085: White privilege in schools
This episode is part of a series on understanding the intersection of race, privilege, and parenting. Click here to view all the items in this series.
Public schools are open to all children, no matter what their race, so where’s the privilege in schools?
In this episode we’ll learn more about how even (and perhaps especially) well-meaning liberal white parents perpetuate inequalities in schools which disadvantage children from non-dominant cultures.
We’ll cover the way that purportedly ‘scientific’ standardized tests perpetuate inequality, ‘second generation segregation’ (which is still alive and well in schools), how white parents who want the best for their children end up disadvantaging others – and what are some steps we can take to move forward.
Dr. Allison Roda’s book
Inequality in gifted and talented programs: Parental choices about status, school opportunity, and second-generation segregation – Affiliate link
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Gamoran, A., Barfels, S., & Collares, A.C. (2016). Does racial isolation in school lead to long-term disadvantages? Labor market consequences of high school racial composition. American Journal of Sociology 121(4), 1116-1167.
Holme, J.J. (2002). Buying homes, buying schools: School choice and the social construction of school quality. Harvard Educational Review 72(2), 177-205.
Knoester, M., & Au, W. (2014). Standardized testing and school segregation: Like tinder for fire? Race Ethnicity and Education 20(1), 1-14.
Mickelson, R.A. (2001). Subverting Swann: First- and second-generation segregation in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools. American Educational Research Journal 38(2), 215-252
National Center for Education Statistics (2017) National Assessment of Educational Progress (Reading and Math results). Retrieved from https://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/
Nava, J. (2017, August 28). Do parents value school diversity? The PDK poll offers insights. Learning First Alliance. Retrieved from https://learningfirst.org/blog/parents-attitudes-toward-school-diversity
Posey-Maddox, L. (2014). When middle-class parents choose urban schools: Class, race, and the challenge of equity in public education. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.
Roda, A. (2018). School choice and the politics of parenthood: Exploring parent mobilization as a catalyst for the common good. Peabody Journal of Education 1-20.
Roda, A. (2017). Parenting in the age of high-stakes testing: Gifted and talented admissions and the meaning of parenthood. Teachers College Record 119, 1-53.
Roda, A. (2015). Inequality in gifted and talented programs: Parental choices about status, school opportunity, and second-generation segregation. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
Roda, A., & Wells, A.S. (2013). School choice policies and racial segregation: Where white parents’ good intentions and privilege collide. American Journal of Education 119)2), 261-293.
Sattin-Bajaj, C., & Roda, A. (2018). Opportunity hoarding in school choice contexts: The role of policy design in promoting middle-class parents’ exclusionary behaviors. Educational Policy 1-44.
Smith, J.A. (2015, February 2). As parents get more choice, S.F. schools resegregate. San Francisco Public Press. Retrieved from https://sfpublicpress.org/news/2015-02/as-parents-get-more-choice-sf-schools-resegregate
Trachtenberg, P., Roda, A., & Coughlan, R. (2016, December 12). Remedying school segregation: How New Jersey’s Morris School District chose to make diversity work. The Century Foundation. Retrieved from https://tcf.org/content/report/remedying-school-segregation/
Watson, J. (2018, November 26). Cindy Hyde-Smith’s experience is not an outlier: School segregation in America is still a troubling fact today. NBC News. Retrieved from https://www.nbcnews.com/news/nbcblk/cindy-hyde-smith-s-experience-not-outlier-school-segregation-america-n940361
Wells, A.S., Fox, L., & Cordodva-Cobo, D. (2016, February 9). How racially diverse schools and classrooms can benefit all students. The Century Foundation. Retrieved from http://apps.tcf.org/how-racially-diverse-schools-and-classrooms-can-benefit-all-students
Williams, J. (2016, April 6). Why some black leaders aren’t down with opting out of standardized testing. Take Part. Retrieved from http://www.takepart.com/article/2016/04/06/black-leaders-not-down-with-opt-out-standardized-testing
