Our broad, broken system of public education has always reminded me of the book Animal Farm. Not because I read Orwell’s work in school — though, of course, I did — but because every brilliant new plan that’s supposed to fix schools in America only succeeds in making them worse.
Take desegregation. I’m a huge fan of desegregation on a community-wide level. But even as teary-eyed as I get watching black-and-white footage of little black girls being escorted into historically white schools under armed guard, I believe deeply that integration does not work when it’s practiced only by 8-year-olds. It must (why is this such a hard concept?) be practiced by their parents as well.
Brown v. Board of Education led to widespread busing, which led to sky-high transportation costs, which led to untold damage to the environment and children being snatched out of their own cozy neighborhoods before dawn so they could be driven to schools dozens of miles away. It led to riots and white flight and — according to several educators I know — a higher level of segregation within each school building. It turns out that in forcibly integrated schools, kids are even more prone to cluster with their color. Thus far, no legislation has been able to change this.
Then, of course, there was the epic disaster that was No Child Left Behind, a blighted government initiative that purported to use benchmarks in order to educated kids equally but resulted in kids being tested rather than taught.
Worse, the system began rewarding schools and teachers financially if they could prove success, on the head of a child. This, in turn, caused teachers to tell their underperforming students to stay home on test days. Seasoned pros who once went in Sidney Poitier-style to “save” at-risk kids began trading them. I’ll take your ADHD if you’ll take the behavior problem with the meth-addicted mom. And teachers who once dreamed of working in the inner city began clawing their way toward upscale and suburban schools because the pay rate was better. They could buy nicer cars.
It’s a common problem. The New York Times, in an editorial last month, called it the Highly Qualified Teacher Dodge.
And who could blame them, these educated workers who want to better themselves and live well? Certainly not I. Yet, when my life and decision were affected by the broken education system, I was — and remain — furious and confused.
It was July. My husband and I had been living in Seattle for three weeks, in a temporary home provided by his brand-new employer, looking for a house to rent. We toured neighborhoods and looked at schools, measuring the distance. Our daughter, nearly 15, would be joining us in August. She was timid and frightened, moving across the country and away from her brothers, so we wanted to be sure we chose an environment that was good for her.
Finally, after scouring every niche and corner we could afford, we found a little two-bedroom in Green Lake and were ready to write a check. Luckily, someone at John’s company had recommended we sign our girl up for high school, using our future address, before making any decisions. Her registration went through quickly and we received her assignment: It was a school on the south side of Seattle, at least an hour away by bus.
That the school was largely minority didn’t bother me at all. In fact, I was pleased. My daughter was coming from a Minneapolis school more Jewish and black than Caucasian. But it was also the highest-rated in the city — one of the top-performing public high schools in the country. There, she’d been about to enter the International Baccalaureate program, along with a handful of multiracial friends.
But this, the Seattle school to which she’d been assigned, was, I discovered, notorious for two things: crime and a graduation rate of 44 percent. There were no AP classes. And the materials I received from the school — including emails and the official welcome packet — were riddled with grammatical errors.
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