How Can Public Schools Stop Amplifying Inequality?

Low-income communities continue to look for the best ways to improve their schools as the income gap grows across America.
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The final quote in Robert D. Putnam’s Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis (Simon & Schuster, 2016) comes from Jay Ash, city manager of what Putnam describes as the “gritty, working-class Boston suburb of Chelsea.” Ash says, “If our kids are in trouble—my kids, our kids, anyone’s kids—we all have a responsibility to look after them.”

This is the warm, democratic premise of Putnam’s book, rejecting the individualism so in vogue, instead embracing “a more generous, communitarian tradition” in our history: All kids are our kids.

But if all kids are our kids, we’ve got a lot of work to do. Putnam drenches the reader in studies and statistics to demonstrate that the rich are getting richer, the poor poorer, and the ones who suffer the most are the children of the poor. And poor kids not only suffer in the here and now: Their opportunities for a decent life in the future are shredded by the economic hardship that tears through their families, communities, and schools.

But if all kids are our kids, we’ve got a lot of work to do.

The huge gulf between rich and poor, the “incipient class apartheid,” Putnam argues, largely began in the 1970s. One community he highlights is Bend, Oregon. Despite 54 percent per capita income growth in the 1990s, the number of people living below the poverty line doubled, and the ratio of “low earners” to “high earners” went from 7-to-1 to almost 12-to-1. Everywhere he looked, Putnam found increasing neighborhood class segregation: “More and more families live either in uniformly affluent neighborhoods or in uniformly poor neighborhoods.”

Putnam points out that the widening residential patterns matter because class-segregated neighborhoods send young people to segregated schools, and these schools become “echo chambers” for whatever privileges or liabilities those kids bring from home and from their neighborhoods. Putnam does not argue that schools create inequality, but he does show how schools amplify inequality.

The argument that poverty hurts children is not original. But when we put these kids’ lives at the center of our thinking about everything from housing policy to jobs to schools, the ugliness of inequality comes into sharp relief; we see the world more clearly, more truthfully. And that’s the strength of Our Kids.

Putnam does not argue that schools create inequality, but he does show how schools amplify inequality.

Putnam’s gaze is trained on class rather than race, although he acknowledges in a chapter that focuses on Atlanta, that “skin color alone continues to affect residents’ life chances.” But the reason he chooses Atlanta to feature seems to be to make his point that, “the black community itself is polarized along economic lines.” Yes, but the thin treatment of the impact of race on children’s prospects is striking in a book whose main purpose is to alert readers to the impact of hardening inequality on children. Tell Sean Bell, Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and countless other youth of color that class matters more than race in determining one’s life prospects.

Invisible teachers

I spent most of my working life as a high school teacher. The more I read of Our Kids, the more invisible I felt. Putnam cares deeply for our kids, but strangely, he doesn’t seem to consider their teachers, or what goes on in their classrooms. He writes scathingly about what he heard from students about the atmosphere at Santa Ana, an Orange County, California, high school: “students whispering threats of mayhem in the classroom, and teachers confining themselves to babysitting.” In the book, he never sets foot in a school, nor does he talk with a single teacher.

Over several years, I did workshops with teachers from Santa Ana and other Orange County schools, through the I-Teach program at Chapman University in the town of Orange. In Rethinking Schools magazine, I-Teach coordinators Marianne Smith and Jan Osborn described the aim of this remarkable program: “to develop teachers from and for immigrant and/or low-income communities who would remain in the profession, stay connected with their community, and model the potential of community members meeting the needs of their children. Simply put, students from the community would return to the community as educators.”

Teachers can and do help students think critically about the sources of inequality.

My experience with the diverse teachers in the I-Teach program—almost three-quarters were first-generation college students, 91 percent were bilingual, with a deep commitment to the communities they came from—was no more “scientific” than the selection of students Putnam found. And yet as I read, my mind kept returning to these young teachers and their eagerness to address the inequality that Our Kids describes in such painful detail.

Schools surely can be wretched places, and teachers are too often agents of that wretchedness. But schools also can be sites where inequality is exposed and undermined. Students are victims of inequality, but not only; teachers can and do help students think critically about the sources of inequality. In Rethinking Schools magazine, we have featured numerous stories of teachers alerting their students to patterns of dispossession, as in the so-called Tulsa Race Riots, when whites waged war on the African American Greenwood section of Tulsa, and crippled that community’s economic viability. Recent articles have shown how students are eager to explore the gentrification of their neighborhoods and the roots of the growing inequality that is part of their daily journey to school.

For years, my wife Linda Christensen and I taught a unit on the history and politics of U.S. schooling at Jefferson High School, largely African American and working class, in Portland, Oregon. We went on field trips to schools serving wealthier communities and analyzed the hidden curriculum at these schools as well as our own. Through role play, students saw how standardized testing was designed to give a scientific glow to class and race stratification, and was used in high schools to segregate students into supposed ability groups. Analyzing inequality doesn’t eliminate it, but study can strip it of its inevitability and can help students see what needs to change—and how. This kind of critical teaching goes on all across the country, and is shared in teaching-for-social-justice conferences from San Francisco to St. Louis to New York City.

Students are eager to explore the gentrification of their neighborhoods.

The great silence in Our Kids is collective action: social movement. We are in a time of activist revival in education. I kept wanting Putnam to talk, for example, about how the new social justice teacher unions are siding with the very communities hit hardest by growing inequality. One of the most inspiring of these is the Chicago Teachers Union, which is fighting the closure of schools serving the poor and people of color, and went on strike for “the schools our children deserve”—a great slogan, but, in Chicago, much more than just a slogan. Another trailblazing union, the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association (MTEA) was a leading member of a 19-organization, community-wide movement against the “New Jim Crow,” in a city profoundly segregated by race. And teachers at Garfield High School in Seattle electrified education advocates everywhere when they unanimously voted to refuse to administer tests that they felt stole valuable learning time from their students—and then maintained their solidarity even when threatened with suspension without pay.

And there are young people—our kids—involved in all these struggles and more. The Providence Student Union (PSU) comes to mind. One of the PSU’s more imaginative demonstrations is described by student activists in Jesse Hagopian’s book, More Than a Score: “Green skin sparkled, sunken eyes stared, and torn, ‘blood’-spattered clothes dragged as [students] shuffled down Westminster Street,” protesting, at the Rhode Island Department of Education, the “zombifying effects” of standardized testing. There are no such examples in Putnam’s book, even though it is clear he has great respect for the young people he features, who are self-aware, resourceful, and resilient.

Toward the end of Our Kids, Putnam writes that “This is a book without upper class villains.” But there are upper class villains. The policies that manufacture economic inequality—like free trade agreements that reward corporate executives for shipping jobs to low-wage havens—do, in fact, have authors. Yes, individuals play by the rules of a global capitalist system, but they also write those rules. Any strategy for change needs to have that analysis at its center.

Other ideas that he praises, like charter schools, show that Putnam is unaware of the broader corporate agenda to undermine public education by taking advantage of legitimate grievances. In most instances, these are not initiatives from poor communities, but ideas pushed by the “billionaire boys,” in the words of public schools defender Diane Ravitch. There are charter schools doing good work, but as can be seen clearly in a city like New Orleans, charters are less a strategy to help poor kids than they are a way to break teacher unions and privatize public schooling.

No, ultimately, our kids’ lives are going to become more equal and more just through the struggles of community organizations, unions, student groups, Black Lives Matter activists, and all those who begin to question and challenge the roots of our growing inequality. Our kids need us—not those who have created and benefited from the economic apartheid Putnam exposes.