In a wide-ranging interview earlier this summer, Pedro Noguera, a leading national voice on urban education, told Catalyst that these days “education is largely reproducing the inequities in society.”
Noguera is a distinguished professor in the Graduate School of Education and Information Sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he also directs the Center for the Study of School Transformation. His research focuses on how schools are influenced by social and economic conditions.
He spoke with former Editor-in-Chief Lorraine Forte and Associate Editor Melissa Sanchez.
A lot of people say public education is dead or under assault. Is that true?
Well, I definitely think it’s under assault. This is not just a Chicago issue. It’s happening in every major city across the country. But we have to look at it two ways. On the one hand, the reason for the assault is because there has been pervasive failure in those schools.
On the other, what has emerged as the solution is charter schools, a dismantling of the public system. There are real problems with that — the main one being that there’s no means to have real, deep civic engagement through charter schools. Charter schools are quasi-public institutions. They’re not accountable to the broader public. They’re not even accountable to the people they serve. They’re accountable to their boards.
Beyond that, if public schools historically have been important anchors to communities … then why have we allowed our public schools to have such an impoverished view of reform? The schools we’ve created and the vision of reform — and Chicago has exemplified this — is not about attracting middle-class people back to public schools.
How could schools attract middle-class people?
Desegregation triggered some of the flight of not just the white middle class, but black middle class. The only thing that would make it possible to have schools that [are] integrated on the basis of race and class is high quality. That should be the vision driving reform — high-quality schools that offer a range of opportunities to kids and enriched education that would make people say, “Yeah, I want my kids in there.”
Does that mean that Chicago is going about it the wrong way?
Most cities are. And the sad thing is that we’re not even doing as good as we did in the ’60s. I was talking to a colleague yesterday who was describing the high school he went to in the Bronx. At that time, it had 5,300 kids and was integrated — race and class integrated. It offered physics and was sending lots of kids to college. It was a school middle-class people put their kids into. Now, it has more homeless kids than any school in the city, more recently incarcerated kids.
Here in Chicago there’s a real distrust of the district. Nobody trusts CPS.
For good reason. It’s such an inefficient system. They are creating so many charter schools without any real thought about population, and so you have all these schools now that are under-populated right next to new schools. It makes no sense.
Would an elected school board help?
I don’t think that by itself is any kind of cure. The fact is that in cities that have elected school boards, a lot of people don’t even vote. A lot of people run unopposed. A lot of people don’t really know about the decisions that are being made.
You were on an elected school board.
That’s why I know they’re overrated.
In Illinois, like elsewhere, it’s getting harder to become a teacher. How do you balance this drive for more quality with getting human beings into buildings?
It’s a huge problem. There are so many examples, particularly in education, where they’ll seize upon a solution and never understand the consequences. …They make the exams more rigorous, but they’re not working to make the job more attractive. They’re not figuring out what’s the best predictor for who’s going to be a good teacher. Is it this test or is it other things that matter?
What do you do to attract teachers?
You have to make the work conditions better. It is primarily the work conditions that drive a lot of people out of teaching. They’re in schools that are under-resourced, they’re in classrooms where they’re overwhelmed by the needs of the kids. They’re not well-prepared. They’re not well-supported. Those are not conditions that lead highly skilled people to want to stay in teaching.
Most teachers are young white women. What do you say to them as they start teaching in predominantly poor and black or Hispanic schools?
I would say that I hope she is going to get support. That she’s not going to be asked to teach the most challenging classes, which is what we often do to new teachers. I hope she is going to know how to develop alliances with the kids and the parents so she doesn’t feel isolated and overwhelmed. And I hope that she is going to know not simply the content, but how to teach the content to the children she’s going to have in front of her.
Because that’s the real challenge: developing that relationship between teachers and students, especially when they come from a different background from the kids. If they don’t know how to build that relationship, a lot of times, regardless of where they got their degree, they may not be effective.
How do you rate the impact of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s policies over the past seven years?
Very much a lost opportunity. Most of the policies that have come out of the Obama Administration have been identical to those of the Bush Administration. Race to the Top was just another version of No Child Left Behind, which brought in many ill-conceived plans to improve schools or to judge teachers by test scores. Only in the last year, through their civil rights department, have we started to talk about disparities in opportunities and raised equity as an issue.
There’s been a lot of talk about integration in recent months. How do you do that in a district like Chicago, where 90 percent of kids are black and Hispanic?
But look at the demographics of the city. You have a lot of white people living here. You can’t force anybody to put their kids in the schools. But high-quality schools, particularly in neighborhoods that are more integrated largely because of gentrification, create an opportunity to have more integrated schools.
It is true that some neighborhood schools are becoming more integrated. But poor people are being pushed out of the city.
That’s why you can’t expect schools to do this by themselves. That’s where the mayor has to step up and think about what kind of housing policies are needed to stabilize communities for low-income residents? How do you deal with transportation, jobs and services in those neighborhoods?
What kind of choice do parents want?
What parents don’t want is to be forced to go to bad schools. So if choice gives them a way to get out of that, then yeah, they’ll take that. But most parents would prefer a neighborhood school that they can walk to, with good after-school programs for their kids.
Do you think education can still be the great equalizer?
Not the way it’s being conceived now. Right now, education is largely reproducing the inequities in our society. We’ve been on a period of decline since the ’70s. But there was a time when we saw gaps closing in this country, and it was because of what we were doing not only in schools but outside of schools to support families. It’s about the vision. If you start by saying, we want to create schools that this community will be proud of, we want to create schools that will attract people of diverse backgrounds … you would end up with very different schools than you have now.