The cycle of our communal year begins with the first day of school. No matter our age or parental status, our social calendar does not start with New Year’s Day or the onset of spring. Instead, we craft our lives around summer, spring and fall breaks as if they were religious and civic holidays. This, as my father would say, is the tyranny of children.
One would think that because the academic calendar rules our lives we would naturally, as a greater society, care about the quality of our – the collective “our” – children’s learning.
Indeed, let us consider the communities that we lay out for our children, in the way that the grandmother sets out the large roast turkey before her eager family in Norman Rockwell’s famous Thanksgiving dinner painting. What kinds of communities have we set before the next generation?
As early as the 1930s and accelerating in the post-World War II boom years, we smoothed out a racially white table cloth as the foundation of suburban America. Until the Supreme Court struck them down in Shelley v. Kraemer in 1948, restrictive covenants against selling homes to Blacks and other racial or religious populations were ubiquitous. Termed “nuisances,” we codified mortgage restrictions against “the ingress of undesirable racial or nationality groups” so as to “preserve desirable neighborhood character,” to quote from the Federal Housing Act (FHA) underwriting manual of 1934. The centerpiece of “desirable character” was the prized financial asset, the single-family home (with “infiltration of business or commercial uses of properties” in neighborhoods also deemed a “nuisance”). Illinois and other states allowed municipalities to collect and keep property tax revenue, most notably funneled into their local public schools. Neighborhoods homogeneous by race and class came together like winding strands in a rope.
Although racial discrimination in housing was outlawed in 1968 with the federal Fair Housing Act, the china and silverware of our “neighborhood character” were already laid out.
Today, a child walking out of her house to go to school could skip on clean, patrolled, tree-lined streets, or trip on the cracks in the sidewalk lined with people unable to find a job in a miasma of despair.
There are those who say that race and money don’t matter in quality education – that success is primarily due to supportive parents and self-motivation. But reality tells a different story.
According to David Berliner, professor from Arizona State University, in a policy brief for the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice called “Poverty and Potential: Out-of-School Factors and School Success” (2009):
“… one’s zip code has both direct and indirect, and both positive and negative, effects on student achievement. On occasion, a school can substantially influence its own neighborhood characteristics and thus improve student performance both directly and indirectly. Far more often, however, it is the neighborhood characteristics that affect schools and their students’ achievement.” [Emphasis added]
Dr. Berliner cites several studies that show that the child’s neighborhood trumps the family or even the school they attend as the predictor of achievement, to the extent that even for otherwise demographically identical students, “the differences in educational achievement as a function of their neighborhood deprivation was estimated to be a difference of between the 10th and the 90th percentile on an achievement test.” He brings it home with a 2007 article about “a year of violence” affecting children in Chicago schools:
“Upstairs, in Room 301, the pain exists, but it’s harder to see. The teacher sees it, however, in the quiet temperament of the little boy who sits alone in the cafeteria because his best friend, Quinton’s 12-year-old brother, Marquise, is no longer there to eat with him. Marquise, too, was stabbed to death in an attack last month. But his friend sits there, alone, in the lunchroom, as if waiting for Marquise to show up. This is how the violent death of a student unhinges a school... [T]he deaths damage the community inside the school walls.”
Contrast this with an anecdote from an essay, “Crossing the Economic Divide” (1998), by a New Trier High School teacher, David Reinstein:
“The New Trier community… is the school’s greatest asset. One of my colleagues required students to interview professionals who use math in their careers. She did not help any of them find their subjects. When the assignments came in, she was overwhelmed. Not only did all the students have a relative or neighbor who fit the description, but almost all of them found someone who uses high-level mathematics in academia or engineering. Such a community does much more to increase student interest in academics than a school alone ever could.”
Watch a short documentary, The Education They Deserve, by the north suburban-based grassroots advocacy group United We Learn, for a sobering look at our starkly different urban and suburban neighborhoods as well as schools, which surely demonstrates that zip code matters.
Neighborhood predicts our children’s future. The racial achievement gap between schools attended primarily by whites and by African Americans and Latinos is “equivalent to two years of learning by the eighth grade,” according to a study by Prof. Derek Black of Howard University. Those with only a high school diploma can expect to earn $1 million less after forty years of full-time work than those with a college degree, as shown in recent Census data highlighted in a CNN story on the growing gap between the rich and poor.
To situate our children in the supportive communities they deserve, with love and the opportunity to express and share their unique and developed talents, we adults must collectively make those societal tables welcoming and nourishing.