Hello and welcome to the Your Parenting Mojo podcast. We’re continuing our series of episodes on the intersection of race with Parenting and Child Development today by looking at the privilege that exists for white parents and children in the school system. Now, hear me out on this one for a minute because I know the common view of our educational system is that it exists to even out privileged to create a level of playing field between families who have more resources and those who have fewer resources. Honestly, that’s the way I saw it too until I went through my Masters in Education where I had to write a reflective paper on my view of diversity in the school system. I’d already done research on the origins of the school system from my Psychology Master’s thesis in which I studied what motivates children to learn where I found to my surprise that schools were actually not established to give everyone an equal opportunity.Jen::
Education used to be primarily provided by the family and the church and as the Church lost power, the State stepped in so that it could control what students learn. But the more I dug into issues of privilege in the school system, the more surprised I became. I learned that while texts by “diverse authors” are included in the Common Core English syllabus, the textbooks encouraged students to focus on analyzing minor issues in the story and completely ignore the cultural context of the story, an indication that racism is still present in curriculum even when it looks like it isn’t. We’ll talk more today about how standardized tests, which have this aura of fairness and scientific rigor, but actually have bias built into the process through which the test questions are selected, and I also found a paper by my guest today, Dr. Allison Roda, which described the informal networks that white middle class parents use to gain advantage for their children in a school system that is intensively set up to provide fair access to all schools for all children. Dr. Roda earned her Ph.D. from Teachers College at Columbia University and is currently Assistant Professor of Education at Molloy College on Long Island, New York. Her doctoral dissertation has been published in a book called Inequality in Gifted and Talented Programs: Parental Choices about Status, School Opportunity, and Second-Generation Segregation.Jen::
Hello and welcome Dr. Roda.Dr. Roda::
Hi Jen. Thanks for inviting me.Jen::
Thanks so much for being here. So, we’re gonna do something a bit different for the way we start these normal interviews. When I was doing my Masters in Education, it was pretty common for professors to ask students to identify their privileges at the start of a paper, particularly when we were talking about diversity. So I’m going to identify some of mine and then I wonder if you’d be kind enough to identify some of yours.Dr. Roda::
Okay, great. So, the first one obviously is whiteness since we are talking about this subject and my second is economic status. I’m actually upper middle class. I come from a more of a working class family, but I think actually in decent amount due to my whiteness, I’ve been able to raise my economic status, so that I’m higher now than I was when I was born. I am heterosexual so I never had to come out to anyone.Jen::
My sexuality is just kind of accepted. I am able-bodied, so I’m easily able to navigate my environment around me from a physical perspective and I think by educational advantage also represents privilege as well because I do have three Masters Degrees and I think that that conveys something to people and there are plenty of people who have not had the opportunities to do that and they’re probably just as smart as I am and aren’t able to say that they are credentialed in that way. And so a lot of those privileges are also linked to my whiteness. So, I wonder if you wouldn’t mind helping me to understand some of your privileges. And I will also say that I deliberately sought out white researchers to interview for this series because we’re examining whiteness rather than blackness. And I think it can be easier to truly hear and take on these truths when they’re presented by someone who is more like you and me rather than someone who appears to be on the outside and looking in. But I do want to acknowledge that black researchers and activists have been talking about white privilege for a really long time.Dr. Roda::
Yes. And so I identify as a white middle class, more or less a female heterosexual able-bodied. And I have my Ph.D. in Sociology and Education from Teachers College at Columbia University. And so this exercise is something I also asked my doctoral students to do.
Jen: 05:55 Oh, okay.
