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OPINION: Standards can't make separate equal

Amy Stuart Wells is a professor of sociology and education and the director of the Center for Understanding Race and Education (CURE) at Teachers College, Columbia University.



Yesterday an advocate of high academic standards and school accountability was sworn in as New York State commissioner of education. David Steiner seems convinced the best way to close the yawning achievement gaps across different racial and ethnic groups is to raise the bar via mandated standards that dictate what concepts are taught and tested in schools, while creating negative consequences for educators when students fail.

Yet, as Steiner takes office my colleagues and I are releasing a study of five Long Island school districts, funded by the Long Island Index, that offers a sharp reminder of the limitations of his standards-based approach given the separate and unequal conditions in which a growing number of public school students are being educated. Unless we face these issues, standards-based reform will never succeed.

Long Island is one of the most racially segregated areas of the country, and one of the most fragmented by small school district boundary lines. My colleagues and I studied one extremely wealthy and almost all-white school district, one very poor district that is entirely black and Hispanic, and three others that are more diverse overall, although two are experiencing rapid white flight and increasing poverty.

We observed many of the well-measured "harms of segregation" - especially the inability of poor, mostly black and Hispanic school districts to hire and retain the most qualified educators.

But we also learned that when state standards and tests interact with the inequality of schools and communities, the great equalizing effect supposedly exerted via the accountability system - teaching all students to high standards - simply never occurs. Educators, parents and students alike confirmed that despite the standards, state exams and a statewide definition of "proficiency," there is very little consistency across these five districts in the quality of education students are receiving.

In the poor school district the standards and tests are the ceiling for student achievement - the illusive goal schools strive toward but cannot reach despite boring lessons designed to drill the students on the basic concepts. In the affluent district, meanwhile, the state tests and standards are the floor, taken for granted as students, parents and counselors stress out about advanced placement classes and Ivy League college applications.

These discrepancies have less to do with state mandates than they do with local inequalities that manifest themselves in disparate educational support systems, at school and at home, available to students, as well as critical differences in educators' expectations of their students, the students' sense of their academic identity, and the communities' understanding of their educational rights. Each of these is, in turn, related to the districts' concentration of racial minorities and affluence.

Our up-close look at inequality on Long Island says it loud and clear: Steiner and other policy-makers are missing an important piece of the puzzle when they contemplate the best way to improve public education and close racial and ethnic achievement gaps.

The good news is that others in the policy world are acknowledging the need for change. In a speech last week, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan cited Martin Luther King Jr.'s frustration with the lack of racial integration in public schools by 1963, nine years after the Supreme Court's Brown decision, when most minorities were still isolated in their own classrooms. According to Duncan, "Many still are today, and we must work together to change that."

Still, no one, Duncan included, is suggesting a return to the integration policies of yesteryear. The U.S. Supreme Court and millions of parents across the country have rejected the involuntary reassignment of students to schools to create more racial and ethnic mixing.

But there are countless ways to tweak existing school choice policies, including charter school laws, to provide greater support for educators and communities that want racially diverse schools. Other recommendations include inter-district transfer programs and magnet schools that allow students to cross boundaries.

Still another, more politically contentious, option is to consolidate some of Long Island's tiny and thus costly school districts. It may well be that the population there cannot economically sustain these districts much longer anyway. Furthermore, while the obstacles to school district consolidation are great, national opinion poll data, including some from Long Island, reveal a silent majority of parents of all racial and ethnic backgrounds who embrace racially diverse public schools and would enroll their children in them if more were available. In fact, according to the 2009 Long Island Index report, 64 percent of all Long Islanders, including 61 percent of whites, said they favored district consolidation as a way to address public school segregation, inequality and inefficiency.

Steiner has the floor now. We hope he doesn't make it the ceiling for the most disadvantaged students in New York.