A photo of a classroom with chairs with desks being attached to them.


Inside America’s Segregated Schools

Our schools have always been segregated by race, class, and economic status. Two teachers reveal the struggles of educating in a perpetually broken system.

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Over the past 15 years, my husband, Tim Shaw, and I, Christiane Gannon, have shaped separate careers as English teachers in communities that rarely intersect, one of us in low-income public schools, teaching primarily students of color; the other in exclusive, often majority white, private institutions. As the years have passed, we’ve experienced firsthand America’s separate and unequal school system, something most people never get to see because they exist in one world or the other, not in both, as we do.

From when we first started teaching in 2004 to the time we moved to D.C. in 2014, these two Americas, these separate worlds of privilege and poverty, had been growing ever farther apart. Between 2000 and 2014, the number of segregated schools doubled, and income inequality was the worst it had been since 1928. As Nikole Hannah-Jones has observed, “Today, across the country, black children are more segregated than they have been at any point in nearly half a century.” Our students were, and still are, growing up in their own versions of America, completely isolated from and unaware of their peers who have very different lives.

In the nation’s capital, we encountered the starkest contrast between our daily classroom experiences, because our schools were housed in neighborhoods that revealed the country’s staggering levels of inequality. The median family income of the neighborhood in Northwest D.C., where one of us taught was nearly eight times as high as the other neighborhood in Southeast, in which 62 percent of the children lived below the federal poverty line. As one of us drove northwest and the other southeast, less than ten miles apart in the same city but in two different worlds, we discovered a disgraceful lack of investment in American children that is perpetuating historical inequities in new and dangerous ways.

At our schools, we witnessed how little the nation has moved from what Jonathan Kozol observed in 1991: “Children in one set of schools are educated to be governors; children in the other set of schools are trained for being governed.” In what follows, we juxtapose the experiences of our separate school communities to reveal the consequences of our nation’s unwillingness to desegregate schools.

Separate and unequal

Tim: Before I started teaching at my new school, the Southeast Preparatory Academy*, in D.C., I had to participate in a three-week Summer Institute. At first, I was excited to be in an environment that appeared to demonstrate a clear vision. I had previously taught for six years in Baltimore City public schools, so I was used to an old, uninviting building with bars on the doors and loud window unit air-conditioners. Southeast Preparatory Academy tried to counteract this dilapidated environment through motivational signs on the walls with messages like Hard Work Beats Talent When Talent Doesn’t Work Hard.

On the first day, I walked into the gym, filled with teachers awaiting the opening remarks from the founder and CEO, Rochelle. When she came out onto the stage, Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” was blasting from the speakers, and she was mic’d up and started us off with a cheer. We all stood up and repeated after her.

“SPA, every day. SPA, every day.”

This was the first of many cheers I would practice over the course of three weeks, since we would have to do them in class with students to motivate them on their weekly quizzes. As we learned in one of the cheers, higher test scores were the main objective of the school—“no red, no yellow, just green and blue, just green and blue”—referring to the levels of proficiency on standardized tests, green and blue denoting the passing scores.

A study by the Urban Institute notes that 75.4 percent of Black children experience poverty at some point in their childhood, compared to 30.1 percent of white children, and SPA was on a mission to break this cycle with a skills-based curriculum facilitated through direct instruction. This method of teaching presents academic content to students using a teacher-centered lecture format. I believed in the mission, but as I experienced the school’s approach, I began to question its methodology.

When Albert Shanker, President of the American Federation of Teachers from 1974–1997, first proposed the idea of charter schools in 1988, he imagined a school that doesn’t require students to “sit still for five or six hours a day listening to somebody talk,” a school that “develops creativity and other aspects of intelligence” instead of “repeating and regurgitating back things on standardized examinations.” Shanker envisioned a new model of education that would be founded on “cooperative learning, the notion that kids can sit around a table and help each other.” He also imagined these schools would be integrated: “We are not talking about a school where all the advantaged kids or all the white kids or any other group is segregated to one group. The school would have to reflect the whole group.” It did not take long for me to see how far from Shanker’s original vision some contemporary charter schools are.

Much of our training at the SPA Summer Institute was about efficiency and maximizing time on task. We spent hours practicing how to get the entire class to open their binders simultaneously to prevent a cacophony of metal clicks. A master teacher was supposed to be able to get 25 binder clicks to sound like one. Then we learned how to pass papers from the window to the wall, timing each other and doing multiple reps. Time wasted inefficiently collecting papers was time students could be learning, and we didn’t have time to waste.

We spent an entire afternoon practicing how to dismiss students from class, getting them all to stand up simultaneously on the left side of their desk. Then pushing in their chairs, doing an about-face toward the back of the room, and waiting for the hand signal from the teacher to line up by the door, where they would stand silently. Once the students were at the door, they were to mimic my movement as I “locked my mouth” with an invisible key. Any time this routine was not done correctly, we were to ask them to do it again until they did it right. But the majority of these procedures were challenging to implement because students rebelled against what they knew were unnecessary restrictions.

