Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Towheaded Child

I have five children, two with Meg, three from a previous marriage. They’ve gone to all kinds of schools, public and private. The common denominator among the schools is that they have all been pretty good.

I have a bias in favor of public schools. Not only are they cheaper, I find their egalitarianism to be healthy and hopeful. But during those times when, in moving here and there, my kids ended up in bad public-school districts, they went to private schools. I could afford that, and egalitarianism wouldn’t have helped them get into college.

Cord and the three other Everett McCord Claytons
When my youngest, Cord, was starting kindergarten, I wasn’t thinking much about whether he was getting a better start than some other kid I didn’t know in some neighborhood I had never visited. It didn’t surprise me that all his schoolmates were little towheads like him, even though this wasn’t some swanky private school, just a little run-of-the mill public school in a Leave-it-to-Beaver suburb not far from the runways of the Los Angeles airport.

I don’t remember any Hispanics in Cord’s first school. I’m sure there were no African Americans. Our next-door neighbor was Jewish. That was about as diverse as it got. It reminded me of the South, where I grew up; or it would have if I had thought about it at the time. To me, not that much more than a boy myself, it just looked like the schools I had always known (except for having outside hallways, which struck me as a little too flip-flops-and-tie-dye to be serious).

But you can’t live in California long without noticing that the world is not all towheads. And what I have seen, as I have opened my eyes and really started paying attention, is that, when it comes to education, minorities today have as raw a deal as blacks did in the Jim Crow South of my youth.

A half-century after Brown v. Board was supposed to have leveled the education playing field, most of our public schools have re-segregated. Researchers at Harvard University have found that most minority students in the country go to heavily segregated public schools in poor neighborhoods, where the education provided is substandard and leads to significantly less opportunity in the job market.  Poor schools, poor jobs, poor neighborhoods. The cycle is relentless and merciless.

Nowhere is this inequality in education opportunity more striking than here in California, where Hispanics will soon be not a minority but a majority. A recent ACLU report said that in California “there is a dramatically unfair concentration of the worst conditions in schools attended primarily by low income children, African-American and Latino children, and English Language Learners.”

Meg and I live in Palo Alto now, a mile from Stanford University. We moved here eight years ago because the public schools are among the best in the state. Palo Alto’s students are predominantly white and Asian, and their families are wealthy. What the state doesn’t supply in education funding, the parents chip in. 

Right next door, a stone’s throw from where the folks at Google aspire to bring all the world’s information to everyone, the Ravenswood City school district serves the community of East Palo Alto. The student body there is ninety-eight percent Hispanic, African-American and Pacific Islander. Ninety-four percent of the children are classified as socioeconomically disadvantaged.

California has a school rating system called the Academic Performance Index. In one number, the API tells you whether a school is a good one or a bad one. The API scale is 200 to 1,000, with a state target for schools of 800. In 2010, Palo Alto’s schools scored an average of 925; East Palo Alto’s scored 688. The average teacher in Palo Alto makes sixty percent more than his or her counterpart in East Palo Alto.

Segregation and poverty are stubborn. It can be easy to think of the achievement gap between rich and poor children as some kind of tragic inevitability. But new research is showing that low achievement is not a genetic curse, it is a symptom of poverty. A symptom of living with a single parent who works two jobs. A symptom of being expected to work or take care of younger siblings. Of the pull of the street. Of a culture of failure.

Poverty nurtures brutal, self-perpetuating conditions. Nevertheless, there are things we can do to give poor kids a better chance. A recent study at Johns Hopkins, for instance, found that the achievement gap in the early grades in Baltimore was primarily the result of summer education programs that were available to affluent children and not to poor children. Making those programs available to poor children would make a big difference.

When you look at it that way, when you start ticking off the education advantages affluent children have and thinking about ways to provide comparable advantages to poor children, you can get pretty excited about the possibilities: Why not set up more after-school tutoring programs? How about more day care for toddlers to take the load off their brothers and sisters? And more and better preschools? What if we could roll out parent education programs to show how important parental involvement is for their child’s education success?

Good ideas, you say, but the problem is money. These folks are poor, so who is going to pay for it all? The answer, if we’re smart, is the rest of us. Not just because it is the right thing to do, although that would be reason enough, but because it is in our own economic self-interest.

Over the long term, every dollar invested today to educate a poor child has a many-fold return in lower costs for health care, welfare, and prisons. And it’s not just about reducing the costs associated with poverty. Educated citizens contribute dramatically more to the nation’s gross domestic product and tax revenue. Education is the best economic stimulus program there is.

If we can bankroll GM to save jobs, we can invest in poor communities to reduce the high-school dropout rate. Let’s take some of that leftover TARP money, or some like it, and make no-interest loans to local entrepreneurs who want to set up summer schools for underprivileged kids. Let’s make equity investments in small neighborhood day-care facilities to help them expand. Let’s partner with a local community leader to build a community center with after-school and summer programs.

Micro finance works in African villages. A slightly less micro version, targeted toward improving education support, can work in American neighborhoods. It wouldn’t be welfare, it would be partnerships. Local entrepreneurs would make money (raising the economic standards in the community), kids would have better education opportunities, parents would have access to affordable services for their children, and the cost to taxpayers would be a fraction of the long-term cost of doing nothing.

The former towhead with Emma and Tim and "Pops"
My son Cord grew up and married his college sweetheart, Yvonne. Yvonne’s parents are Korean. Cord’s children, my grandchildren, Tim and Emma, aren’t towheads like their dad was all those years ago; they have their mom’s beautiful dark hair. They live in Philadelphia, right in the city. Cord and Yvonne are both partners in their law firms. They walk the kids to school every morning on the way to work. Tim and Emma have been going to a private school run by Quakers. It’s expensive, and a sacrifice for Cord and Yvonne, even as partners in law firms. Except on scholarship, it is financially out of reach for the many families in the city who are less well-off.

This year Tim tested for and was accepted into the nearby public magnet school. It is open to every bright kid in the city, rich or poor. The ones who make it there are highly motivated and typically come from families that aggressively support their children’s hunger for education.

There are many more bright children in Philadelphia than there are magnet schools. Like the schools out here in East Palo Alto, most of the public schools in Philly are not that great. And many of the families of children who attend those schools are too overwhelmed just trying to get by to give their children adequate support in school. Most of their kids aren’t towheads, but neither are Tim and Emma. For all our sakes, we need to give those children a better chance to break poverty's ruthless grip.

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