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Why We All Need Integrated Schools: A Critique of “Successful” Urban Charter Schools

by Zoë Burkholder - September 22, 2011

After visiting a "successful" charter school in Washington DC, I question why policy makers are so pleased with schools for minority children that focus exclusively on test-prep and strict discipline, comparing this to the rich educational offerings in suburban public schools. I argue that creating racially and socio-economically integrated schools, for all of its challenges and shortcomings, at least has the advantage of equalizing opportunity and derailing efforts to create an educational system that has one objective and one set of rules for poor minority kids, and a vast wealth of options and opportunities for everyone else.

This summer I had the pleasure of visiting DC Prep, a charter school in Washington, D.C. whose most recent class of eighth graders scored 100% proficiency in reading and math, as measured by standardized tests. All of the students at DC Prep are minority (98% African American, 2% Latino), and over 80% of the students live in poverty. The test scores of DC Prep students are especially noteworthy when you compare them to the average for eighth graders in the D.C. public schools, which hover just under 50% proficiency in reading and just under 60% proficiency for math. Clearly, DC Prep must be doing something amazing here, right?

Or maybe not. As I sat through the presentation by DC Prep founder and CEO Emily Lawson, I began to wonder what it costs to raise test scores on reading and math to 100% proficiency. I don’t mean financial costs, although the charter school’s impressive fundraising history suggests that money doesn’t hurt. I mean what does it cost in terms of educational ideals to focus so intently on the single goal of academic achievement as measured by standardized tests in reading and math?

For most policy makers in Washington, D.C., raising test scores is the only objective on the table. The argument, as summarized cogently by Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), is that kids who graduate without reading and math skills have essentially no chance of getting the kind of job that would lift themselves and their families out of poverty. It follows then that every other function of public education should more or less be shelved while we focus on improving reading and math abilities in our failing public schools.

Okay, so, let’s take a look at what raising test scores looks like at DC Prep. As you probably expect, the students spend a great deal of classroom time (which is already 30% more than public schools in D.C.) learning to read and do math. Lawson insists, however, that students are not just learning to ace the standardized tests—instead teachers are spending whatever time it takes to make sure students master the material. It helps that DC Prep brings in students when they are three years old, gives them a rigorous preschool education, and then sees them through grades K-8.

So far, so good. Lawson concedes that her students spend less time on “specials” like physical education, art, and music than she would like. At the same time, it is clear that this is a price Lawson and others at DC Prep are willing to pay for those great test scores. The idea is that a strong foundation in reading and math will offer students something that too few inner city kids have the chance to achieve—higher education.

Again, I have no argument with educators who want to raise the academic achievement of struggling inner city students in order to give them a shot at college.

However, do the ends, admirable as they are, justify the means?

Here is where I start to get uncomfortable. A major learning component at DC Prep includes what Lawson terms “character education.” Lawson, who is white and upper middle-class, explains that students wear uniforms and are expected to conform to a complex set of behavioral rules and codes. This includes strict silence in the hallways and eye contact and appropriate verbal responses to teachers. The list of social skills becomes more specific for each grade, for example, teachers evaluate fourth graders for their ability to follow directions, get the teacher’s attention appropriately, accept criticism, communicate honestly, and express their feelings appropriately. Behavior is monitored through the use of a yellow score card that each student carries all day long. Teachers reward students for good behavior and penalize them for bad behavior by instructing students to add or subtract a virtual dollar to their score cards. This kind of behavioral conditioning is visible in many “successful” urban charter schools, like the KIPP schools, which use hand signals and chants to reinforce behavior.

The argument that public schools should teach middle-class values to poor racial minorities is gaining currency among policy makers. I asked Lawson if her students or their parents ever resented the strict discipline in her schools, and she immediately said no. That was only a concern she heard from white liberals, she shot back, never the black and Latino parents whose kids were lucky enough to be admitted through the lottery system to her school. She insisted that parents were only too happy to have their kids reared in a strict social environment geared towards academic success.

Well, I would be too, if my choices were a charter school like DC Prep or a public school that has been labeled as “failing” for good reasons. Faced with stark options, parents in D.C. can choose between a traditional public school racked with violence and high dropout rates, or a charter school that is safe and promises to teach at least two of the “3 Rs.” Okay, so maybe anyone would prefer a charter school like DC Prep under these conditions.