Dr. Roda: 05:56 I’m a qualitative researcher and I teach qualitative research methods to doctoral students, Ed.D. students at Molloy College. And when I teach the qualitative class, I asked them, the first assignment really is to write a researcher identity memo. And it’s important to do that even when I write research articles, it’s important to talk about my position as it relates to the questions I’m asking, the people I’m studying because it’s an important part of that reflexive process of qualitative researcher, being a qualitative researcher, so you can reflect not just in the beginning when you’re asking your research questions, but throughout the research process, some of the motives you have, some of the assumptions you bring and the agendas you have, it’s always based on your own experience and it really helps.Dr. Roda::
I mean, when people read your work, I think people are curious about the researcher’s identity and where they’re coming at this topic and this research, but also it’s a check on your passible like subjectivities that you bring. So, when you’re analyzing the data, you can really reflect on those things. It’s also important when I’m interviewing parents to think about how they see me as the researcher, so my positionality and when I was doing my dissertation from Teachers College, I was interviewing New York City parents. They saw how I dressed, they saw that my email was coming from Teachers College where we met to do the interview probably signaled something to them about my status, economic status perhaps. So, all of these cultural signifiers are very important when we do this work and I think when we do any type of research.Jen::
I like that we started this interview that way.Dr. Roda::
My passion is qualitative research and thinking about how you’re an insider and outsider to the topic and to the participants, maybe we’ll talk about this more later, but I lived in New York City. I sent my oldest son to a public school in New York City. So, I was an insider in that respect that I knew what parents like me were going through when they were trying to navigate all of the school choices in New York City and the segregation for me coming I was moving from… I lived in Seattle, then I was moving in from Montana to New York City, so I was an outsider to this process of school choice and seeing how segregated just by looking at the demographics of each school really was eye opening to me. So, when I started to do the research, the participants, they didn’t know that I had gone through school choice myself, but sometimes it came up at the end when the tape recorder was turned off, but they said things to me like no one, you or I know would ever send their child to that school, so they did identify with me on certain areas, so I wanted to bring that up too.Jen::
Yeah. Okay. So, firstly just going back a little bit to what you said a minute ago. I think science sort of has this aura of being apart from the world. We use science and when we understand something using a scientific perspective, we will know the answer and I think it’s really not common enough to try and understand the theoretical position that the researcher brings because it has such an impact on the results. The way that you asked the question, the way that you examined the results and analyze the data really has a massive impact on what the answer is that your work produces. So, I just want to acknowledge that and then on your second point about nobody I know will send their children there, that kind of goes to my first question for you, which was in national surveys, parents typically report that if all else were equal, about 70% of them would prefer a racially diverse school and yet a third of all black and Latino students attend hypersegregated schools were 90% or more students are nonwhite and about a third of all white students attend these hypersegregated schools that are 90% to 100% white.Jen::
What is going on here?Dr. Roda::
There’s a lot going on there. I think the first thing is that you need to have diverse schools as an option for parents because they’re saying they want diverse schools, but when you look at the schools that are highly segregated between schools and within schools in the case of gifted and talented programs, when they have the two separate school by school model. So that’s the first thing. The second thing is that parents, especially white parents have this herd mentality when they’re choosing schools, they kind of follow what other white parents are doing and there’s a strong sense of I don’t want to be the only white family in the school, and the percentage of students I don’t think really matters. They just don’t want to be the only white family in the school. I hear that a lot in my research.Dr. Roda::
So yeah, I mean I think the problem really is the options and that’s the first problem. The second problem is how we’re defining what a good school is and if we’re looking at test scores that reflects the economic status or we’re looking at demographics only then white parents will tend to cluster in schools that are disproportionately white and middle class, upper middle class because they have this idea that that’s what a good school is. So, I think what needs to change is that we need to unpack what that means a little bit more and we need to re-imagine what other qualities a good school could have. And in my work, diversity does come up a lot but then what does that mean? There’s so many definitions of what a diverse school means.Jen::
What does it mean to you?Dr. Roda::
It means more than just demographics. It means integration and that goes beyond just desegregation of the school and bringing different race ethnicities together, different socioeconomic backgrounds of students together, different students with different first languages together, special needs together.Dr. Roda::
