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November 1, 2016
Vol. 74
No. 3

The (Evasive) Language of School Reform

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Communities speak openly about the consequences of reforms on race and class, but the public officials they deal with sidestep those issues entirely.

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Credit: ©Bruce Cotler
All across the United States, decisions championed in the name of school "reform" are segregating students on the basis of race and class and exacerbating education inequities. In cities such as New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Detroit, traditional public schools that serve low-income students of color have been closed, consolidated, or co-located with charter schools. The officials initiating these reforms rationalize such drastic measures by claiming funding constraints, low enrollment, or inadequate performance. They also claim the reforms will ultimately benefit disadvantaged students.
But this is not what the evidence shows. In many cases, new charter schools serve proportionally fewer students with disabilities and English language learners. The poorest communities lose access to neighborhood schools, some of which have been there for 100 years. School closures impact the most disadvantaged and vulnerable students—students who are undocumented, homeless, formerly incarcerated, or in foster care (see Institute for Children, Poverty, & Homelessness, 2010). The majority of students end up in under-resourced schools that are no better than the ones they attended before (de la Torre & Gwynne, 2009). Students subject to closures typically transfer to schools that don't facilitate significant gains in achievement (de la Torre & Gwynne, 2009; Kirshner, Gaertner, & Pozzoboni, 2010; Sunderman & Payne 2009).

The State of the State

Recent reports by the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (see 2016) show that educational disparities in discipline and race are widespread. Black preK–12 students are suspended at higher rates than white students, and K–12 students with disabilities are suspended more frequently than students without disabilities. Further, the Civil Rights Project (Kucsera, 2014; Orfield & Frankenberg, 2014) has documented that racial segregation in schools is growing, particularly in the largest cities.
For the first time in U.S. history, a majority of children in public schools come from families in poverty (Southern Education Foundation, 2015). But state and federal education policies have largely ignored the impact of growing economic inequality and demographic change on public schools. For this reason, we're addressing the "equity impact" of current urban education reforms on poor children of color. New York City, the nation's largest school system and an epicenter of reform, serves as the case study for our analysis.

Bloomberg, de Blasio, and School Reform

The inequitable impact of school reform strategies in New York City reflects nationwide trends. Similar to patterns elsewhere, the New York City schools that are scheduled for consolidation serve, on average, a population that comprises 92 percent black and Latino students, 31 percent students with disabilities, 13 percent English language learners, and 90 percent students living in poverty (New York City Department of Education [NYC DOE], 2016a).
New York City closed 140 schools from 2002 to 2013 under Mayor Bloomberg (Layton, 2013). Under current Mayor de Blasio, the schools facing consolidations as a result of underenrollment are simultaneously experiencing the expansion of charter schools in their districts and neighborhoods. Compared with traditional public schools, in which 21 percent of students served have disabilities and 14 percent are English language learners (NYC DOE, 2016a), the new charter schools serve an average of only 16 percent students with disabilities and 6 percent English language learners. Ironically, the reforms implemented by a more liberal mayor are exacerbating disparities in access to schools.
In New York City, decisions about closing and consolidating traditional public schools and about "co-location" of charter and noncharter schools in the same facility require a local public hearing and a separate public comment period. The Panel for Educational Policy (the PEP)—which consists of 13 appointed members and the chancellor—then votes on each proposal. From a technical standpoint, the process appears fair. However, close examination reveals that these decisions have long fallen primarily on schools serving disadvantaged student populations.
For the last two years, we have monitored local hearings and public comment periods. We wanted to know whether the pledge to address disparities in learning opportunities was borne out in the decisions made regarding individual schools. We examined public discourse from community members and district officials, as well as the language used to rationalize the decisions. We found that although community members speak openly about race, class, and equity-related consequences of decisions, district officials prefer to adopt an "equity-blind" response—that is, they tend to defend proposals without acknowledging their impact on low-income communities of color.
Such coded language is cause for concern. Those who carry out these reforms often seek to avoid the troublesome race and class issues inherent in their decisions. Consequently, under the guise of reform, communities facing poverty and social isolation are now experiencing a dramatic disinvestment in their traditional public schools.

