Don’t Blame Privileged Parents For Education Inequity
There's segregation even within diverse classrooms, as a result of curriculum and instruction that unintentionally favors the already favored.
Privileged parents who send their kids to desirable schools are increasingly getting blamed for education inequities. But that overlooks a more basic cause: our standard curriculum and instructional approach.
The trend started—or at least picked up steam—with Nice White Parents, a podcast that blamed the demographic group named in its title for the inferior education inflicted on poor Black and brown kids in New York City. The creator and narrator, Chana Joffe-Walt, spent much of the series delineating what she viewed as the hypocrisy and obliviousness of well-off white parents who say they want diverse schools for their kids but persist in self-segregation.
It was only in the last episode or so that Joffe-Walt discovered something that seemed to undermine her thesis: Black and brown parents don’t really care whether their kids go to school with white kids. They just want better schools.
Now comes Caitlin Flanagan with a cover story in the April issue of The Atlantic called “Private Schools Are Indefensible.” Most of the article is devoted to regaling readers with tales of Rich Parents Behaving Badly, but the subtext is that this behavior has somehow prevented public schools from educating less privileged children. (And not all the behavior seems that bad. Aren’t rich parents allowed to complain, as many other parents have, when their schools stick with remote learning during a pandemic while other schools are successfully operating in person?)
Flanagan may be right that it’s unconscionable to allow elite private schools with huge endowments to operate without paying taxes. She may be right that their claims to be “engines of equity” and inclusivity are “ludicrous.” But she also says this: “If these schools really care about equity, all they need to do is get a chain and a padlock and close up shop.” She offers no evidence, however, that closing private schools would increase equity. How exactly would limiting the choices of rich parents, morally satisfying as it might be, fix a broken public education system?
The assumption underlying both Flanagan’s and Joffe-Walt’s critiques seems to be that privileged white parents are “hoarding resources,” thereby starving other schools. If these parents sent their kids to schools perceived as inferior, the often unspoken argument goes, they would pressure the powers-that-be to do a better job: increase funding, hire better teachers, offer better extracurricular activities. They would generally scatter some of the fairy dust that enables their own kids to excel.
A third and ostensibly more scholarly analysis was recently released by the august Brookings Institution. Apparently for lack of anything better to do, a team of researchers combed through the postings on a website called D.C. Urban Moms and Dads, which is frequented by relatively affluent parents trying to navigate D.C.’s confusing public education landscape. With 45% of students enrolled in charter schools and a lottery that offers students a chance to attend regular public schools outside their neighborhoods, D.C. is either an advertisement for school choice or a cautionary tale, depending on your point of view.
In the eyes of the Brookings researchers, it’s clearly a cautionary tale. The report doesn’t draw any strict causal claims, but it suggests that the parents seeking tips on neighborhoods with the best school feeder patterns or information on the few charters that appeal to an affluent population are, yes, hoarding resources in a way that undermines “the goal of public education.”
The evidence marshaled in defense of this argument is flimsy at best. Yes, schools with more affluent and whiter populations may be discussed on the forum more than others, but couldn’t that have something to do with the fact that commenters generally live in the neighborhoods where those schools are located? Unable to identify users of the site or probe their views, the researchers analyze “keywords”—arguing, for example, that because affluent parents use words like “moms” and “children” about “high-interest” schools but not about “low-interest” ones, individuals at the latter schools are “invisible” to them. Maybe the commenters just don’t know moms and kids at those schools?
The authors of the study note that parents on DCUM pay attention to test scores, which they argue have nothing to do with school quality—and, they imply, those discussions are no more than a cover for racism. “Some comments about ‘low-scoring students,’” they say, “are plausibly best understood as dog whistles.”
All of this assumes that the affluent white parents on DCUM don’t want their children rubbing shoulders with Black and brown kids. But the public high school that many DCUM parents are jockeying for, Wilson, is 29% Black, 22% Hispanic, and only 39% white. The proportion of white students is far higher than at other D.C. neighborhood high schools, but Wilson is still far from a racist’s paradise.
Another assumption is that only affluent white parents want what appear to be high-performing schools. (The title of the Brookings report is “We all want what’s best for our kids,” which, in context, is clearly meant as an accusation of hypocrisy.) Not only that, the researchers assume all the commenters on the site are white—which is not true. After the study came out, The Washington Post reported, a commenter on DCUM wrote that it was “offensive”: “We are a Black family in NE DC . . . we are not choosing segregation by ranking our lottery list the way that is best for our child.”
Undoubtedly, there are benefits to integrated schools, and all schools should have adequate resources and effective teachers. But none of these things will promote equity in the context of a system that fails to teach kids to read and starts tracking them in kindergarten—which is the system we have. That system also includes a pervasive failure to build the academic knowledge and vocabulary that privileged children pick up at home and that is a prerequisite for academic success.
The basic fact overlooked by these jeremiads against rich white parents is that even within a “diverse” classroom, let alone a diverse school, American children are segregated into vastly different educational experiences. And the reason for that isn’t that children of lower socioeconomic status are getting worse curricula and worse instruction. It’s that our standard curriculum and standard pedagogical approaches don’t work. Yes, some students succeed—usually those from more highly educated families—but they’re usually thriving despite the system, not because of it.
Teachers at the few schools that have adopted a different approach—one that follows what science tells us about learning—say that all students blossom in their classrooms, but especially those who would otherwise be relegated to the “low” reading groups. We don’t need to wait for integration to improve the experience of students facing challenges. We can improve what is being taught to them and how, right now—and if we do, it’s quite possible integration will be easier to achieve. That would be especially true if school ranking systems focused less on test scores and more on what kind of curriculum a school has and how well teachers are supported in implementing it.
It can be fun to mock privileged parents, and they certainly make a tempting target. But it’s unfair to pin the blame on them for a vast education superstructure that rests on faulty assumptions about how learning works. And it’s a waste of time and resources to train a laser-like focus on what is essentially a side issue.
We might start making some real progress in addressing inequity if only the talented journalists and hard-working researchers who spy racist dog whistles in comments about test scores would direct some attention to the fundamental defects in teacher training, widely used curricula, and standard pedagogical approaches that squander the potential of our most vulnerable students. It might not be as titillating as a story on the foibles of privileged parents, but it would be a lot more useful.
This post previously appeared on Forbes.com.