First Person

The idea of the American Dream works against my students. Here’s how ethnic studies could help.

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

A recent study laid out an uncomfortable paradox: For students of color, believing in the American Dream — namely the “bootstrap theory” that hard work and perseverance lead to success — predicts a decline in self-esteem and an increase in risky behaviors during middle school.

As Melinda Anderson put it in The Atlantic recently, this belief can become a liability for students “once they become keenly aware of how institutional discrimination disadvantages them and their group.”

That research only looked at a few hundred students in the southwest, and it’s always risky to draw broad conclusions based on a single study. But as a white teacher of mostly black students in Brooklyn, I’ve seen this firsthand.

My students reliably pick up on nuance, particularly when it comes to issues of fairness. If you are told that your world is a meritocracy, and your neighborhood looks like a disaster zone, you may reasonably come to the conclusion that your options are limited and internalize the idea that they should be.

Educators have a responsibility to confront and fight against these beliefs. This is where our own curriculum can work against us — and it’s time for that to change.

New York’s students deserve a class dedicated to ethnic studies, focused on the historical struggles and social movements of ethnic minorities, conscious of the ways in which race and ethnicity intersect with power and oppression. For too many young people, white students as well as students of color, school rarely connects to these critical concerns.

I’ve seen the promise of this approach, thanks to my experience working with children who do not look like me. Their engagement in lessons that deal explicitly with ethnic studies content convinced me that this emphasis should become part of my curriculum in every course. In addition, I am grateful for mentoring from a number of brilliant, experienced teachers and administrators, most of whom are black. They have convinced me that good teaching for all students must be approached in a culturally responsive way.

During my economics class this past semester, we looked not only at Adam Smith, Karl Marx and John Maynard Keynes, but also at labor organizers such as Dolores Huerta and A. Philip Randolph. This did not require an overhaul of the curriculum, but it necessitated reflection about how best to connect with the students in front of me. This was a simple first step, wholly insufficient.

In San Francisco, where full ethnic studies courses have been offered to ninth-grade students for several years, a study conducted by Stanford’s Center for Education Policy Analysis demonstrated a remarkable, significant positive impact:

“Assignment to this course increased ninth-grade student attendance by 21 percentage points, GPA by 1.4 grade points, and credits earned by 23. These surprisingly large effects are consistent with the hypothesis that the course reduced dropout rates and suggest that culturally relevant teaching … can provide effective support to at-risk students.”

In the past year, California passed a law that will bring ethnic studies to every school in the state, building on popular programs in many of the state’s largest districts.

The most controversial discussion of ethnic studies at the K-12 level has taken place in Arizona, where state legislators banned a popular Mexican American studies program in the Tucson public schools in 2010. That ban was just overturned last week — making this an important moment to discuss how these classes could help students across the country.

Meanwhile, for my students of color in New York City, racist violence animates their lives to a degree many fail to appreciate.

I was struck recently by two stories in the news — reflections on the death of Mike Brown, three years ago on August 9, and a look back at the brutal assault of Abner Louima by the NYPD, 20 years ago on the same date. Sadly, the murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville will join our collective memory, to be filed next to these two important parts of our history, along a continuum that also includes Medgar Evers, Emmett Till, and the victims of race riots in Tulsa, Oklahoma; Wilmington, North Carolina, and so many others that do not appear in our standard history books. These omissions must be corrected.

White students as well as students of color will benefit from ethnic studies courses, which expand on the core curriculum by including diverse voices and perspectives. Most importantly, these courses analyze power structures in a critical way, empowering students to challenge the status quo.

That’s what the state of New York should want for all young people. The 44 credits now required for a high school diploma, including courses in economics and a foreign language, are missing this component that is key to creating good citizens. In 2017, we can no longer suffer public schools that fail to meet this crucial obligation.

Will Ehrenfeld is a social studies teacher at Pathways in Technology Early College High School in Brooklyn.

First Person

What I learned about the limits of school choice in New York City from a mother whose child uses a wheelchair

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

As a researcher interested in the ways online platforms impact learning and educational decision-making, I’ve been trying to understand how New York City parents get the information to make a crucial decision: where to send their children to school.