But that doesn’t make it okay, and here is why. When you step back from DC Prep, and successful charter schools like it, what you see is a public school that is racially and socio-economically segregated and inherently very different from the form and function of the majority of public schools in America. One reason for this vast difference is that most public schools set out to accomplish more than benchmark scores on standardized tests. Since Horace Mann first rode horseback through New England to sell the idea of tax-supported “common schools” for all children, Americans have dared to dream that public education will instill in our citizenry the many capacities necessary for self-government: critical thinking, civic engagement, tolerance for diversity, an appreciation for the arts and sciences, a knowledge of global affairs, a critical understanding of American history, and the capacity for civil debate.

My children go to public school in Montclair, New Jersey. If you visited my son’s elementary school, you would find the kind of coordinated chaos that accompanies active and engaged learning. Students are chatty and giggling in the hallways, for example, and spend part of every week doing high-quality physical education, Mandarin language, music, art, library, and computer classes. Each class puts on a school play every year, complete with singing, dancing, and hand-painted scenery. Students as young as first grade sign up for elective classes in the subjects they like most—from dance to poetry to algebra.

Montclair is a suburb of New York City in northern New Jersey with mixed racial and socio-economic demographics. Our public schools are roughly 50% white, 35% black, 8% Hispanic, and 7% Asian American. Like most kids in town, my son and daughter get on a bus to go to school as part of the effort to integrate schools in a town that still suffers from residential segregation. Our school district is not perfect—nor do our students earn 100% proficiency on reading or math in 8th grade standardized tests. But I do not know of a single parent, student, teacher, or administrator who would even consider adopting a curriculum like the one they have at DC Prep.

Yes, DC Prep gets higher test scores than Montclair. But does that really mean it offers a better education? Only if you define the function of public education so anemically as to measure it with standardized test scores in two subject areas.

Should public schools teach all students math and reading and prepare them to earn a living when they grow up? Of course they should and they must. But few people are willing to throw everything away in order to limit a lifetime of schooling to these very narrow goals. At least, not for their own kids.

And that is where my biggest concern lies. I am a white woman. Emily Lawson is white, Rick Hess is white, and I did not see a black face for two days as a participant at the Emerging Education Policy Scholars (EEPS) conference, an elite gathering of educational policy makers and hand-picked young academics in D.C. this July co-hosted by AEI and the Fordham Institute. Nevertheless, everyone present insisted that poor minority children required the kind of paternalistic, paramilitary education on display at DC Prep. By claiming that they are providing students with the basic necessities for employment, these white policy makers offer a moral salve for what is otherwise a potentially gross social injustice.

Sitting amid a sea of white faces at EEPS, I confessed that I was uncomfortable with educational policy that accepted and reinforced racially segregated and unequal public schools in America. Discussion leaders pressed me to offer a different solution. I used the example of Montclair to suggest that by deliberately promoting racially and socio-economically integrated public schools, we could avoid the troubling prospect of endorsing two forms of public education in America. But this option, you see, is not on the table in Washington, D.C., or in the minds of the folks who establish and run charter schools or write about educational policy in America. I was dismissed out of hand—we already tried forced busing, it didn’t work, and nobody liked it, and it is unlikely to ever happen again, discussion leaders fired back at me.

Creating integrated schools is not an easy prospect, and as an educational historian, I will be the first to admit this. But it is not an impossibility either, as I know first-hand. By 1990, Americans had created successfully integrated public schools across the country through a variety of programs like magnet schools and busing that broke down the walls between middle-class and poor students. The past two decades, however, have witnessed a rapid re-segregation of our public schools. A more conservative Supreme Court has made the prospect of school integration more complicated, but by no means illegal or impossible.

There is no easy solution to the problem of failing public schools in America. Creating racially and socio-economically integrated schools, for all of its challenges and shortcomings, at least has the advantage of equalizing opportunity and derailing efforts to create an educational system that has one objective and one set of rules for poor minority kids, and a vast wealth of options and opportunities for everyone else.


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: September 22, 2011
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16546, Date Accessed: 1/27/2022 8:53:24 PM

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About the Author
  • Zoë Burkholder
    Montclair State University
    E-mail Author
    ZOË BURKHOLDER is a historian of education and an assistant professor of Educational Foundations in the College of Education and Human Services at Montclair State University. She is the author of Color in the Classroom: How American Schools Taught Race, 1900-1954 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).
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