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Posted at 05:00 AM ET, 06/11/2012

Challenging Eli Broad’s school memories

This was written by Carol Corbett Burris, principal of South Side High School in New York. She was named the 2010 New York State Outstanding Educator by the School Administrators Association of New York State.

By Carol Corbett Burris

The May 23rd edition of Education Week featured an opinion piece by Eli Broad, philanthropist and founder of two Fortune 500 companies. The piece entitled, “Never Let a Crisis Go to Waste,” presents his assessment of American schools, and why he thinks it is important that his
(Source: Bloomberg)
foundation enter the fray to fight “entrenched bureaucracies.”

Mr. Broad begins by nostalgically describing the past glories of the public schools that he attended. He tells us that he “is old enough to remember when America’s K-12 public schools were the best in the world.” He tells us how proud he was of the schools in his day, and uses words such as “shameful,” “embarrassment,” and “crisis” to describe today’s public schools.

I do not doubt that Mr. Broad attended a fine public school, but the reality of all public schooling in the late 1940s and 1950s does not square with his remembrance.

Two national reports, “Educational Attainment in the United States: 2009” and “120 Years of American Education: a Statistical Portrait,” provide insight into public schooling in the middle of the past century.

* Far fewer students attended and graduated high school when Eli Broad went to school. In 1950, about 32% of all Americans 25 years and over had earned a high school diploma. For those in Mr. Broad’s age group, there was only about a 50% chance of graduating high school.

* Far fewer students attended college as well. In 1950, only 5% of adults over 25 had a college degree. When Mr. Broad received his college degree, he was in an elite group of less than 10%.

* The good old days of Eli Broad were not so good if you were a black student. In 1950, the percentage of the population over 25 who were black and had a high school diploma was about 10%. That is correct — only one in 10. The high school diploma gap between blacks and whites in 1950 was nearly 20 percentage points.

* Schools were not as welcoming to young women when Mr. Broad was in school. Although the college completion rate for white males over 25 sharply rose between 1950 and 1991, it rose far more slowly for women, leaving an increasing gap which finally disappeared in the last decade. My mother, who attended high school during the same time period as Mr. Broad, was placed in a secretarial skills high school — the proper ‘place’ for young women from blue-collar families.

In the “greatest schools in the world” in the middle of the past century, those who were not male and white had a very different learning experience from Mr. Broad. Students with disabilities were isolated if they were served at all. Pregnant teens were pushed out the door. A dear friend of mine who came to the United States during the Operation Peter Pan airlift from Cuba in 1960, was considered “mentally retarded” when he enrolled in school because he did not speak English. There were not ESL programs in Mr. Broad’s public school. Truth be told, the schools he remembers were not designed for all, they were designed for the few.

As our nation finally assumed the responsibility of universal education, great strides in all of the above occurred. The 50% high school graduation rate of the 1950s is now 88%. Significant strides were made in closing the achievement gap when we were committed to integrating our schools, but there are now few politicians or philanthropists who have the courage to promote policies aimed at integrating our schools or neighborhoods. Yet we know that racially and socioeconomically diverse schools help to close those gaps.

Further, American students who currently attend schools in wealthy communities — those in which less than 10% of all students are poor – score at the top in reading, even higher than the students of Finland. Finland’s childhood poverty rate is 5%. Our rate is 23% which is one of the highest rates of child poverty in developed countries — only Romania’s rate is higher. Poverty matters.

Nowhere in Mr. Broad’s essay, however, does he acknowledge the role of poverty in producing lower achievement. Rather he opines that poor students have lower graduation rates because they have less access to the best teachers and because teacher pay and expectations are low so talented people are not attracted to teaching. Although it is true that schools in communities of concentrated poverty have a difficult time attracting and retaining experienced teachers, I find Mr. Broad’s implication that teachers are less talented to be both inaccurate and terribly insulting to the devoted educators with whom I work.

From his point of view, poor educational outcomes for poor children are not a reflection of their life circumstances or of pervasive structural inequalities in the U.S., but rather of the policies and practices of their schools. He even makes a stunning assertion about the Occupy Wall Street protesters. According to Mr. Broad, they are not protesting the enormous income gap between the mega-wealthy and the remaining 99% of America. Rather, their protests are aimed at a lack of opportunity because they did not receive a “solid education.” All roads of blame, it appears, lead back to public schools and their teachers.

I have no doubt that Mr. Broad is a skilled businessman, with expertise in home building. And I do believe him when he says that he wishes to find new solutions.

Here is an idea I hope he will try that would combine his talents in real estate with his aspirations for change in public schooling. In affluent neighborhoods across America, build low-income housing. Actively integrate the wealthiest neighborhoods, giving poor students instant access to the public schools treasured by America’s most affluent families. Give them access to the schools with outstanding educational resources. Give them access to the schools with guidance counselors trained to place students in America’s most prestigious colleges. Allow them to be in classrooms and on sports teams with kids whose parents have the wherewithal and the savvy to navigate the system so that they too can see the American dream in action and have models of success. Then follow their academic progress and careers.

I challenge Mr. Broad and his fellow philanthropists to take on the challenge of socio-economically and racially integrating our classrooms, neighborhoods and schools. Mr. Broad, schools like the one you remember still exist in many suburban neighborhoods. Now that all of America’s children are in school, please devote your efforts to make sure that America’s disadvantaged students are not segregated and isolated in schools far away from the rest of America’s children. Dispel the myth that separate can be equal; it cannot. That is the courageous change we need to really make a difference.

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