Op-Ed: In again! Out again! A need for more equitable schools

McTighe and Wiggins, proponents of ‘backwards curriculum-design’ popular among teaching communities, refer to the importance of asking essential questions. The best ones, they argue, are perennial and enduring. They weather turbulent roads – Gordian knots – and are open-ended, thought provoking, and intellectually engaging.

Since beginning a teaching career in 1995, I’ve found myself revisiting three questions: “Why poverty? Why educational inequities? Why tremendous imparity?”

Op-ed submit bugI’ve realized, as economist Stephen C. Smith writes, that poverty is powerlessness. Although a basic education is the foundation of self-reliance, our nation’s economic variance does not allow all children a clear pathway to success. As the Bridgeport Child Advocacy Coalition recently reported, we have yet to address the needs of children living in poverty.

Until we do, it is unlikely that academic performance will improve in Connecticut.

I’m a fan of Dr. Seuss’s Star-Bellied Sneetches. In his story, Sneetches with ‘stars upon thars’ are considered ‘best’ simply because they are born to privilege (and enjoy Frankfurter parties on beaches). A businessman, however, Sylvester McMonkey McBean, arrives and creates dissonance through offering plain-bellied Sneetches the opportunity to be like star-bellied ones.

‘For a small fee’ and work ‘100% guaranteed’ McBean transforms plain-bellied Sneetches in his ‘star-on machine.’ Yet, the original star-bellied Sneetches are willing to pay more to have their stars removed. Malarkey ensues until McBean packs up and leaves. The tycoon profits on Sneetch hubris and the mythology that one community is truly superior to another.

How different are we from the Sneetches? Hasn’t history shown that those of us with expendable resources pay, sometimes exuberantly, to live in communities away from those who have less? Haven’t school districts been built upon similar machines that measure particular frames of knowledge and intelligence to benefit particular groups over others?

Scholar Gerald Grant writes in Hope and Despair in The American City that the best way to effectively close achievement gaps is through the creation of countywide school districts and the intentional mix of children from varying socio-economics.

This, he argues, allows children of poverty a better chance to attend high-quality schools. Segregated school districts – like those existing within Connecticut’s current zip code apartheid – ineffectively assist children to advance.

He asks, “Do we believe in a nation that welcomes all comers, provides a level playing field in all its public schools, relishes the clash of ideas, and as a consequence, enjoys one of the highest rates of upward mobility in the world?”

I know I do. We need larger investments to democratize our schools.

For over 10 years I taught in Jefferson County in Louisville, Ky. – one of the school districts highlighted by Grant. Like southern Connecticut, Louisville hosts the lowest and highest test scores in the state, yet families there have options and choice for where they send their children.

I taught at the J. Graham Brown School, a K-12 public facility with a mission of self-directed learning. We purposefully enrolled youth from each of the cities’ 26 zip codes with a curriculum that celebrated the diversity of our community. We regarded creativity, innovation, and flexibility as necessary elements of education.

All children in Connecticut deserve a similar curriculum.

British anthropologist Steven Vertovec, who coined the term ‘super-diversity’ to explain how globalization is changing demographics around the world, predicts it will be unwise for any community to see itself in homogeneous terms in the future.

Instead, heterogeneity is quickly becoming a new norm (see“Census Projects New ‘Majority Minority’ Tipping Points – it is here right now). Tomorrow’s leaders will need an ability to collaborate with a pastiche of perspectives and ignoring the ideologies of any group will only create suspicion.

Many who are invested in the democracy of public schools in Connecticut have grown skeptical of recent reform policies because teachers in the state have been scapegoated for the larger ills of society. Educators know that Connecticut’s deep chasms will not lessen until political leaders commit to financing more equitable and equal playing fields for all of our communities.

Until educational, occupational, and social opportunities are parallel, ubiquitous injustices will remain.

Connecticut needs more sustainable reforms. As Grant writes, “It takes vision on a larger scale to change the context within which neighborhood reforms will succeed.” More parents need to be heard, more teachers need support and professional development to reach diverse learners in their classroom, and more students need curriculum that helps them find their voice in a complicated, always evolving world.

The ‘in again/out again’ mechanism of the McBean reform era has only demonstrated more of the same – a lack of progress. To tackle the state’s famous achievement gaps, there must be more unraveling of occupational, residential, and financial inconsistencies. The mogul profited because he felt the Sneetches ‘never learn.’

Yet, they did. Perhaps we will learn one day, too.

Bryan Ripley Crandall is the director of the Connecticut Writing Project and assistant professor in the Graduate School of Education and Allied Professions at Fairfield University. He can be reached at bcrandall@fairfield.edu.

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