Community Members Silenced

In the hearings, community members drew attention to the demographic characteristics of their student populations, noting that heavy concentrations of high-needs populations brought significant challenges to their schools. They were concerned that co-locations would perpetuate segregation—for example, by taking away space mandated for services to special needs students even as the co-located charter schools typically under-enroll and underserve such students. Speakers noted that school closures have become inevitable for schools that serve populations that other schools have managed to avoid. One teacher described her school's population as "students who live in shelters, children who have been forced to flee their country to be in a country that will welcome them, and children who have been kicked out of charter schools" (NYC DOE, 2016b). Said one speaker, schools that "happily take all kids who enter our doors" consequently find their space—and their survival—in jeopardy (NYC DOE, 2015a).
In their responses, district officials steadfastly avoided these issues, preferring to point out the technical failings of the schools, such as low enrollment, test scores, or graduation rates. They ignored the community members' equity-conscious comments and considered the complaints about segregated populations, class and racial inequities, and histories of displacement "off topic."
At one meeting, a parent noted, "The department of education is only co-locating in communities of color and low socioeconomic standing. There are no co-locations in the schools of rich communities" (NYC DOE, 2105f). Officials typically deemed these remarks as unrelated to the proposal and unworthy of a response.

Colormute and Equity Blind

When district officials did respond to such comments, they often oversimplified or evaded the issues. In answer to a concern that a charter school didn't serve enough homeless students, administrators merely repeated official policy: "Any child eligible for admission to a district school, including homeless students and students in temporary housing, is eligible for admission to a public charter school" (NYC DOE, 2016e). However, as a teacher pointed out, the charter application process presents a barrier to the lowest-income families because "not every parent in our community can negotiate the tedious process of a lottery" (NYC DOE, 2015c).
Officials also downplayed parents' concerns by explaining that differences in student subgroups naturally fluctuated among schools. Although the statement is accurate on one level, it ignores the fact that many charter and public schools have found ways to exclude the most vulnerable students (Caref, Hainds, Hilgendorf, Jankov, & Russell, 2012).
Several speakers noted the stark differences in the students served by a charter school that was asking for space in a building to be shared with three other schools. Five percent of the students at the charter school were identified as English language learners, as opposed to 25, 37, and 33 percent at the three other schools. Likewise, 11 percent of the students at the charter school were identified as having disabilities, compared with 25, 21, and 21 percent at the other schools (NYC DOE, 2015e).
References to schools working with "all students" often served to obscure equity concerns. For example, one communiqué about a school consolidation read, "All current and future students enrolled at the consolidated [school] will continue to receive all mandated services if this proposal is approved, and all schools will have sufficient space within their Footprint allocation to meet their students' needs" (NYC DOE, 2016d).
This type of official discourse promising the success of "all students" is indicative of what Mica Pollock (2004) refers to as a colormute approach to education—that is, a refusal to acknowledge that a policy or practice targets or disadvantages a particular student population. Although all students were supposed to continue to get mandated services if proposals were approved, students were frequently denied the resources they needed once proposals have been enacted. In cases of co-location, the district often insisted that "space will be distributed equitably." But that's simply not what many teachers, students, and parents who have experienced co-located buildings say.
Equitable space sharing and thoughtful collaboration among schools were rare in co-locations. Families and school staff members told stories of students losing time in libraries, gymnasiums, and cafeterias or seeing their dental clinic or computer labs dismantled when a charter school moved in (NYC DOE, 2014a). Students were often compelled to learn "in hallways and closets" (NYC DOE, 2015d), with guidance counselors and special education teachers providing services in equally cramped areas and stairwells. The schools serving the neediest children typically lost out in the competition for resources. In fact, "all" students were not served equally well (NYC DOE, 2014b, 2015b, 2016c, 2016f, 2016g).