I mean diversity means combination of students from the neighborhood that come together into a school, so I think unpacking what that means to other families and how we’re defining diversity really matters, but it’s so contextual that sometimes it’s really hard to do, but you can definitely, if you’re looking at a neighborhood or if you looking at a district, you can definitely see right away if one school, I mean say in the district I studied 30% black, 30% Latino, 30% white, and then there’s a school that has 70% white students. That’s an issue or there’s another school that’s 99% black and Latino and that plays out across most New York City neighborhoods when you have a diverse population. So, that personality is a problem and that underlying structure of segregation is the problem.Jen::
Mm-hmm. Okay.Dr. Roda::
So, bringing more of a balance to schools and trying to create diversity with the pool of students that you have should be the goal and it has to come top down.Dr. Roda::
The structures need to be in place, so there needs to be policies that allow for diversity to happen. And then within schools too with gifted and talented programs, that’s the second generation segregation that I talk about. When we have diverse schools, there’s often the problem of within school segregation when we do some type of tracking and separate students for the entire day and give them a label and these labels can be the top class, they can be the gifted and talented, it can be the advanced placement, the honors, whatever it is, and then everybody else. There’s a problem with that.Jen::
Okay, so let’s dive into that then. So I think in New York, the placement in those programs, the gifted and talented or the general education as they’re called there, is determined through a standardized test. Do those tests actually measure giftedness?Dr. Roda::
Well, according to the parents that I interviewed, no. There’s a lot of other factors that determine whether you are placed in a gifted and talented class or not. Yes, you have to take two standardized tests to be admitted into the program and children are being tested when they are 4 years old. So it’s the year before kindergarten starts and it really comes down to test prepping and getting your child ready to take the test. It comes down to whether there’s a sibling in the school because if you have a sibling in the school with the gifted and talented program, then you get priority and instead of a 98 or a 99 score, you can get in with a 90th percentile score.Jen::
And just to be clear, it seemed as though the vast majority of kids are getting a score at least of 95, right? That was my impression from reading.Dr. Roda::
Yeah. Okay.Dr. Roda::
And being able to be comfortable with strangers because at that age, the children have to go off with a test proctor into a different room. So, if they are not comfortable with strangers, then that can affect their test performance.Jen::
And so the kinds of preparation that middle class white parents are doing, they’re not just hiring tutors to get them to arrange blocks in a certain way that’s going to help them, but also just sending your kid to a ballet class or a swim class where you’re a little bit away from the student and getting the child comfortable with taking orders or being told what to do by a stranger is helping them to do better on this test. And so not every family has that opportunity, right?Dr. Roda::
Okay. And so that’s sort of how the process itself of preparing for the tests really creates big inequalities. I’m not familiar with the specific testing question, but as part of the research that I did for the paper that I wrote where I also discovered your paper, that was such a revelation to me when I was working on this in grad school, was around the SAT question and I had not realized how new questions are picked for the SAT.Jen::
And it turns out what they do is that the testing service puts new questions on the test and it says there are random questions in here that are potential new questions, don’t worry about them. And then the students who do well across the board, if they also do well on those questions, those questions are assumed to be good and they’re included in a pool for potential inclusion in the future. And so what you’re doing is because the white students typically do encounter these kinds of questions, you’re selecting questions that the white students do well onto that’s put on the test next time and you’re building bias into the process. I had no idea that this kind of stuff happens. Is this really common?Dr. Roda::
I don’t know for sure. That’s a good question. But according to the parents and the practice tests and all of the preparation they do, they definitely felt like the questions were culturally biased. So, they asked questions like about a pond or a garage.Dr. Roda::
Things that if you never left the city and you were not exposed to those things. I mean, this is 4-year-old students taking this test, so the language, the puzzley-type questions, analytical questions that if you are not prepared to take this kind of test, you can see how you wouldn’t do as well. And the white parents were aware of that and even if they knew that even if they were aware that this prepping was a form of cheating, they admitted that they had to do it because of the competition and they knew that everyone else was prepping so they just felt like they had to, if they wanted their child to get in.Jen::
Into the gifted and talented program, which just to be clear, we’ve sort of briefly touched on this, but you refer to this as second generation segregation. Can you explain that please?Dr. Roda::
So from the outside, the school looks diverse. The general education program and the gifted and talented program, that’s not separated out when you’re just looking at the school building. But then when you walk in the door and you look at the classrooms, you can identify if it’s a gifted and talented program or general education classroom just by looking at the children’s skin color and the parents would tell me that. So, from the outside it looks diverse, but when you go inside and you look at the two programs, it’s segregated and that’s resegregation that occurs and that occurred after Brown versus Board of Education with tracking.Jen::
