringe-worthy moments, like when one of the new white students (an 11 year old) explained to the reporter that “things were really bad” with the original students before they got there, but things are better now that they’d arrived; and the moment when a wealthy white donor to the French program makes a sweeping assumption about a Spanish bilingual parent and tells her she should learn another language because it will “open the world” to her. Ouch.
- The sheer scale of the financial resources the white families were able to tap into: the white parents managed to get the French embassy on board and the embassy’s goal was to raise $100,000 a year for 7 years for the French immersion program in a school that raised a total of $2000 the year prior to the arrival of the white families. The embassy spokesman called this financial backing “soft power,” meant to boost France’s world profile. The fact that the dual language program was French at all is testament to this “soft power;” 33% of the students already at the school spoke Spanish and 10% spoke Arabic. But the immersion language chosen was French because “there was money for a French program, which meant that at SIS [the school], French had value. Arabic didn’t. Spanish didn’t.”2
- The concept of the “Bliss Point”: the percentage of white parents needed to attract other white families to a school (26%).
- The weird disconnect between what white parents said about diversity and how they actually acted in the face of diversity. There was a tremendous amount of prescriptive influence without actual participation. And in case you’re thinking that disconnect might have been an isolated incident, it wasn’t. It’s a pattern stretching back 60 years.
- What actually led to true integration of the middle schools in this particular district. Spoiler: it started with white parents, but it succeeded because a few key people were able to change their minds and materially redefine their roles in the process.
One of the statements from the podcast that really stuck with me was this: If we want public schools to work, we need a shared sense of reality. This is critical because there are a lot of reality-deniers out there who assert that because their children’s experience with the public schools was fine, the same must be true for black and brown and poor students. It’s not. Until we have that shared sense, true desegregation is going to be an uphill struggle, both to get white, wealthy buy-in and to fully include and honor black and brown voices – to understand their concerns and to address those issues with the same attention and fidelity that white issues have historically received. It’s also going to be a balancing act to insure that money and race don’t convey the power to make decisions for everyone.
You can listen to Nice White Parents on your pc, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. Don’t sleep on this one: It brings the whole problem of choice and segregation into sharp focus and draws powerful conclusions that deserve consideration as we seek to increase equity in the public schools and as we acknowledge how school choice explicitly undermines that goal.
1 Joffe-Walt, C. (Host). 2020. “Episode 1: The Book of Statuses.” Nice White Parents Podcast. Serial Productions.