Taking Action on Equity

In parts of New York City, conversations about school segregation have proliferated, particularly over the last year (Hannah-Jones, 2016; Wall, 2015a). After the release of a report that cited New York City schools as among the most segregated in the United States (Kucsera, 2014), officials from the city's department of education reluctantly conceded that integration can inch forward if particular schools push for it on a case-by-case basis (Fertig, 2016; Wall, 2015b). They've also encouraged schools to "brand" and "market" themselves to families (potential customers) (Khan, 2016)—and, in a surprising display of weak leadership from a "progressive" mayor and administration, they've said that local parent advocacy groups should be the ones to "deal with diversity" (Haimson, 2016). The public officials seem to have ruled out the possibility of working creatively to balance student populations, investing in education opportunities in high-needs neighborhoods, and satisfying parents' choices, as other districts committed to desegregation have done (Alves & Willie, 1987; Fiske, 2002).
Urban districts could implement a number of strategies to combat segregation and address the under-enrollment that often leads to co-location, consolidation, or closure. In New York City, some community members are pushing for controlled choice, a student assignment policy that would distribute high-needs student subgroups equitably among schools districtwide (CEC1, 2015). Equitable admissions policies would be combined with more comprehensive support and inclusion of families in need, with the aim of helping these families gain access to high-quality educational programming. In addition, some advocates are calling for funding and support so schools can offer students dual-language programs, magnet programs, and programs in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Increasing opportunities in schools across districts would provide parents with high-quality choices, lead to more integrated schools, and—combined with proactive admissions strategies and investment from districts—could prevent many schools from becoming under-enrolled.

From Equity Blind to Equity Conscious

Educators who recognize that equity is vital to the future of public education are joining the equity-conscious conversations that are now emerging in New York City. Their expertise and their compassion for the children they serve will amplify the voices of parents and community members who are desperately seeking allies.
As sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva (2014) reminds us, equity-blind and colormute discourse perpetuates the status quo by making the needs of the most vulnerable invisible. To make greater progress in meeting the needs of our most disadvantaged students, we must focus on strategies aimed at reducing disparities in education opportunities—and place equity and racial integration at the center of reform.

Alves, M. J., & Willie, C. V. (1987). Controlled choice assignments: A new and more effective approach to school desegregation. Urban Review, 19(2), 67–88.

Bonilla-Silva, E. (2014). Racism without racists: Color-blind racism and the persistence of racial inequality in America (4th ed.). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Caref, C., Hainds, S., Hilgendorf, K., Jankov, P., & Russell, K. (2012). The black and white of education in Chicago's public schools. Chicago Teachers Union. Retrieved from www.ctunet.com/root/text/CTU-black-and-white-of-chicago-education.pdf

Community Education Council for District One [CEC1]. (2015). Resolution in support of a controlled choice admission policy. Retrieved from https://cecdistrictone.files.wordpress.com/2015/12/resolution-in-support-of-controlled-choice-cec1.pdf

de la Torre, M., & Gwynne, J. (2009). When schools close: Effects on displaced students in Chicago Public Schools. Chicago: Consortium on Chicago School Research.

Fertig, B. (2016, May 31). City invites more schools to try diversity initiatives. SchoolBook.org. Retrieved from www.wnyc.org/story/city-invites-more-schools-try-diversity-initiatives

Fiske, E. B. (2002). Controlled choice in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In Divided we fail: Coming together through public school choice (pp. 167–208). New York: Century Foundation.

Haimson, L. (2016). Mayoral control hearings and my testimony about why it's an undemocratic and frankly racist governance system [blog post]. Retrieved from NYC Public School Parents at http://nycpublicschoolparents.blogspot.com/2016/05/mayoral-control-hearings-and-my.html

Hannah-Jones, N. (2016, June 9). Choosing a school for my daughter in a segregated city. New York Times Magazine. Retrieved from www.nytimes.com/2016/06/12/magazine/choosing-a-school-for-my-daughter-in-a-segregated-city.html

Institute for Children, Poverty & Homelessness (2010). The impact of school closures on homeless students in New York City. New York: Author. Retrieved from www.icphusa.org/pdf/reports/icph_schoolclosurespolicyreport.pdf

Kemple, J. J. (2016) School closures in New York City. Education Next, 16(4). Retrieved from http://educationnext.org/school-closures-in-new-york-city-did-students-do-better

Khan, Y. (2016, May 4). Chancellor encourages schools to ‘rebrand' better. Schoolbook.org. Retrieved from www.wnyc.org/story/chancellor-encourages-schools-rebrand-better

