September 11, 2015

This American Life: A Problem We All Live With

This is kind of deep for a Friday, but September 11th is a deep day and the podcast I'm writing about proves that we just need to strive to make things better in our country.  I'm not proposing solutions or choosing sides; I'm saying we just need to make things better because we have the God-given ability to do so we might as well try.  "Better" could mean a million different things to millions of different people, but trying is better than staying stagnant.

I ran out of audiobooks and Undisclosed podcasts and then I ran out of Happier podcasts. So I had nothing to listen to on my commute last week and I went to This American Life. Usually I don't listen to The American Life just because the topics are so broad and I like concentrated topics; it's nice to know, more or less, what I'm going to be listening to when I get in the car at 7am.

I started "The Problem We All Live With" because it had a part 1 and a part 2 and I figured that'd keep me busy for a couple of days.  I had no idea it was about education.

In summary (and I do NOT write summaries):
This podcast theorizes that the one piece of evidence that lends itself to successful schools, high test scores, and high graduation rates is racial integration.  I saw this as a piece about education because I see everything through the eyes of an educator, but it was really about race.

The reporter focused in on the Normandy School District, which is right outside of Ferguson, Missouri, which seems to be the epicenter of racial tension in the country right now.  Normandy was taken over by the state last year because their scores were not up to par. They were ranked as the lowest in Missouri.

The reporter also made the point that Michael Brown had graduated from Normandy three weeks before he died, and I couldn't tell if she was trying to say he was a product of a broken system or if the crime rates and population in the area had created the broken system. It's a case of "which came first...?"

 After the district was discredited by the state, the students there were allowed to go to another district 30 miles away.  Normandy was entirely black, the other district (ranked VERY high on the scale in Missouri) was mostly white.  1,000 of Normandy's 4,000 students opted to travel to the other district.  The other district wasn't given a choice; Normandy's board got to choose them.  The other parents were quite apprehensive because the low test scores were coming to them now.

Now, I know some of those parents were probably thinking that the black kids were coming, but I think many were worried about their own school's accreditation because the students who had scored low enough on state tests to rank Normandy at the very bottom of the list were now bringing those scores to a high-performing district.  If their scores went down, they could be on the chopping block next.

This is actually how it works.

As I was listening, I saw it as a low vs. high scores worry, not a racial worry.

But I suppose that depends on your background; Are you an educator, have you experienced prejudice, etc.

Apparently there are a lot of segregated schools in this country and I never really thought about it that much.

I know that might seem laughable; the fact that I never gave this much thought. I've taught in four states.  I've worked for six districts.  I've worked in poor schools. I've never taught in absolutely poverty-stricken schools but I've certainly never taught in wealthy areas.

I taught in Missouri.

I knew the district I worked for in Missouri was one of the better ones for both students and teachers, but I had to look up the rankings.  It was ranked 86th out of 492 last year. But it was not a segregated school, so you can't say the ranking was based on race. It was a military community, so it was racially integrated for sure. My class was probably half white.  There were no segregated schools near where I lived in Missouri and that made me think they were probably mostly around St. Louis, because that's what this podcast focused on: the urban areas.

So, as a teacher listening to this podcast, I felt very agitated.  I know they're talking about race. I know they're blaming segregation. But I just kind of want to shake them and say that the people in charge (the executive branch of our government) don't care what race you are. If you can score well on a test, you are who they want in the schools. Also, I have the suspicion that this might be why our country in particular has been struggling on the world scale of test scores: we are large and diverse.  Some of these highest-performing countries are smaller geographically and also homogenous in race.  The idea is that it goes back to white schools having higher test scores, and that can be traced to resources being more readily available. But I promise you that the most intelligent kids I've ever met have come from all races. If you can score high on a test, and if your school can collectively score high on a test, you will receive a high rank, no matter your population.

If you're looking for something to listen to on this Friday, you might want to try this episode just because it's kind of thought-provoking.


  1. I see where you're coming from, but I think the answers of high vs. low scores comes partly from within the school - teachers and students and environment, but also from outside of the schools...why did the predominantly black school have low test scores versus the predominantly white school? What goes on in the homes and communities outside of school, the laws of the streets where you live very often dictates how well you do in school - sometimes you don't have the luxury of time to study if you have to work or watch a sibling because your parent is cracked out, you don't have tutors, being the smart kid might get you killed. My college friend Heather taught with Teach for America in the worst part of Baltimore and wrote a book about it called Teaching in the Terrordome. That was one of the first things that really snapped my eyes open as to how I remember and think of experiences in schools vs. what a lot of kids in lower class urban areas experience in schools.

  2. I would argue that low scores often reflect much larger issues. One of those issues is institutionalized racism. The creation of ghettoes and the lack of access to public transportation lead to higher rates of poverty. This, in turn, leads to higher deficits in education.You begin to have cultural issues in neighborhoods due to poverty and lack of opportunity and suddenly, you have issues of gangs and drugs. You are correct when you say that schools want kids who will do well on tests but studies show that kids who come to school from poverty have a difficult time catching up, no matter the interventions put in place by the schools.

    If you ever want to read a great book on the creation of ghettoes and the effects of institutionalized racism stemming from the 1920s, there's a fantastic book called The Warmth of Other Suns. It is long but is incredibly well written and I found it really fascinating.

  3. I need to listen to that. I think, besides race and test scores it's all about money. The schools with the lowest test scores probably have the lowest incomes. They're in the poorer areas and, sadly, those are the areas with the highest non-white populations, it seems. Those schools have no hope - unless money starts flowing into those districts ( which probably won't happen because it's very, very hard in today's economy to switch "classes" from poor to middle class, etc.) or unless they desegregating schools across districts. Schools are desegregated by law, but I can bet that in those underperforming districts entire schools/districts are almost all white or almost all non-white. It's just another way that our country gets divided. What came first? The money woes? The racism? Or the test scores? (I'm betting the racism, but that's just IMO.)

  4. This is very thought provoking. I agree that students of all races can be extremely intelligent or have many learning difficulties be they actual learning issues or caused by circumstances. As you know, my school is predominantly white because the area in which it is located is predominantly white. I think people forget that schools are located where they are. And the population of the area determines the population of the school.


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