No Walls in Education
The thoughts written here are my own and my own alone.
An Open Letter to Fellow Educators, Education Leaders, and Education Policy Makers,
In the past few days, President Trump issued orders to (1) build a physical wall between the U.S. and Mexico and (2) build an intangible wall between the U.S. and several Muslim countries by barring the entry of Muslim refugees. The result has been conversations about these events in terms of immigration law and policy, international relations, and morality.
Yet, what has been left out of the conversation is the interior wall that has existed in this country since its inception. For centuries, our country has built and maintained a wall that separates children by wealth and race. The wall exists between public and private education, but also within public schools due to de facto segregation.
Our country’s interior wall is most often discussed from the perspective of poor or middle class families who cannot afford to access our country’s best schools. But, I argue the wall is problematic in the opposite direction.
Wealthy private and public schools are a fortress for our nation’s wealthiest children. Rather than socialize wealthy white children with children of different religions, races, family incomes, and languages, these children are barricaded away from large swaths of society. If parents don’t promote interaction with children of different social or racial groups outside of school, wealthy white children likely grow up unexposed to the diversity that makes America great.
To illustrate my point, Donald Trump attended only private schools, including New York Military Academy, a private boarding school in New York. Wilbur Ross attended Xavier High School, a Catholic preparatory school in Manhattan. Nikki Haley attended Orangeburg Preparatory School, a private school in South Carolina. And Betsy DeVos, likely Secretary of Education, attended a private high school, Holland Christian High School, in Michigan. Others, such as Rex Tillerson, attended majority-white public high schools (Tillerson’s alma mater Huntsville High School was integrated in the 1960s). It makes one wonder: would our leaders have more compassion and trust of others different than themselves if they went to schools that resembled the diversity of our country?
Of course, many variables besides schooling shape why a person chooses fear and anger over trust and compassion. I believe, however, that the current administration and their actions toward the world’s most vulnerable citizens motivate a reconsideration of the role of education.
First, I believe education leaders, policy makers, and teachers ought to unify to break down the interior wall that perpetuates isolation of wealthy white children. Forget the past dichotomies of charter versus public or union versus non-union. Together, we need to stand up for education that promotes social mobility for our poorest children and compassion in our wealthiest children. Second, we need to recognize the power schools have in either promoting and dismantling fear and anger toward unfamiliar others. All educators, myself included, need to ask themselves: Am I doing what I can to make sure my (mostly white) students are learning to be compassionate, trusting, and inclusive citizens of the world?
Finally, we need accountability for majority white schools. For decades our nation’s minority-majority schools have faced strict accountably over school performance because of the “achievement gap” when compared to wealthy white-majority schools. If we measure achievement in terms of test scores in mathematics and reading, a gap exists. But what if achievement was measured in terms of students’ understanding of different religions or nationalities? Or students’ compassion for our nation’s poor? I suspect there exists a “compassion gap” where our wealthy white-majority schools are doing far worse. To this point, research has shown segregated schools hurt minority students academically, but hurt white students academically and socially. It is time to hold majority white schools accountable: reward them for taking action to dismantle hate, bigotry, xenophobism, and racism. And punish them if they fail.
Education too often gets cast to the side in our nation’s discussions about inequality, race relations, immigration, and social mobility. Yet, if we continue to wall wealthy white children away in elite, segregated, majority-white schools, our country will continue to produce people who believe the answer is to preserve existing walls or build new walls, rather than unify and dismantle the walls that divide us.