Kirshner, B., Gaertner, M., & Pozzoboni, K. (2010). Tracing transitions: The effect of high school closure on displaced students. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 32(3), 407–429. doi: 10.3102/0162373710376823

Kucsera, J., with Orfield, G. (2014). New York State's extreme school segregation: Inequality, inaction, and a damaged future. Los Angeles: Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles. Retrieved from https://civilrightsproject.ucla.edu/research/k-12-education/integration-and-diversity/ny-norflet-report-placeholder

Layton, L. (2013, January 29). Activists to U.S. Education Department: Stop school closings now. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/activists-to-us-education-department-stop-school-closings-now/2013/01/29/7eb27f40-6a39-11e2-95b3-272d604a10a3_story.html

New York City Department of Education [NYC DOE]. (2014a). The proposed co-location of American Dream Charter School (84XTBD) with P.S. 30 Wilton (07X030) in Building X030, beginning in the 2014–2015 school year (Public Comment Analysis). Retrieved from http://schools.nyc.gov/NR/rdonlyres/1DD21B74-8CFD-415B-8200-7F9F3B324068/164631/RevisedPCAX030vfinal.pdf

NYC DOE. (2014b). The proposed extension and expansion of the temporary co-location of the middle school grades of Harlem Prep Charter School (84M708) with M.S. 224 Manhattan East School for Arts & Academics (04M224), Renaissance Charter High School for Innovation (84M433), and Success Academy Charter School—Harlem 3 (84M385) in building M099 through the 2014–2015 school year (Public Comment Analysis). Retrieved from http://schools.nyc.gov/NR/rdonlyres/1DD21B74-8CFD-415B-8200-7F9F3B324068/164645/M099PCA_vFinal.pdf

NYC DOE. (2015a). Panel for Educational Policy public meeting, December 16, 2015 (Public transcript). Retrieved from www.learndoe.org/pep/files/2015/12/PEPtranscript_12_16_15.pdf

NYC DOE. (2015b). Panel for Educational Policy public meeting, June 10, 2015 (Public Transcript). Retrieved from www.learndoe.org/pep/files/2015/06/PEPtranscript6-10-15.pdf

NYC DOE. (2015c). Panel for Educational Policy public meeting, January 29, 2015 (Public Transcript). Retrieved from www.learndoe.org/pep/files/2015/02/PEP-Meeting-1-29-15-Transcript.pdf

NYC DOE. (2015d). The proposed opening and co-location of Success Academy Charter School—New York 4 (84QTBD) with existing schools M.S. 53 Brian Piccolo (27Q053) and Village Academy Middle School (27Q319) in building Q053 beginning in the 2016–2017 school year (Public Comment Analysis). Retrieved from http://schools.nyc.gov/NR/rdonlyres/7E9BED87-11CB-496C-933A-F0C34FA9A541/189995/PCA_Q053vfinal.pdf

NYC DOE. (2015e). The proposed temporary co-location of grades 3–5 of Success Academy Charter School—Bronx 3 (84X380) with existing schools J.H.S. 145 Arturo Toscanini (09X145), Urban Science Academy (09X325), and New Millennium Business Academy Middle School (09X328) in building X145 beginning in the 2015–2016 school year. (Educational Impact Statement). Retrieved from http://schools.nyc.gov/NR/rdonlyres/10D5EAC8-48D2-435A-B2D2-C511A236C246/178504/EIS_X145_84X380_SABronx3_vfinal.pdf

NYC DOE (2015f). The proposed re-siting and co-location of Beginning with Children Charter School (84K703) grades K–5 with P.S./I.S. 157 The Benjamin Franklin Health & Science Academy (14K157) in building K157 beginning in the 2015–2016 school year (Public Comment Analysis). Retrieved from http://schools.nyc.gov/NR/rdonlyres/F9897383-334E-4238-B303-AD920880C449/179526/PCA_K157_vfinal1.pdf

NYC DOE. (2016a). Demographic snapshot 2011–12 to 2015–16 (Data file). Retrieved from http://schools.nyc.gov/Accountability/data/default.htm

NYC DOE. (2016b). Panel for Educational Policy meeting, April 20, 2016 (video recording). Retrieved from www.learndoe.org/pep/panel-for-educational-policy-meeting-15

