Two thoughts on the latest Steiny column

Julia Steiny has another column up.  It’s sort of about “good” public schools charging tuition to outsiders, sort of about social justice, and sort about ambitious plans for economic integration. I think her conclusion is something like, “Cross-pollinating school districts is a good idea”, which seems right, as far as it goes.

If you’re interested in such things, go read the column.  But it did leave me with two very distinct thoughts that might be worth mentioning.

Thought #1:

Uh-oh.  Someone just sounded the horn of cultural imperialism.  Here’s an unreasonably out-of-context paragraph pulled from Steiny’s latest piece:

Actually, research has a magic number: 40 percent.  The percentage of students who qualify for federally-subsidized lunch, the big poverty indicator, should never exceed 40.  More than that creates a critical mass of kids growing up with “street” values and limited perspective.

She said “values.”  She implied that some systems of values held by people in poverty are incompatible with education, and thus probably (hushed whisper) worse.

No, she couldn’t have meant that, could she?  I mean, it’s not like she actually said that poverty values were bad and middle class values were good, did she?  She didn’t raise one way of thinking and living above other legitimate cultural choices, did she?  Let’s see what she says next.  I’m sure it will help explain what she meant.

The middle-class background of the 60 percent steeps low-income students in a cultural environment that helps them achieve at higher levels than their peers in segregated schools.  Yes, middle-class parents often enable their kids in silly, helicopter ways, but generally they also expect decent performance from them.  And they definitely demand the best from the school itself.


Steiny clearly didn’t get the memo that right-thinking people aren’t allowed to say things like this.

She gonna get in trouble…

Thought #2:

This is an excellent opportunity to point out that what Steiny is talking about is economic integration, and to contrast it with what Professor Kirp was discussing the other day, which is race-based integration.

Take, for example, the impressive story of Wake County, North Carolina.  In 1979, the suburban County school system absorbed the school district of gritty inner-city Raleigh for the express purpose of economic desegregation.  Over time, using a choice program instead of forced busing, the merged district shifted student populations towards the 40/60 balance.

And lo!  The biggest winners were low-income Afro-American males.  Books have been written about Wake County’s success with challenged students. Middle-class kids were in no way harmed.

Quite the opposite.  At the time, the booming economy allowed Wake County to build super-attractive school programs in Raleigh, to attract the 60 percenters back into the inner city.  The suburban middle class hated the 45-minute bus rides, but loved the high-tech high, engineering magnet, or fabulous performing arts program at the other end.   (Sadly, some of that middle class recently elected a school board to dismantle this good work.

Now, the two may be functionally the same, dealing with dramatically similar allocations of students.  But there’s a legal difference between treating people based on race and treating them based on economic circumstances.

The trick, of course, is getting all the parents in the district to agree to it.

* * * * *

I could be wrong, of course.  That these thoughts were worth mentioning, I mean.


Study: Few affluent U.S. districts are world class

America’s elite suburban districts rarely provide a world-class education, concludes When the Best is Mediocre, a study by Jay Greene and Josh McGee in Education Next. Their Global Report Card compares math and reading between 2004 and 2007 for most U.S. public school districts with the average in 25 developed countries that are “economic peers and sometime competitors.”
Well-to-do and politically connected families believe they’ve escaped mediocre schools by moving to affluent suburban districts, Greene and McGee write. But their children won’t be competing with inner-city students, when they grow up. In a global economy, they’ll be competing for top jobs with  top students from around the world.

In wealthy, white-and-Asian Beverly Hills, students score in the 76th percentile in math compared to other California students, but only in the 53rd percentile on the Global Report Card.

If Beverly Hills were relocated to Canada, it would be at the 46th percentile in math achievement, a below-average district. If the city were in Singapore, the average student in Beverly Hills would only be at the 34th percentile in math performance.

The top district in the U.S. is Pelham in Massachusetts: The average student scores at the 95th percentile in math compared to the international average. The district includes Amherst College and other elite colleges and universities are nearby.

Palo Alto schools, which educate the children of Stanford professors and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs (and my daughter!) hit the 64th percentile in math.

Seven of the top 20 public-school districts in math achievement are charter schools (some states treat charters as their own districts), Greene and McGee write. The list includes Roxbury Prep in Boston and KIPP Infinity in New York City, “no-excuses” schools for low-income black and Hispanic students.

Many of the traditional districts with top scores are rural rather than suburban.

Overall, only 6 percent of U.S. school districts score in the top third on the Global Report Card. Most are small.

Big-city districts do poorly on the report card:  The average Washington, D.C. student is at the 11th percentile in math, the Detroit student at the 12th percentile, Los Angeles at the 20th, New York City at the 32nd and Miami at the 33rd percentile.