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Posted at 04:00 AM ET, 05/16/2012

Why education inequality persists — and how to fix it

This was written by John Jackson, president of the Schott Foundation for Public Education, and Pedro Noguera, the Peter L. Agnew professor of education at New York University.

By John H. Jackson and Pedro Noguera

If it takes a village to raise a child, the same village must share accountability when many children are educationally abandoned. In New York City, the nation’s largest school system, on average student outcomes and their opportunity to learn are more determined by the neighborhood where a child lives, than his or her abilities.

A new Schott Foundation for Public Education report, “A Rotting Apple: Education Redlining in New York City,” reveals that the communities where most of the city’s poor, black and Hispanic students live suffer from New York policies and practices that give their schools the fewest resources and their students the least experienced teachers. In contrast, the best-funded schools with the highest percentage of experienced teachers are most often located in the most economically advantaged neighborhoods.

Schott’s new report documents gaps that have not only long been accepted in New York City but are also institutionalized by city and state policies.

The report finds that a black or Hispanic student is nearly four times more likely to be enrolled in one of the city’s poorest performing high schools than an Asian or white, non-Hispanic student. According to review of 2009-10 data, none of the city’s strongest schools are located in the poorest neighborhoods of Harlem, the South Bronx, and central Brooklyn. Schools with the highest scores are found in northeastern Queens, the and the Upper East Side. As a result of New York City policies, black, Latino and low-income students have very limited access to those schools.

Districts with higher poverty rates have fewer highly educated, experienced teachers and less stable teaching staffs. Students from low-income New York City families of all ethnic groups have little chance of being tested for gifted-and-talented program eligibility. Few black and Hispanic students are selected for the city’s top exam schools, such as Stuyvesant and the Bronx High School of Science.

The real outrage, then, is not our vivid language but how education in New York City is more likely to reinforce existing patterns of inequality than to serve as a pathway to opportunity. It is as if New York is testing black, Latino and poor students on their swimming abilities after knowingly relegating them to pools where the water has been drained. These students are then stigmatized as failures, their parents labeled as less than fully engaged, and their teachers called ineffective. Ultimately, their community’s schools are closed rather than being supplied with the necessary resources and supports to flourish. One cannot ignore the impact of such policies and practices on the public image of blacks and Latinos males and the profiling that exists in our society.

Under these circumstances it is reasonable for parents to call for no more tests and reject the closure of their neighborhood schools that have been drained of resources, for students to walk out, and for parents to seek to enroll their students in better schools even when district laws don’t permit them to do so.

Yes, some schools in high-poverty, high-minority areas perform well, but not nearly enough to say that New York City is offering all students a fair and substantive opportunity to learn. Even in the days of legal, state-sponsored segregation, some students and schools were able to swim upstream against a current of inequality. This should not cause us to be any more accepting of bad policies. We should not forget that many more students, schools and good teachers are drowning because of policies that exacerbate racial and wealth inequities.

Parents, teachers, and political leaders must reject long-standing practices that undermine students’ opportunity to learn in the city’s most neglected communities. In their place, they must advocate for genuine reforms, which will assure equitable access to good schools and programs.

As a first step, New York State should restore funding for education equity that was dramatically reduced over the past two years. Recent cuts have undermined the ruling in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity’s lawsuit that the state must provide a “sound basic education” to all children.

At the same time, the city’s Department of Education should direct additional resources to schools based on student needs. Schools serving children from homes with fewer resources should receive significantly more per-student funding than those serving students in wealthier neighborhoods.

Every kindergarten student should take the gifted-and-talented program test to identify talent at an early age. Similarly, all middle schools should offer the courses necessary for the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test. Tutoring should be offered to low-income students so they can do their best on these crucial gatekeeper exams.

Finally, every school should conduct an “opportunity audit” to determine if they are offering each student a fair and substantive opportunity to learn.

The New York City public school system is the biggest apple on the U.S. education tree. By enforcing policies that aggressively dismantle educational inequality — rather than reinforce educational redlining — many more students can thrive in our classrooms, our labor force, and our democracy.

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