Breaking the Cycle

Posted: January 14, 2013 by meghandoran in Uncategorized

As Boston’s attempt to change the way students are assigned to schools nears to a close, the Boston Busing/Desegregation Project continues to advocate that we carefully consider the lessons of the past through this process. If a recent article in the Boston Globe is any indication, there’s a lot more work that needs to be done to together to apply the lessons of this history to today. Of particular interest to us (not surprisingly) was this section of the article:

This patchwork — which, incidentally, costs millions each year to operate — is intended to give more students the opportunity to attend quality schools. It also reflects another, somewhat more antiquated goal: desegregation.

Before school busing in the 1970s, Boston had white schools and minority schools. But after four decades of white flight, that is hardly the case. The public school system is just 13 percent white. If you take the exam schools out of the equation, the percentage drops into the single digits. You couldn’t segregate the Boston public schools now if you wanted to.

That doesn’t necessarily soothe the fears of those who don’t trust the School Department when it proclaims its commitment to fairness. It doesn’t help that most of the district’s underperforming schools, to this day, are in minority neighborhoods.

Our gut reaction: we cringe to see school desegregation referred to as ‘antiquated.’ If schools continue to be racially and economically segregated (whether within public schools, between public schools and private schools or between the city and its suburbs) then it seems school desegregation is unrealized rather than antiquated. We’ve heard from many people involved in the struggle for equal quality education in Boston leading up to 1974 that school desegregation was a strategy aimed at bringing more quality and better resources to kids in an inequitable, segregated system. This leads us to see a continuity with our past, rather than a break with it: in the 1970’s parents were struggling to get the best possible education for their children, and they continue to do the same today. Today, just as then, there continues to be considerable inequities in the system, with struggling schools concentrated in areas that are highly segregated by race and class.

We take issue with the assertion that ‘you couldn’t segregate the Boston Public schools now if you wanted to.’  First, as the Globe article points us, there is segregation in the schools right now, with more kids with privilege having access to some of the highest performing schools in the system (especially the exam schools). Second, there is reasonable concern that a return to neighborhood schools could exacerbate the problems we are already facing in our system today: race and class inequities in education. There is a complex relationship between race, class and neighborhood in this city, one which, if we learned anything from the 1970s, we ignore at our own peril.

We know that the city’s External Advisory Committee has grappled with some of these issues, but we fear they haven’t been given the time, space or resources to do so in a meaningful way. At the Boston Busing/Desegregation Project, we are less concerned with how different or similar the city is today to the 1970s, and more concerned with a more pressing question pertaining to the past: How do we break this cycle? There are definitely some answers out there, but only if we go looking for long term solutions rather than short term fixes – another important lesson from the past.   

  1. Becky Shuster, member, BBDP Steering Committee says:

    One obvious indicator that we are not “done” with school segregation in Boston is that the schools that are rated as having the highest quality (even if those ratings are imperfect at best) are much more likely to have significant numbers of white students than other schools. In addition, the demographics of Boston neighborhoods vary greatly, so neighborhood schools still yield segregation. I wish desegregation efforts were “antiquated,” but unfortunately, we’re not there yet!

  2. bobshore says:

    The focus really does need to be on “How do we break the cycle?” but we need to be very clear what that cycle is. I’ll leave that to you to consider and expand on.

    Boston Public Schools have a very high concentration of lower incomes; english language learners; and special needs. So it is carrying much of the broader society’s burden. Funding to BPS needs to reflect this – Boston should get more state and federal funding. And funding to specific schools needs to reflect this, in a realistic way – not just a few extra dollars.

    Finally, it doesn’t help to simply criticize, or push for solutions that fly in the face of reality. It’s a fact that out of school factors have a tremendous impact on in school performance. Let’s break the cycle by trying to acknowledge that, and address it. So many want to wish it away, or feel that we can’t openly discuss that. If we can talk about it, we can build programs to address it.

    Similarly, let’s acknowledge that you can’t force a parent who has another option to send their child to a bad school. Not in any neighborhood. While there are more parents with options in some neighborhoods, I can assure you that many parents in every neighborhood are working the system to get their children into better schools. Let’s talk in a real-world way about what it means that you can’t, and shouldn’t, tell other parents how to raise their children. Wish all you want, it’s still wrong and it’s still just a fantasy.

    In short, yes, let’s break the cycle. But we can’t do that until we start to develop an implementable way forward, based on facts and research and reality. It has to be something we could actually do now, and it can’t have unintended consquences that further damage BPS.

