Thompson: Rejecting the Blame Game
My school is the lowest performing in the state, but before blaming educators or parents we should check Newsweek's rankings of top high schools. Our poor neighborhood sends kids to five schools on Jay Mathews' elite list and to several other equally excellent schools. When we still had Advanced Placement, I often felt like I was back teaching at Rutgers as I taught students who were more advanced than anyone from my generation. Now, I chat daily with the students, parents, and teachers at Harding Prep (ranking #69), which is a block from my house. Though listed as 77% low-income, it is not in the same world as the old Harding where gang-members and their Rotweillers stood vigil every day. When I judged History Contests at Classen (#39), the students and I would philosophize for hours afterward. The conversations were graduate-school quality.
The three ranked suburban schools, as well as other districts' schools that are less than 30 minutes away from our neighborhood, are the topic of frequent discussions with my students and parents. Students report that they are welcome in the suburbs, as long as they are not a discipline problem (and if they are, the suburban school can easily check whether their residency records are accurate). Typically, our students are candid about whether it was circumstances beyond their control, or their own mistakes, that meant that they attend a neighborhood school. And our neighborhood has also sent students to a state boarding school that is too selective for Mathews' list.
The same story applies to Tulsa's Booker T. Washington (#73), the state's other ranked urban school which now has a poverty rate of 44%. It is no criticism of these excellent schools to remember that they have nothing in common with the old pre-magnet schools, except they share the same name and operate in the same building.
It is understandable that poor parents of color, who send so many of their children to elite magnet, charter and enterprise schools, as well as top private and suburban schools, resent the implication that they are to blame for educational dysfunction. Similarly, the teachers at my school, who demonstrate the same excellence as their colleagues in ranked schools, are justifiably defensive about the blame game. So why can we not just celebrate the excellence of Newsweek's schools, as we stop looking for scapegoats?
If we did so, however, we would have to abandon the convention of making statements that may not be false but that are silly, such as the Harding principal's assertion that "the school accepts every student that applies on a first-come, first-served basis," or Jay Mathews' belief that such schools serve "average students." By the way, Oklahoma City data says that Harding Prep is 43% low-income.