Okay. Which is sort of a neutral mechanism because it’s hard to teach students who are at different levels, I assume with the logic goes and thus if you separate students by different abilities then you can tailor your teaching towards them. And it turns out that by separating students according to these “abilities”, which we’ve just discovered as part of the testing process are not necessarily abilities that you’re ending up with sort of de facto segregation. But I want to take into why this is important because I think it can be almost kind of reflexively argued that diverse schools are better schools. But I really want to get to the bottom of this because I have seen a number of studies that describe the benefits of diverse schools, but I’ve also seen studies that point to problems and there was one Ph.D. student at George Mason University in particular whose thesis I found for this paper in grad school and she found that as numbers of students from different backgrounds became more even, the Hispanic and black students actually achieved lower grades and lower test scores, but the effect was reversed for white students and she hypothesized that, and I’m going to quote “The percentage of same race peers matters more for academic achievement compared to diversity within a school and that being around people like you is important to academic success.”Jen::
And then you also cite a researcher, Adam Gamoran, who found that segregation within schools did not prevent black students from benefiting from racially mixed schools. So, I’m wondering what do you make from this body of research as a whole?Dr. Roda::
Well, so first with the benefits. If you look at the benefits, you can think of it as inputs and outcomes. So, if you think about a diverse school and the inputs, the additional resources that diverse schools have in terms of highly qualified teachers and leaders and those teachers staying longer, so lower turnover there, the student population stays more stable in diverse schools. There’s greater resources, there’s greater parent involvement and then outcomes or short-term outcomes like higher achievement and that’s for all students, not just black and Latino students, but white students too. And then long-term outcomes like a greater graduation rates, workplace skills, cultural navigation, multicultural navigation in the workplace. Even the choice of where to live when you have a family. Research has shown that if you attended a diverse school that you will choose a more integrated neighborhood and just a less prejudice and fear of the other by attending diverse schools.Dr. Roda::
So, there’s all these benefits, but a diverse school is not necessarily better because it has to be integrated and to be truly integrated, that means that it has to go, like I said in the beginning of the interview, that has to go beyond just demographics. We can’t just expect that having a diverse school with different races and ethnicities and language and abilities and immigrant status is necessarily going to equate to a better or good school in every level. So, resource allocation needs to be evenly distributed across the school curriculum. It has to be a multicultural curriculum as students need to see themselves in the curriculum, culturally relevant pedagogy, detracking, discipline practices, and then representation of the students. The teachers need to be diverse staff. Even things that you might not think about like clubs, drama club. Is the drama club, mostly white females?Dr. Roda::
If it is, then let’s try to make that more reflective of the entire school’s demographics. Sports and afterschool programs. So at the school that I studied in New York City, there was a drama after school program and they were preparing to do a play, but it costs money. So, who are you leaving out when you charge a certain amount of tuition for the afterschool program. So, all of those little things are just these inequities like kind of baked into the policies and practices of your school that the parents need to be more aware of. But school leaders need to be more aware of it too. They need to call it out and question it and really kind of undo some of these old ways of doing things that we kind of maybe take for granted in schools. Right now my current study is looking at school leaders and their perceptions of demographically changing schools in New York City and how they’re responding to those changes. So, there are schools and school leaders that are being more equity minded and really questioning some of these practices that just reproduce the inequalities we see in society as a whole.Jen::
Yeah, and as you’re going through that list, it seemed as though so many of them fall under sort of a category of resource allocation, which is one of the things that you said and it reminded me of the idea of opportunity hoarding that became really apparent in the process of even applying to school before you even get to and you’re having all these drama clubs and whatever that require money even just in the process of applying to school. Can you talk to us a little bit about what opportunity hoarding is and what impact that has on the school application process?Dr. Roda::
Sure. So, opportunity hoarding as an individual is basically using their privilege in the system to hoard opportunities which takes away from other families, being able to experience the same opportunities. And in my research with Carolyn Sattin-Bajaj, we looked at the gifted and talented program in New York City to the elementary school choices, but also the high school choices and how the policies themselves promote a middle class white parents behaviors to opportunity hoard.Jen::
