Laura Waters

The Rise and Fall of the Suburban School

FOX’s first G.O.P. debate is a month from now and Republican presidential candidates, with the exception of Jeb Bush, can’t disavow college- and career-ready standards and assessments fast enough. So it’s up to the Democratic Party to stand up for low-income students who continue to get short shrift in the nation’s public schools. Andy Rotherham of Bellwether (and Eduwonk) is less than optimistic:
It’s exasperating that Democrats can’t embrace a comprehensive and reformist politics around education.... Part of the problem with a robust and comprehensive agenda is special interest politics, of course, that’s an old story. But it doesn’t explain all of it and people who only focus on the unions are missing an important part of the story.
The union does play a role, of course, in the widespread denial of educational mediocrity ( see NJEA’s bombast, for example) but that’s their job: protect the status quo. What’s more troubling is that many middle-class families take this propaganda as gospel and reject efforts to maintain meaningful oversight and accountability.

The Problem Is Us

Now, New Jersey may be an extreme example. We’re die-hard local control fanatics who cherish our small towns and district identities. As such, we adhere to what Rotherham calls the “middle class politics of education” which “means leaving suburban schools alone to rise and fall as they might. This has led to widespread mediocrity and pockets of excellence...and neutering accountability systems to mask uncomfortable bad news about school performance.” So, if you happen to live in Princeton, New Jersey, (homebase of Save Our Schools—the bastion of local control politics) your kids are mostly fine. But if you happen to live thirteen miles away in Hamilton, New Jersey, many of your kids aren’t so fine. New Jersey’s median household income is $71,637. The median household income in Hamilton is $72,735. I arbitrarily chose a K-5 Hamilton elementary school, Alexander Elementary School, where 78 percent of the enrollment is white and 14.6 percent are economically-disadvantaged. (This cohort is more homogeneous and wealthier than many of Hamilton's other schools.) According to its  School Performance Report, Alexander's “academic performance is about average when compared to schools across the state.” So, what’s average for a typical middle-class New Jersey elementary school, pre-higher level PARCC assessments? One out of 4 third-grade students fail the state basic skills test in language arts. According to the Campaign for Grade Level Reading, “reading proficiency by third grade is the most important predictor of high school graduation and career success. Yet every year, more than 80 percent of low-income children miss this crucial milestone.” According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, “millions of American children get to fourth grade without learning to read proficiently, and that puts them on the high school dropout track.” So at middle-class Alexander Elementary, one of those schools that we're so proud of, 24 percent of third-graders are on track to drop out of high school. Rotherham says that nothing will change until we embrace a “middle-class politics of education.” It's too late for the Republican Party, at least this election cycle, but maybe it's not too late for New Jersey and countless suburban districts across the country.  
Laura Waters writes about New Jersey education politics and policy for WHYY’s Newsworks and NJ Spotlight. She is a mother of four and has been a school board member in Lawrence Township, New Jersey, for 10 years. An earlier version of this post appeared on her blog, NJ Left Behind as QOD: It's Time for a ‘Middle Class Politics of Education.’
Laura Waters
Laura Waters is the founder and managing editor of New Jersey Education Report, formerly a senior writer/editor with brightbeam. Laura writes about New Jersey and New York education policy and politics. As the daughter of New York City educators and parent of a son with special needs, she writes frequently about the need to listen to families and ensure access to good public school options for ...

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