It’s well past due that New York made it clear that public education is about learning from and about our differences, so that we can better foster our shared knowledge and understanding. Increasing student access to a diversity of experiences, backgrounds, and people must be an explicit priority of our system of education if we are to continue to have a functioning democratic republic.
On election day, many New Yorkers experienced a jarring disjoint; the world we thought we knew transformed before our eyes. We have grown increasingly sheltered within our own immediate social media spheres, where it’s easier to disregard the arguments in different communities across our nation about the ongoing tensions that exist between equality and liberty, the power of the federal government vs. local communities, and between honoring our differences and backgrounds while developing and maintaining a shared set of values and understanding. These are essential arguments that thread back to the founding of our nation.
Similarly, in many of our public schools, students spend their days with others who are mostly just like them — they may look similar, speak the same language, or share the same values. And any who don’t adhere to these norms tend to be ostracized, whether due to appearance, belief, or behavior. Human beings, most especially children and adolescents, are highly attuned to differences. When I first began teaching, I was taken aback by how much attention my students paid to the state of my shoes!
And while there is much talk of a “culturally responsive” or “relevant” curriculum, the reality is that even a basic core curriculum is all too often lacking, not to mention access to adequate resources and opportunities and experiences beyond the school. Schools require coherent, well-structured, and thoughtfully sequenced content that will build students’ understanding of their wider society and world.
When students from segregated schools and communities graduate to an institution of higher education, or into a field of employment, they may suddenly feel a sense of disjoint between their social identity and the norms of the institution they’ve joined. They may discover that many others may not share their values nor experiences, and they must learn to assume a new manner of speaking, navigate a new culture, and demonstrate new behaviors. Many find their way into a niche where they can be accepted and supported in their transition into adulthood. Some young adults, however, find themselves stranded and unable to navigate across this divide. And the norms and practices of their society’s leaders and institutions will grow increasingly alien to them.
It is the fundamental mission of public education to support our student’s success in that transition into adulthood, to equip them with the knowledge, skills, and mindsets that will enable them to question and clarify other’s perspectives who are different, while effectively communicating and refining their own. To empower them to partake in the great debates of our nation and expand those conversations to include themselves.
Yet if we are honest in our reckoning, New York state is patently failing in this mission. In 2014, a UCLA Civil Rights Project report stamped NY with the shameful status of host to the most segregated schools in our nation. And this year, EdBuild released a report on the most extremely segregating school boundaries across the nation. Rochester, Syracuse, and Utica made the list, making NY number 6 out of the 50 states with the most segregating districts.
Families and neighborhoods with the most wealth continue to have the greatest access to a high quality education and positive life outcomes. For children less fortunate than others, segregation manifests in less access to resources, quality teachers, and safe and clean learning spaces.
And for both populations, an increasing lack of shared understanding and communication leads to further disengagement from participation in the civic institutions that should serve us all.