Can you give us an example.Dr. Roda::
Well with the gifted and talented program, allowing siblings are priority that giving any type of priority and the system allows families to put their resources into that and test prepping or hiring a school choice consultant to help you with the process. I mean white parents use their social networks, their advantages in the system to get advantages for their children only. And the system is designed to allow them to do that.Dr. Roda::
So just using a single test score too for the gifted and talented admissions for the specialized high school admission process in New York City allows families with extra resources to pay for the test prep, tutoring or the classes that give certain children an edge when they take the exams. And another thing that is really not brought up enough is that there is a strong correlation between standardized tests and socioeconomics. So when we’re relying on this one measure, standardized tests that show this very clear correlation, I don’t know how we’re ever going to diversify gifted and talented programs or specialized high schools. So that’s a major issue.Jen::
Yeah, for sure. And one thing that I want to point out that was clear in your research was this is not white parents saying I don’t want there to be any black students in the gifted and talented program, so I’m going to coordinate all these activities and make sure I take advantage of all these policies. It seemed to be more of a mindset of there are limited resources in this city for educating children and it is my job as a parent to make sure that my child gets the best of those resources that I am able to procure and it’s by going through that process on an individual basis and because all the other white parents who are doing it too that that’s how you end up with this kind of white privilege baked into the system, right?Dr. Roda::
Okay. And so I actually wanted to take that one step further because in New York you didn’t see any evidence of parents kind of working together on this. And when I looked around, I was curious, what’s it like in San Francisco where I live and I actually found an article from a local paper that talked about a group of parents that had put together a spreadsheet on all of the different aspects of the elementary schools, what their after school programs, what were costs associated with each one and they’re sharing it around their middle class white networks in a fairly coordinated way. And the people that were interviewed were saying, well, we didn’t put spreadsheets together, we got it from another parent, but they’re taking advantage of this privilege in kind of a coordinated way, which was even one step beyond the New York City parents.Dr. Roda::
Yeah. And I actually impressed that point in the other research study that I did in a different neighborhood where parents, I found a parent, there were a group of parent advocates saying, we don’t believe in the consumer model of school choice. We’re going to opt into our neighborhood schools because they’re good schools and we do not want to leave our neighborhood for charter schools and gifted and talented programs located outside of the neighborhood. That just creates more segregation, but it also leaves our neighborhood schools with less resources and parent involvement and all of the things that come with a more diverse school. So, in that neighborhood actually there was more of a collective mindset and I’ve found that parents were sharing resources more, even I heard of a grandmother that was tutoring for the gifted and talented test and everyone was aware of this grandmother and they were sharing the workbooks for the gifted and talented exam and there was more of that collective idea, but in my first study with gifted and talented parents, because the seats were so few and far between, there was so much scarcity that increase the competition. So that created a silence around prepping for the test even. So other parents didn’t even know. They weren’t aware that all of the other parents were prepping until maybe first grade. And then they heard, oh yeah, all of the kindergarten parents were prepping.Jen::
Because if you know that the other parents are prepping, then you’re going to prep to and it’s going to increase the competition for the other spaces. Yeah. This brings us to sort of a very uncomfortable narrative for politically left leaning parents because I think if you’re on the conservative side of the spectrum, it’s sort of, it’s my job and my right to secure the best resources for my family. And so there’s no kind of duality there. But for more liberal parents, parents who identify as liberal, I think there’s a really uncomfortable situation here because there was one study by Dr. Brantlinger, who interviewed parents about these issues and so when she forced them at the end of her interview to choose one of two potential scenarios, either banning tracking and ability grouping or redistricting to achieve class balance, the parents would become angry and defensive and say things like, you can’t make education better for poor kids.Jen::
Education is there and the way of the system is set up does not deny low income kids any more than it does high income kids. Don’t blame the system. And so the researchers noted that the mothers were sort of unaware of the dichotomy between these liberal ideals they had waxed about earlier in the interview. And then the reasons that when they’re backed into a corner, they can say why a truly liberal education will never work. And so it seems as though we liberals want this inclusive, integrated ideal, but we also want this advantage for our own child. So how can we sort of form a path forward here if you’re not living in your prospect point neighborhood, which I think is a pseudonym where there is a little more opportunity to spread around. If you feel backed into a corner, what’s the path forward?Dr. Roda::