    • emily berg says:

      So – I think you are saying that 1. BPS should get a lot more money; 2. all kinds of things outside of schools impact a kid’s school performance; 3. it’s a bad idea to try to force parents to send their kids to a bad school because it will strengthen resistance. All true, and important to keep in mind. But also remember that #1 isn’t happening these days so we have to work without extra money; #2 is usually a coded way of saying that if there are many “underprivileged” kids in a school it might not be good enough for my child; and #3 can be agreed with by everyone, including people who want to maintain their privilege and don’t care about equal access. You CAN care about equal access and still know you have to bring people along rather than fight them every inch – but watch out for excuses from relatively privileged people for maintaining their privilege at the expense of others who are traditionally shut out.

      • bobshore says:

        “#2 is usually a coded way of saying …”

        Coded is a not-very-coded way of calling people you don’t know a racist. That’s morally offensive and uncalled for. The proclivity of people to call anyone who doesn’t want to send their kids to a bad school a racist is part of why we can’t resolve these things. You and so many others really need to try a new approach. People are mostly well intentioned people with morals and a conscience. Try something that works, something constructive instead of destructive.

        Not accepting #1 might be another place to focus your efforts.

        And on both counts – you’re playing into the hands of people who are happy to see BPS parents battle each other, as it means they’re not standing outside City Hall focusing their anger where it belongs. You need to think a lot harder about who the real enemies are.

  3. emily berg says:

    Whew! Bob, I apologize for sounding like I was calling you a racist. I did not mean to do so; as you point out, I don’t even know you. And I do agree with you about not settling for the schools having to get along with too little money; my comment was offhand and wrong because I wanted to get to what I thought was an important point. And I still think it is.

    I just saw your post, and want to think about how to respond, so I won’t finish now; so thank you for not just walking away but taking the time and effort to write again. I will too.

  4. emily berg says:

    Hello again
    Just a couple things: First of all, please note that I specifically said that you CAN care about equal access to quality and still agree that people must be brought along gradually and positively rather than fought against. For example you can agree that the old-style purposive segregation of the pre-1974 BPS was wrong without agreeing that the busing plan that led to so much violence was a good way to try to end it. It wasn’t. At the same time, it is true that many white people justified their opposition to integration by pointing out the violence. The racist SYSTEM (not just attitudes, but a system of separate. worse schools for black people) was justified, rationalized, ignored by white people who said, sincerely, that they only wanted what was best for their children. Similarly today, there are many white people who although of course, like all parents, only want what is best for their children, do not want to be part of a solution to a problem they see as not theirs. And I stand by my assertion that there are many CODED ways of not opposing racism, of not-seeing it on purpose. Actually I think the code is much more developed now than it was forty years ago, since it has become socially unacceptable among most people to be an out-and-out racist. To say this is not to say that everyone who points out that problems at home make problems for kids in school, is a racist.

    I do agree with you, Bob, that there are good, constructive ways to break down segregation and racist attitudes and systems. Good schools are magnets for all races; this has been shown again and again. To me this also shows (and here again we agree) that most people are well-intentioned and have a conscience. It’s also true that most people have a lot going on in their lives, and may think they don’t have the time and strength to devote to solving this intractable problem, so they find the best individual solution they can and move on.

    I think you and I agree on many things. Maybe we disagree on whether it is important or not to look for racism – its legacy and its workings today – when we analyze the situation. I think it is, because I think it’s very much alive today and it undermines our progress everywhere. i also think unearthing it and noticing its consequences and trying to end it CAN BE DONE without making enemies of most white people.

  5. bobshore says:

    This is an old post, but …

    “#2 is usually a coded way of saying that if there are many “underprivileged” kids
    in a school it might not be good enough for my child”

    It’s very clear what the quotes around “underprivileged” mean. And it’s also very clear what “coded” means. Even if none of those you attribute this to are within earshot – it is not a fair, reasonable or constructive approach to make the assumption you make.

    Also, it’s just wrong to suggest the above quote has the meaning of this comment:

    “It’s a fact that out of school factors have a tremendous impact on in school performance.
    Let’s break the cycle by trying to acknowledge that, and address it.”

    So – rather than feel you need to restate and translate and decode what others are saying –

    Why not take it at face value and consider the point:

    “It’s a fact that out of school factors have a tremendous impact on in school performance.
    Let’s break the cycle by trying to acknowledge that, and address it.”

    It is a fact, plainly stated. No translation or decoding needed. It is *the* central fact, by a great margin, about the performance of Boston’s schools and the outcomes they achieve for our students.

    And no one is really talking about it. If we can’t talk about it, we can’t address it.

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