So for the past six months, I’ve been asking local parents about the data they used to choose among the system’s 1700 or so schools.

I’ve heard all sorts of stories about the factors parents weigh when picking schools. Beyond the usual considerations like test scores and art programs, they also consider the logistics of commuting from the Bronx to the East Village with two children in tow, whether the school can accommodate parents and children who are still learning English, and how much money the parent-teacher association raises to supplement the school’s budget.

But for some families, the choice process begins and ends with the question: Is the building fully accessible?

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires public buildings constructed after 1992 to be fully accessible to people in wheelchairs. However, most New York City public school buildings were constructed prior to that law, and high construction costs have limited the number of new, fully accessible buildings.

As a result, a shocking 83 percent of New York City schools have been found non-compliant with the ADA, according to a two-year federal Department of Justice investigation whose findings the city Department of Education largely disputes. Recently, the city’s Office of Space Management has begun surveying buildings for full accessibility, but more work remains to be done.

One parent’s struggle to find a school suitable for her son, who has a physical disability but no cognitive issues, illustrates what a major role accessibility plays in some families’ decision-making.

Melanie Rivera is the mother of two and a native New Yorker living in Ditmas Park in Brooklyn’s District 22 who shared her story with me — and gave me permission to share it with others. Here is what she told me, in her own words:

My son Gabriel is seven years old. He was born with a condition called arthrogryposis, which affects the development of his joints. His hips, knees, and feet are affected and he has joint contractures, so his legs don’t bend and straighten the way most people’s do. In order to get around, he uses a combination of crutches and a wheelchair.

Before I had my differently-abled son, I was working in a preschool for children with special needs. The kids I worked with had cognitive developmental disabilities.

Despite my professional experience, I was overwhelmed when it was my turn to help my child with different abilities navigate the public school system. I can only imagine the students falling by the wayside because their parents don’t have that background.

When I was completing my son’s kindergarten application, I couldn’t even consider the academics of the school. My main priority was to tour the schools and assess their level of accessibility.

There are only a couple of ADA-accessible schools in my district, and there was no way of indicating on my son’s kindergarten application that he needed one. When we got the admissions results, he was assigned to his zoned school – which is not accessible.

I entered lengthy and extensive mediation to get him into an ADA-accessible school. At that point, I knew I would just have to take what I could get. For families whose children have special needs, “school choice” can ring hollow.

The process of finding any accessible school was a challenge. The DOE website allows families to search for ADA-accessible schools. But the site describes most schools as “partially accessible,” leaving it up to parents to call each school and say, “What do you mean by this?”

When I called the schools and asked, “Are you a barrier-free school?” the staff in the office didn’t know what the term meant. They might reply, “Oh yeah, we have a ramp.” I’d have to press further: “But can you get to the office? Can you get to every floor in the building?” The response was often, “Oh, I don’t know.”

Even the office staff didn’t know. But for my son’s sake, I needed to know.

Gabriel deserves the full range of academic and social experiences. So every day I make sure he’s learning in the least-restrictive environment — from the classroom, to phys ed, to field trips.

I believe the Department of Education also wants to make schools accessible and to place students with different abilities in settings where they’ll flourish, but the current system is not equipped to follow through on those good intentions. While I see gradual changes, I still know that if I don’t find the best placement for my son the system definitely won’t.

At the school level, administrators should know the details of their own school’s accessibility. Teachers should learn to include children with different abilities in their classrooms. Such a commitment means recognizing the value of inclusivity — not viewing accessibility as something ADA says you must do.

Before I had Gabriel, I never thought about accessibility. I never looked at street cutouts or thought about how to enter a store with steps. We’re probably all guilty of perpetuating exclusion at one point or another.

Recognizing that will allow us to change the status quo. It will allow every individual with a physical disability to fully participate in the public school system.

Claire Fontaine is a researcher at Data & Society, a research institute in New York City focused on social, cultural, and ethical issues arising from technological development. Kinjal Dave is a research assistant at Data & Society. You can read more about their project, which seeks to better understand the ways in which diverse New York City parents draw on school performance data, online dashboards, and school review websites when researching schools for their children.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.