Off the Record: Rational Racism
by Gary Natriello - 1999
The wealthy suburban community was in an uproar. Immediately following a local school board election one of the newly elected members announced that she had discovered serious inequities in the distribution of resources among the district's several elementary schools. Moreover, the school with the largest concentration of minority students was apparently receiving the least resources. Further investigation revealed that the district's schools were in violation of the state's racial balance requirement, the result of the movement of families into and out of the sending areas over the years since the last redistricting effort.
Panic set in quickly. School board members, apparently caught off guard, proclaimed their concern over the issue. District administrators, who had known about but chosen to ignore the developing problem, feigned ignorance and tried to explain why, despite years of requests from board members for a modern student information system, they just did not seem to be able to assemble and analyze the data to understand the problem fully. Citizens took various predictable positions. Outraged members of the minority community pointed out that this current situation was merely the continuation of a pattern of shortchanging the education of minority students, a charge confirmed in every student performance report issued by the district. Other members of the community were publicly concerned about the issue, but privately resolved to see to it that the elementary school sending patterns were not altered. One neighbor attempted to reassure me that the real estate interests would never allow the redrawing of the elementary school sending patterns because it would disrupt home sales.
These reactions were all too predictable. They had occurred in this town and many other towns like it throughout the nation for years. What happened next may also have been predictable, but it is nevertheless instructive as an example of how seemingly rational responses to issues of equity and school district management harbor deep within them practices that, intentionally or not, protect the interests of dominant professional and community groups to the detriment of racial and ethnic minority families and their children.
The district leadership, administrators and board members, embraced the idea that the particular problems of resource inequity and racial imbalance should be attached to the broader agenda of long-range planning for the district. After all, the district should be interested in something more than just a piecemeal ad hoc solution to this problem. There may be no more telling testimony to the weak position of racial and ethnic minorities in communities like this suburban enclave than the fact that the community leaders could redefine an immediate problem of resource and racial imbalance as a "long-term" issue. But the redefinition of the issue to prevent immediate action was only the first step down a path paved with bureaucratic values and rational management bromides to reassure the professional class that dominated town affairs that their control would be maintained. Further down that path things became even more serious as the district contemplated a course of action that would not just delay addressing the problems of resource inequity and racial imbalance, but would also restructure the district's operations to make them less likely to address the needs of minority families and their children.
The proposal to reconfigure the grade levels of the district's elementary and middle schools seemed to come from nowhere, or at least one had to spend much more time at the local market to identify the source than I could spare. It was promoted by the district administrators, and perhaps it can be explained by the simple proclivity of administrators to administer, that is, to do new things. The proposal seemed simple enough. A district with four K-5 elementary schools out of resource and racial balance and a single middle school would be reconfigured as a district with three K-4 elementary schools, a single 5-6 upper elementary school, and a single 7-8 middle school.
The impact of any structural arrangement depends to some extent on the performance of individuals working within the structure, but each structure carries certain opportunities and limitations for students. The new structure contemplated as part of the long-range planning solution contained certain obvious implications for minority and at-risk students and their families.
The new structure would introduce an additional transition point; students who currently can complete the first nine years of their schooling career by attending only two different schools will attend three different schools under the new proposal. Of course, students who are mobile for other reasons will experience even more school transitions. Transitions pose problems for at-risk students for a number of reasons. There is the transition process itself as students who feel less connected to schooling in general are forced to leave one setting and reestablish themselves in a new one.
Beyond the process of making the transition and the disruption that may accompany it, the students and their families will confront the challenge of becoming acquainted with more new schools and more new school administrative personnel under the new grade level configuration than under the old configuration. This may seem a minor issue for the many professional parents who appear regularly at the schools of the district and at the regular school board meetings, but for parents less comfortable dealing with school administrators because of either language or class differences, it is likely to lie a more serious barrier. Parents will have less time in a school to develop working relationships with school personnel. They will have less knowledge of and access to school staff and will be less able to work the system to the advantage of their kids. This will create an advantage for professional class parents who are quickly able to establish their presence in a new school setting.
Corresponding to the reduced access to schools and school personnel for parents, particularly minority group parents, is the greater difficulty school personnel will have getting to know families and children when those families and children move through a school more quickly. This is particularly dramatic in the case of the envisioned upper elementary and middle schools, each of which would hold students for only two years. In these schools students and families could be leaving before they even begin developing a working relationship with school personnel. Moreover, every year in such schools over half of the students in the building would be new when grade level advancement is combined with other mobility. School personnel are likely to be constantly trying to get to know new families and children, and they will have the greatest difficulty connecting with families and children least like themselves, those racial, ethnic, and language minorities who have historically fared less well in the system.
Yet another limitation of reducing the span of grade levels in a particular school is that it would tend to reduce the accountability of school personnel for insuring student progress. It is much more difficult to hold a school accountable for student progress when the school has the student for only two years as opposed to six years. With the school having less time with each student we can expect less accountability for delivering student performance. Of course, this is something that redounds to the detriment of minority groups and at-risk students.
A final dilemma posed by the new configuration involves the relationship of the public school system in the community to other educational options. This particular community has experienced a pattern of parents with means moving their children to private schools at the end of elementary school. The .new configuration in which elementary students would change schools at die end of fourth grade is likely to hasten this process by which predominantly white students exit the public system, leaving greater concentrations of minority students in the system.
Moving to a reconfigured grade level arrangement might address the immediate numerical imbalance and might even contribute to alleviating the resource imbalance. Certainly, by placing more students in buildings serving the entire community it would appear to leave the system less inequitable. However, by adopting a configuration that carries special disadvantages for minority students and others less closely connected to bureaucratic middle-class culture, it will probably result in further deterioration of the performance of minority children.
What is striking about this particular local incident is the speed with which the interests and needs of racial and ethnic minority students were moved to the sidelines as the debate was captured by various factions of the dominant classes in the community. The transformation of an uncomfortable problem of minority access to genuine educational opportunity into a tractable professional management problem of rational planning made the issue safe for discussion among the dominant community groups and silenced those long overlooked in the development of the school program.