Nothing was as important as the obsession with closing the “achievement gap,” and to do so students spent their days sitting in desks completing test-prep packets. They did not have music, drama, art classes, or physical education. The only time they even touched a computer was to take a standardized test. If they did well on weekly quizzes, they earned “scholar dollars” to purchase cheap toys from the school store when they received their “paycheck.” They had 15 minutes of recess a day, but it could be eliminated to discipline them. In the cafeteria, they filed in for lunch, stood behind their chair, and did not sit until every student received their food. Once everyone was served, they were able to talk but this, too, was used to control them. The chance to speak could be taken away at any moment.

Teachers and students existed in a state of perpetual anxiety and urgency. We started our day at 7:45 a.m. I did not have a moment away from students until 1:30 p.m.—no time for a break. In October, I started rationing my water intake to prevent having to use the bathroom. I was reaching my breaking point, as were others. The teachers who had been at SPA for a year or two said an exodus usually started around December, and by the end of the school year, more than 20 staff members would be gone.

The utopia of privilege

Christiane: In the private school environment, dignity and respect are taken for granted. Every day that passed, I felt more at home in my new institution while Tim was filled with rising panic, creating anxiety-filled nights. He would return home from work at 7:30 p.m., eat dinner hastily, and keep working until 11. Then he’d wake up in the night, sweating, heart pounding, worrying over being fired, and wondering whether he had unwittingly taken a job in the school-to-prison pipeline.

In the mornings I was exhausted, drained by our evenings, but my work was a respite from the stress. At private schools, the needs of students and teachers are not only met, they are often catered to. I was surrounded by beauty in an upgraded building that looked like a mini college campus. I had my own classroom, where I could meet with students, and have silent periods during the day to get my work done. Tim had only a desk in a crowded teacher workroom, and cycled among 4 different classrooms all day to teach.

My school had an in-house chef who cooked healthy meals from fresh ingredients each day. Tim’s school relied on pre-packaged meals delivered by truck and warmed in plastic before being served to students. My students had sports, arts, and theater, a new multimillion-dollar library, and a fully equipped athletic center with a rock-climbing wall. Tim’s school didn’t even have gym class.

Our English classrooms, which didn’t have the pressures of state testing and Common Core standards, were places for rich discussion and debate between opposing views. As we read works of literature from different perspectives, students were asked to think about questions relevant to their lives and the contemporary world, to form their own answers, defend their ideas, and ask challenging questions of others. In some private schools like mine, these discussions are enriched by the diversity. A diverse classroom is currently a luxury that only a limited number of American students are able to experience now that our public schools are becoming resegregated. In Tim’s classroom, 96.8 percent of his students were African-American. My classes were approximately 40 percent students of color and 60 percent white students. The students in my classes were white, Black, Asian, Latinx, multiracial; Christian, Muslim, and Jewish; straight, gay, transgender, and from different economic backgrounds.

During my first semester, I was asked to teach two sections of a course in postcolonial literature. English classes at my school are discussion-based, and many of us teach literature using the Harkness method, in which our students sit around a table with their teacher and classmates and speak directly to one another. Discussion-based learning is collaborative, democratic, and creates space for students to make meaning together, a method very close to what Albert Shanker originally envisioned for charter schools. But with the exception of the Noble Academy in Chicago, the majority of charter schools do not use discussion-based learning, which is difficult to implement in classrooms with 25 or 30 students. My classes had between 8 and 16 students in them.

One of my students that year had trouble adapting to discussion-based teaching. Linnea was a Chinese exchange student who had never been in classes where she was expected to talk with her peers. In China, Linnea’s classes were large, and she said teachers usually lectured while students sat silently. In the small and diverse classrooms of my school, students were expected to engage with their peers’ ideas, even those they found politically different from their own.

For the first month, Linnea would come after class to check if she had said anything wrong. She was always apologizing for “not knowing anything” and for asking what she felt were “stupid questions.” Linnea was unceasingly curious, and had a way of asking her classmates to reflect on their culture while they were encountering other cultures together in the literature. Throughout the semester, Linnea asked her classmates to define unfamiliar English words or phrases: “prostitute,” “drone,” “the Iraq War.”

Discussion-based learning gives students the authority to ask questions, instead of simply answering the ones teachers pose to them. During one class when we were examining a scene in which the protagonist is torn between the oppressive traditions in which she was raised and her desire for individuality, I asked the class whether you could have both.

Linnea responded by turning to her classmates to ask, “How do you define tradition in America? What traditions do you have?” After a moment of consideration, the other students decided Thanksgiving was a universally American tradition, since religious holidays weren’t shared by all.