NYC DOE. (2016c). Panel for Educational Policy: June 22, 2016 (Video Recording). Retrieved from www.learndoe.org/pep/panel-for-educational-policy-meeting-16/

NYC DOE. (2016d). The proposed consolidation of Collaborative Academy of Science, Technology, & Language-Arts Education (01M345) and grades 6–8 of Henry Street Secondary School for International Studies (01M292) with University Neighborhood Middle School (01M332) in building M056 beginning in the 2016–2017 school year (Public Comment Analysis). Retrieved from http://schools.nyc.gov/NR/rdonlyres/EEBE7C2C-ACC7-458A-B3DB-1094D109D2F8/196138/PCA_ConsolidationofUNMSCASTLEandHenryStreetMS_vfin.pdf

NYC DOE. (2016e). The proposed opening and co-location of Success Academy Charter School—NYC 7 (84KTBD) with existing schools P.S. 25 Eubie Blake (16K025) and Upper School @ P.S. 25 (16K534) in building K025 beginning in the 2016–2017 school year (Public Comment Analysis). Retrieved from http://schools.nyc.gov/NR/rdonlyres/D9619074-60BF-4445-9534-C2E62C24B858/191888/SAK025PCA_vfinal.pdf

NYC DOE. (2016f). The proposed re-siting and co-location of the middle school grades of Achievement First Apollo Charter School (84K774) to building K292 with J.H.S. 292 Margaret S. Douglas (19K292) beginning in the 2016–2017 school year (Public Comment Analysis). Retrieved from http://schools.nyc.gov/NR/rdonlyres/A3F7260E-7586-412F-A73D-2F756804A753/0/AFApolloMSatK292_PCA_vfinal.pdf

NYC DOE. (2016g). The proposed re-siting and co-location of The New American Academy Charter School (84K736) in building K233 with P.S. 233 Langston Hughes (18K233) beginning in the 2016–2017 school year (Public Comment Analysis). Retrieved from http://schools.nyc.gov/NR/rdonlyres/78EE4251-9A54-4096-8782-5B898FD2140C/198786/PCA_NAresitingtoK233_vfinal.pdf

Orfield, G., & Frankenberg, E., with Ee, J., & Kucsera, J. (2014). Brown at 60: Great progress, a long retreat, and an uncertain future. Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles. Los Angeles: UCLA. Retrieved from https://civilrightsproject.ucla.edu/research/k-12-education/integration-and-diversity/brown-at-60-great-progress-a-long-retreat-and-an-uncertain-future

Pollock, M. (2004). Colormute: Race talk dilemmas in an American school. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Southern Education Foundation. (2015). A new majority: Low-income students now a majority in the nation's public schools (Research Bulletin). Retrieved from www.southerneducation.org/getattachment/4ac62e27-5260-47a5-9d02-14896ec3a531/A-New-Majority-2015-Update-Low-Income-Students-Now.aspx

Sunderman, G. L. & Payne, A. (2009). Does closing schools cause educational harm? A review of the research (Information Brief). Arlington, VA: Mid-Atlantic Equity Center.

U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights. (2016). 2013–2014 civil rights data collection: A first look: Key data highlights on equity and opportunity gaps in our nation's public schools. Retrieved from www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/2013-14-first-look.pdf

Wall, P. (2015a, December 23). School segregation debates grabbed New York headlines in 2015. Now what? Chalkbeat.org. Retrieved from www.chalkbeat.org/posts/ny/2015/12/23/school-segregation-debates-grabbed-new-york-headlines-in-2015-now-what

Wall, P. (2015b, November 19). Exclusive: After year delay, city will allow diversity plans at several schools. Chalkbeat.org. Retrieved from www.chalkbeat.org/posts/ny/2015/11/19/city-to-allow-some-schools-to-move-forward-with-diversity-plans-sources-say

Pedro Noguera is the Emery Stoops and Joyce King Stoops Dean of the University of Southern California's Rossier School of Education. A leading scholar of urban public education, equity, and school reform, he has published over 250 articles in academic journals, book chapters, research reports, and newspaper editorials.

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