A new report talks to us about the criminalization of African-American and Latino youth, telling us that 26 percent of young people who are arrested are African-American. But then it takes you through the process from arrest to being remanded to adult prisons. Forty-four percent of African-American youth who are arrested are detained; substantially fewer white youth are. Forty-six percent of African-American juveniles go on to criminal court, while a majority of white juveniles get deferred to either juvenile court or alternatives. And 58 percent of the youth in state adult prisons are African-American, more than doubling the proportion of those who are arrested. That’s the system that’s waiting for our young people if we don’t get our acts together in public education. As schools need to be viewed in the context of the criminal justice system, so too the urban economy needs to viewed in the context of the suburban economy. There’s a very important document just released analyzing economic growth in central cities compared to suburban development. For example: In Baltimore, between 2015 and 2018, employment opportunities diminished by three-and-a-half percent, while the surrounding suburbs increased by 10.1 percent; Philadelphia’s employment opportunities in that same time period went down 1.1 percent, the suburban areas went up 5.1 percent; Denver’s central city went up about 1.7 percent, your suburbs went up 16.6 percent. In 2018, African-Americans who had dropped out of school were twice as likely to be unemployed as whites who had dropped out. Our country has fled from affirmative action. Just look at suspension and expulsion rates: 25 percent of African-Americans will be suspended over the course of their time in high school. Wealthier African-American students are twice as likely to be suspended as the poorest white students. Race and class matter. And the poorest Asian-Americans are seven times more likely to be suspended than the wealthiest Asian-Americans.
We must deal with issues of tracking – which, I have to say I consider the structural embodiment of racism and class discrimination; that’s how racism and classism get played out at a school. Across sites, we have finance and other inequities; and terrible discrepancies in teacher qualification, certification within sites. The atrocities of tracking cannot be ignored any longer. How many students are here from high school? Do you remember in elementary school daffodils, blueberries, daisies or some other versions, where they really thought they fooled you about which ones were the good readers and which ones weren’t? Tracks speak louder than yelling at teachers to have high expectations. Teachers and kids read those structures. Let me also say that a group of us just completed an amazing study recently: we surveyed over 1,000 young people in New York — white, black, Latino and Asian — about their experiences with police, and teachers, and storekeepers, and restaurants. Needless to say, white girls and black boys are growing up in very different cities. And, sorry to say, kids in trouble report feeling as unlikely to turn to the their teachers as they are to the cops. I worry that we’re losing teachers. Teachers in Massachusetts are leaving their districts because their students arrived 10 minutes ago from the Dominican Republic and they’re being told that they must teach them in English only. There are communities in New Jersey that can’t find fourth grade teachers because it’s the first year of testing. And in Baltimore, political leaders boast about raising the test scores of first graders. That’s what I call the politics of urgency.
Despite or because of our best effort, systemic reform is taking place. It’s just not the systemic reform that we had hoped for. We witness today a systematic realignment of public dollars and public interests with the needs of corporations and elites — a gentrification of the public sphere. I think we know what to do in urban America. I feel like I’ve been saying this for 100 years: Small schools are really better than large schools for most students, for the poorest students, in particular. No matter what the indicator, students in small schools outperform students in large schools. You can find some exceptions, if you’ve already preselected by class, by the cultural capital of the kids, by the qualifications of the teachers, and by the per capita that the schools get. But there’s a new study where we looked at small schools’ performance in Chicago. We looked at thousands and thousands of kids in the Chicago public schools. And no matter what indicator you look at, with the slight exception sometimes of those stubborn standardized test scores, students in small schools have higher attendance, lower violence, higher grade-point averages; they are much, much less likely to drop out, are much more likely to go to college, and have a sense of a soul. What I mean by that is when kids in big schools see a fight, they say, “I cheer it on or I walk away.” When kids in small schools see a fight, they say, “I break it up or I get a teacher.” Teachers in small schools are more satisfied, more engaged, less likely to be absent, and feel more accountable. Teachers in small schools also express a much more fundamental sense of disappointment when they can’t satisfy the needs of young people because they know them so well. If it took just one adult, most kids would be just fine. Most kids have somebody who adores them, somebody who takes good care of them — poor kids, and rich kids and middle-class kids. Sometimes it’s a nanny, sometimes it’s a mother, and sometimes it’s a grandmother, or father or uncle. Most kids have somebody who adores them. They need schools that know them and teach them. Let me just say one more thing about small schools. Rich people figured out the power of “small” a long time ago? The average prep school high school. Any guess on its size? 298. How many of you have a school in your city that’s bigger than 1,500 kids? 2,000? Keep your hands up. 3,000? Has it got fancy rich kids in it?