Well, the first thing I always say is that I’m not blaming the parents at all because of the choices that they have are not what they want. Most parents, they wish that their neighborhood school would be more diverse, but the self-fulfilling prophecy just plays on and on of what a good and bad school is and what a failing school means, and this is played out in the media and from politicians and we’re looking at test scores and everything else. But I think prospect point is a good case to look at because I think what it is is having parents think about the collective in the common good instead of the individualistic advantages that they can get for their own children. And I know that we want what’s best for our child. Everyone does and we want to give them all of the advantages.Dr. Roda::
But when you have privilege, you need to let some of that go for the common good and in New York City you’re living there because it’s a diverse city because you want your children to be exposed to diversity. But then in schools, you don’t have that option and it’s unfortunate. So, I think it really comes down to parents letting go some of their privilege to benefit the collective and it also comes down to the school leaders and staff. So that’s my current study looking at that side of it because they need to challenge some of these practices that maintain the privilege in the school. They need to have a vision of equity that does not allow white families or gentrifier families to come in and just wield their privilege in ways that only benefit their child. So, in schools that I’m studying that are doing this really well, they’re accentuating that this is a community.Dr. Roda::
The school is a community and it’s not we’re just gonna come in and read to like if there’s activity like reading with the children in kindergarten or something. It’s not just you’re going to come in and read to your own child, you’re going to read to the whole class because we’re a community, things like that. Building trust with parents of color, so they do not feel marginalized in the school. They’re represented on the PTA and it really comes down to marketing too. I mean we’re this consumer model of schools. School leaders are forced to market their school or they won’t have enough students, so marketing, messaging and just knowing that social networks, the social networks of white parents are strong, so you don’t really need to go out and market your school if it’s a popular school and you’re thinking about equity and maintaining the diversity that your school has, you’re not going to go out to the preschools that are white privileged families. You’re going to go to the preschools that maybe have never heard of your school and they don’t have the social networks telling them about your wonderful school. So it’s kind of flipping the script a little bit about what works and what does not work and always thinking about what’s equitable.Jen::
Yeah. It almost seems as though it has to be sort of a confluence of things that come together that just by itself, the parents deciding I want to send my child to a diverse school is not enough because there might not be a different school goes by and just having… if that exists within the absence of kind of visionary school leaders. I think you studied school leaders in Morris County, New Jersey that really set the stage for a real transformation there. Of course there are other places where schools are not able to make decisions about admissions based on any kind of affirmative action policies. So what can happen there, what kind of policies are possible there where you just can’t make a decision based on diversity or race?Dr. Roda::
That’s true. I mean with the parents in both cases in Louisville and Seattle that we cannot use race as the sole indicator for admissions, so getting around that is using socioeconomic status, free and reduced price lunch status usually, neighborhood, so geographic location. There’s one middle school principal in New York City that when she gets her list of students, she prioritizes students that are coming from elementary schools with fewer than 10% white students because she wants to maintain the diversity in her school. So that’s a way to get around the system a little bit. And that’s what I’ve been hearing. School leaders that want to create diverse schools have to be creative with the admissions process and maybe set aside some seats for the last minute or prioritize certain neighborhoods or elementary schools or do different outreach to preschools or public housing. So there’s ways around it and ways to maintain the diversity.Dr. Roda::
But the real work is when you have a diverse school and parents come together and a big piece is to work on racial identity and real bonds and relationships across difference. And that’s the work of parents. So, there are parents coming together in schools and creating diversity committees. There are teachers speaking out about it, about this issue and working together as teams to really bridge the gaps that we have. And it’s uncomfortable sometimes and the parents that really stay and stick it out are the parents that can, this is what I’ve been hearing, the parents that can really grapple with their own identity and their own privileges and be open and vulnerable sometimes and talk to other parents because communication is really what needs to happen and standing up for what they see that might be some inequities in the policies or programs or practices in the school.Jen::
