Progressives, If We Really Care About Education, Then Let's Act Like It

Jan 19, 2020 12:00:00 AM


In the hallway of my apartment growing up in Brooklyn, there was a poster of a cover from the New Yorker Magazine entitled "View of the World from 9th Avenue."

In the foreground was Manhattan's ever-busy 9th Avenue. Progressing upward and deeper into the distance ran a small strip of blue for the Hudson River, an even smaller brown strip for New Jersey, and then a single green rectangle that led all the way to the Pacific Ocean, dotted with a random assortment of place names along the otherwise empty and anonymous landscape. 

Saul Steinberg's March 29, 1976 "View of the World from Ninth Avenue" cover of  The New Yorker

Such, it would seem, according to artist Saul Steinberg, was the generalized New York outlook—if it’s not in New York, it’s not altogether important or relevant, let alone definable on a map.

While assuredly satirical, the piece speaks to a trend in many liberal and progressively liberal spaces; to be within these spaces is to be more advanced, enlightened and generally on the right side of things compared to vast red spaces that make up the land between the sporadic circumferences of blue.

I am guilty of this mindset as well.

I have never been to places like Fort Worth, Tulsa, Omaha or Oklahoma City.  But I certainly have preconceived notions of such places and places like them. 

These pre-conceived notions include assuming that being a person of color, an immigrant, a Muslim, a Jew, a person identifying as LGBTQ+ or a woman desiring to terminate a pregnancy in these spaces must be horrifying, at least compared to the relative tolerance of liberal bastions like Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco or New York. 

It is a classic trick of the mind to categorize and vilify others so as to avert one’s judgmental gaze from shining too brightly upon oneself.

It is this exercise in self-protection, at least in part, that has kept areas of liberal progressivism from living up to the values we so readily extol and demand of others.

A recent report has shown, at least in correlation rather than causation, that [pullquote]the “12 most progressive cities [in America] have significantly larger achievement gaps, on average, in reading, math, and graduation rates than the 12 most conservative cities.”[/pullquote]

The impact and depth of this report is limited, to be sure, and folks smarter than myself will be able to flush out its methodological nuances.

But, at least as a conversation starter, there is much to discuss.

Achievement Gap vs. Opportunity Gap

The first thing to reflect upon is the misnomer that is the “achievement gap.” It is more properly called the “opportunity gap.” To refer to differences in academic performance as an “achievement gap” is to put the onus of such disparities on the students themselves, thus implying that it is the students who are at fault. It is a classic case of blaming the victim for the violence done upon them. 

Understanding academic disparities as an “opportunity gap” speaks more to the truth of the inequitable education system our nation has constructed, specifically the “fact that the arbitrary circumstances in which people are born—such as their race, ethnicity, ZIP code and socioeconomic status—determine their opportunities in life, rather than all people having the chance to achieve to the best of their potential.”

This subtle, but profoundly important distinction understood, we can now delve into the data.

  • The average gap in math between White and Black students in the 12 most progressive cities in the country is 41.3 points. Between White and Latinx students the gap is 34.4 points.
  • While the average gap in math between White and Black students in the 12 most conservative cities in the country is 26.2 points. Between White and Latinx students the gap is 19.1 points.
  • The average gap in reading between White and Black students in the 12 most progressive cities in the country is 40.4  points. Between White and Latinx students the gap is 33.8 points.
  • While the average gap in reading between White and Black students in the 12 most conservative cities in the country is 26.9 points.  Between White and Latinx students the gap is 21.8 points.

This means that, at least according to the numbers, that the 12 most conservative cities in the country are doing a better job at serving students of color than the 12 most progressive cities.

True, numbers can be used to fit nearly any narrative.

These numbers do not mean it is better to live in conservative spaces, nor does it mean that conservative policies are the drivers behind these scores. There are significant differences and variables between the cities in this report that make it nearly impossible to say with any legitimate certainty that there is any one reason for these score disparities.

And it definitely does not mean, for a fraction of a second, that I am going to vote anything but Democrat in November.

What it does mean, however, is that it is long past time for progressive liberal spaces, and their inhabitants like myself, to stop looking down our noses at the red spaces we don’t even deign to try to locate on the map.

[pullquote]It is time for us to step up to the obligation of our own rhetoric.[/pullquote]

Zachary Wright 

Zachary Wright is an assistant professor of practice at Relay Graduate School of Education, serving Philadelphia and Camden, and a communications activist at Education Post. Prior, he was the twelfth-grade world literature and Advanced Placement literature teacher at Mastery Charter School's Shoemaker Campus, where he taught students for eight years—including the school's first eight graduating classes. Wright was a national finalist for the 2018 U.S. Department of Education's School Ambassador Fellowship, and he was named Philadelphia's Outstanding Teacher of the Year in 2013. During his more than 10 years in Philadelphia classrooms, Wright created a relationship between Philadelphia's Mastery Schools and the University of Vermont that led to the granting of near-full-ride college scholarships for underrepresented students. And he participated in the fight for equitable education funding by testifying before Philadelphia's Board of Education and in the Pennsylvania State Capitol rotunda. Wright has been recruited by Facebook and Edutopia to speak on digital education. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, he organized demonstrations to close the digital divide. His writing has been published by The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Philadelphia Citizen, Chalkbeat, Education Leadership, and numerous education blogs. Wright lives in Collingswood, New Jersey, with his wife and two sons. Read more about Wright's work and pick up a copy of his new book, " Dismantling A Broken System; Actions to Close the Equity, Justice, and Opportunity Gaps in American Education"—now available for pre-order!

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