Thinking about: Do magnet schools need white students to be great?

If you were moving into a new area and talking to your child’s new principal who said, “I’m proud to tell you that only 65 percent of our children fail to meet district standards in reading and writing,” how excited would you be about sending your child to that school? Yet, according to Jacqueline Rabe Thomas and Clarice Silber, in their excellent review of where we stand in Connecticut with magnet schools, “Statewide, 35 percent of students were at grade level in reading and writing.”

Moving schools toward greatness has little to do with the percentage of white students. It has much more to do whether or not the school operates on what has been called the soft bigotry of low expectations (especially of low-income students, bilingual students and students of color).

But first we need a historical perspective before discussing expectations. Magnet schools were a direct result of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) Prior to Brown the vast majority of American public schools were racially and economically segregated (a condition to which they are returning). Separate but equal schools was the acceptable judicial and political norm prior to Brown.

Creating magnets was driven by several ideas. First, it’s a good idea for white students and students of color to go to school together to prepare them for life in a diverse world.

Next, students in white middle class schools had access to more educational opportunities and had higher achievement. It was assumed that those opportunities led to better achievement. It was never assumed in the courts that white students per se were better able to succeed academically.

Next, the most numerous and powerful political actors in the United States were white and middle class. Access to opportunities such as those created by funding, quality staff and facilities, books and supplies have always depended on political power in local and state government. It was assumed that if predominantly minority schools had more white middle class student attending, the school community was more likely to have the political clout to increase student access to opportunities found in middle class schools.

The norm to which Brown and related court decisions spoke was never greatness, it was equal access to opportunity.

Thomas and Silber in talking about Hartford raise a question, what accounts for the 15 percent differences in reading and writing performance among the high-need students in neighborhood vs. magnet schools? Thomas (see, “Despite robust options, thousands pass on school-choice lottery”) suggests that higher numbers of special needs and high learning needs students tend to remain or be sent back to local schools from magnet schools.

There can be no doubt that dollars can help in making services available. Student performance between magnet and neighborhood schools suggests that dollars are not enough. Without high expectations for student behavior and student academic performance, dollars alone will not make a difference. Equal access to opportunity means equal access to high expectations. Simply getting more money without changing what we teach, how we teach and what we expect will not raise student achievement.

An outstanding example of those high expectations is the history of Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C (a majority African-American school) which can claim among its graduates the first African-American graduate of Harvard College, Charles Drew who discovered blood plasma, Benjamin O. Davis Jr., a graduate of West Point and the first African-American Air Force General, and Inez Smith Reid, judge of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals.

Low expectations for low-income students, especially those of color, are a symptom of a larger problem in Connecticut. Those low expectations are even found in state policy. Put simply, the state does not require that you know how to read and write or do math to get a high school diploma. Likewise the CIAC (Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Association) allows a student to arrive at the end of his or her senior year with four varsity letters, only 16 credits of 22 to 25 required, and a .5714 GPA.

Teachers who set high expectations teach to bring the skill levels of their students up to grade level or beyond. When faced with kindergarten students who did not know all of their letters and numbers, Kevin, one such teacher, taught those skills. But from the beginning of school he also taught the 100 words that kindergarteners should know by sight (the, he, be, who…) by the end of first semester. He did not wait to do so until they knew their letters; he knew they didn’t need letter skills to learn to recognize words by sight. If he had waited, the students would not have a chance to be on grade level for reading skills by the end of kindergarten.

Nicholas A. Fischer is a former superintendent of schools in New London, Fall River, MA. and Christina Public Schools, DE.

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