Yeah. That leads me nicely to sort of where I wanted to end up with this conversation was what can parents actually do and I think part of the issue is just identifying the privilege in the first place. Identifying the privilege that you have and specifically the privilege that you have within the system. Because until you start being really deliberate about it, it’s just kind of, it’s so baked in to the way we have experienced school ourselves and the way we experienced society that we don’t think about it because it is our privilege to not to need to think about it. If drama club costs $100 for the semester, chances are most of us have and can find that $100 somewhere and that that’s not the case for all families due to the structural inequalities in many other aspects of our society. And so I think it’s really tempting to fall back on the narrative of, well, certain kind of parents don’t care about school. They’re not involved with the school, they’re never going to come to the PTA meetings. And we need to look beyond that and say, well, why are they not involved? What is it about this environment that is making them not show up? Is it they don’t have daycare? Is it because public transit doesn’t run late enough? What are the underlying issues here?Dr. Roda::
Or is it the PTA is all white and they don’t feel like their voice would be welcomed or included.Jen::
So just including and making everyone feel welcome in the school and there are ways to do it, but you have to be aware of and that goes back to communication too. You need to be aware of what parents are thinking and question instead of just saying and assuming that they don’t care because they’re not showing up. There are parents that are busy and they maybe work different hours or there are so many reasons that parents don’t come to school. Maybe they didn’t have a very good experience in schools growing up and they just don’t maybe understand what’s expected of them.Jen::
Translation services unavailable.Dr. Roda::
Yeah. So many issues. So, I want to end on kind of a really concrete note. When I was thinking through this episode, I was thinking, okay, what can I really do in my real life? And so I was thinking about my daughter’s preschool, which actually has historically put a premium on admitting families who know families already in the school and the reason they say they do this is because it promotes a sense of community. But what I realized is that it means that their admission process kind of has this bias baked into it because the majority of the families already in the school are white. They are giving privileged admission status to other white families. And so I actually wrote to the school’s director this week to ask her thoughts on shifting that policy and she’s actually out on leave at the moment and so the interim director responded and said that she would take it to the next sort of committee of director’s meeting of the network of preschools.Jen::
So, I don’t have a massively successful response to report yet, but it felt, I mean, it would’ve felt hypocritical for me to not have at least sent that email having identified a potential source of privilege. It felt very exposing to me to say, well, I’m kind of calling you out on a potential source of bias. It felt very uncomfortable for me to do that. And she responded in a very friendly way saying, “Yeah, I’ve been reading about this and thinking about it and I wonder and I’m gonna bring it up at our next meeting.” I know there’s no sort of rescinding of that policy and immediately open access right now, but a step has been taken and if that question was not raised and it didn’t make it into that board of directors meeting agenda, then it wouldn’t have been. And so I think can we sort of take these tiny incremental steps and expect them to add up? Or do we need more revolutionary action?Dr. Roda::
I think that the tiny little steps help. Anything that can bring more diversity to the school, exposing the policies and practices that lead to disproportionate representation of white families in a school with admissions, with marketing, with prioritizing siblings or families that are in the know about the school, all of those things definitely add up and you never want to be that parent that always is emailing or the squeaky wheel. But the squeaky wheel parent gets things done and if you can get a core group of parents that are like you and that maybe you could form a racial diversity committee in your preschool and really talk about these issues.Jen::
Next step forward.Dr. Roda::
Yeah. And to be clear, this is not the school saying or even implying or even thinking, I don’t think that we want to have a bias policy to keep certain people out. I don’t think that’s their intent in any way, shape or form. They have a partnership with a very diverse school that they actively support. They have partnerships with schools in Kenya that we, the parents financially support. But if you don’t think about the unintended consequences of these policies that you enact then I think there can be really profound consequences that impact people in a way that we did not intend.Dr. Roda::
Right. And like you said in the beginning, we’re all well-intentioned when we think about our own child’s education and wanting to give them the best. However, I think when we think about other people’s children as being just as worthy of the opportunities we’re giving our own children, you can really change a lot of things and expand your mind and then you, I mean it’s a new set of glasses to look through and it gives me inspiration when I find communities and schools and leaders and parents that are doing these little things and so I applaud you for your email to the director.Jen::
Thank you. It’s a small step, but yeah, and hopefully this reframing of what does opportunity look like when it’s available for all children can help us to move forward in that right direction.Dr. Roda::
Well, thank you so much for opening my mind in my paper that I wrote so long ago and for talking with us today, it’s been such a privilege to talk with you.Dr. Roda::
Thank you for inviting me. It was a pleasure.Jen::
So Dr. Roda’s book, Inequality in Gifted and Talented Programs can be purchased on Amazon and references for the show today can be found at YourParentingMojo.com/SchoolPrivilege.
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