Then Ahmed, a Black Muslim student whose parents were from Nigeria, said: “As Americans, we don’t have tradition. We have capitalism.”

The consensus was that our traditions have been overtaken by capitalism almost entirely, in part because capitalism complements American individualism. But some seemed to feel a loss of community in this, and several said it was “sad” that we don’t have traditions uniting us as a nation.

As the year ended, Linnea talked with me about how worried she was to return home to China. During her time at our school, she had started to identify as a feminist, but her parents told her she couldn’t say this when she went home. On one of her last days, during our school-wide “Diversity Forum” when all grades come together to consider questions of race, class, gender, and inequality, Linnea and the rest of the junior class gathered to discuss privilege. She was in tears afterwards, sad to return to her school in China because she would have to go back to the lecture room, where students were expected to copy down the teacher’s words, rather than speak and write their own.

Tim: When I came home and heard about the discussions in Christiane’s classroom, I felt my students were doomed to a state of voicelessness. SPA was more concerned with test scores than developing students’ ability to think and speak for themselves. As a class, we had incredibly fulfilling moments together, but those usually came when we went off script and had discussions instead of filling in answers on a worksheet with predetermined responses.

“What exactly is cannibalism?” asked Travis, a tall, bespectacled sixth-grader. We were studying Greek myths and had just read about the elder god, Cronus, eating his own children to prevent the fulfillment of a prophecy they would overthrow him. The lesson was supposed to focus on the order of events within a text. Since Travis’s question was not related to this, according to the SPA pedagogy, I should have redirected him back to the lesson.

I had not intended to get into the distinction between ritualistic cannibalism and survival cannibalism, but Travis was curious. After I offered a basic definition of cannibalism and listed each type, we were ready to discuss.

“Which type of cannibal do you think Cronus is?” I asked.

“Survival, definitely,” Travis answered.

“But he wasn’t in any actual danger at the time,” a classmate said eagerly. I was supposed to reprimand him for speaking without being called on, but they were engaging each other, so I let it go.

“True,” Travis responded, “but if survival cannibalism is about emergency situations like starvation, and Cronus knows his kids are going to kill him based on the prophecy, it is an emergency situation.”

“Do all prophecies always come true in Greek mythology?” another student asked. I replied that we would have to find out.

By then, my supervisor had appeared in the doorway. At any moment, I could expect Ms. Kriegel to pop in and monitor my teaching. She watched me impatiently, and gave the visual signal to wrap it up, with a circling finger and exasperated look. None of this discussion should have happened. I was supposed to be following the seven pages of instructional materials on a clipboard with the correct answers already filled in. There was a right answer for everything, and it was my job to be sure students knew it.

By not doing what was expected, I marked myself as someone who hadn’t “bought in” to the school model. In response, Ms. Kriegel would “coach” me, sitting in the back of the room, having me wear an earpiece as she whispered real-time teaching instructions for me into her headset microphone.

“There’s a scholar with his book on his head, needing proximity,” she whispered as I walked over to visually prompt him to refocus.

“Good, now reposition yourself at the front of the room,” she continued.

One boy sitting near her asked, “Who are you talking to?”

She gave such a steady stream of instructions that I found myself struggling to remember what I had set out to do. It got worse when she was pulled into the hallway to redirect a student, and kept her headset on. For several minutes I was trying to teach while tuning out the background noise in my ear. She eventually made it back into the room and I did my best to do what she told me in the moment.

After five months at SPA, nothing changed. In December, I had the good fortune of being hired at another charter school serving a similarly disadvantaged population of students, but using a model that values the social and emotional well-being of children. My current school embodies the original vision Albert Shanker had in 1988, but this model will not spread widely until schools are also evaluated on the social and emotional development of children rather than simply on standardized test scores.

I had the privilege of walking away from an inhumane charter school. But countless students are left behind, quarantined in schools like SPA that keep them voiceless in a nation that does not want to hear them.

Data-driven charter schools like SPA are spreading yearly, colonizing the minds of yet another generation of neglected American youth with a limited education that trains students to be compliant rather than empowered. Teachers and school leaders need to continue to raise awareness of this opportunity gap. Disenfranchised and oppressed young people do not need to learn how to sit down and be quiet. They need to be taught how to stand up and speak truth to power.

Christiane Gannon and Tim Shaw teach and write in Washington, D.C. They are at work on a co-authored memoir about teaching English, How the Other Half Reads: A Couple’s Journey Through American Classrooms of Privilege and Poverty. More information at howtheotherhalfreads.com. Follow them: @CGannonDC and @timshawDC.

This is the second piece in our ongoing series on Miseducation in American Schools. Click here to read more about The Unrealized Dream of School Desegregation.

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