Rochester’s Commission on Racial and Structural Equity recently issued “No Time for Excuses: It’s Time for Action,”257 pages presenting the conclusions from its efforts to identify institutional and structural barriers and practices that maintain or promote racism or inequitable outcomes for people living in Rochester. There were many excellent recommendations, but the impact of one key city institution seems to have been largely overlooked.
Structural racism may be defined as a system in which public policies, institutions, cultural representations, and other norms work to perpetuate racial group inequity. It is a feature of the social, economic, institutional and political systems within which people carry on their daily lives and work. The people perpetuating such systems may not be racist, but for reasons of perceived self-interest, misplaced perceptions of the public good, or simply obliviousness, may cling to and defend a system that generates racially inequitable outcomes.
It would seem that the Rochester City School District fits this definition perfectly. Although unintentional and not by conscious design, the system has operated for more than three decades in such a way as to leave a very large proportion of its mostly Black and Latinx students undereducated and ill-prepared to rise into the middle class and take their place as fully productive citizens. Only 13 percent of its students test proficient in reading and math, only 53 percent graduate with a Regents diploma, and almost one third don’t graduate at all. This has helped to perpetuate Rochester’s status as one of the poorest cities in America.
Structural means that the current performance is built into the system and that the system itself needs to be changed.
■ Over more than 30 years, a dozen intelligent, skilled district superintendents have failed to bring about substantial improvements in student outcomes. The system doesn’t let them and the school board doesn’t hire them to do so. Terry Dade, a former superintendent, quit in disgust when his efforts were blocked. The dispersal of authority and responsibility among the state Legislature, Education Department, Board of Regents, local school board, district headquarters, union leaders, etc., makes strong leadership and bold action difficult. Principals have little authority over hiring, teacher placement or budgets and have difficulty building and maintaining strong teams.
The one bright spot is that the district’s current superintendent, Leslie Myers-Small, seems up to the task. She needs all of us to give her our support and political cover to make the big changes needed. A “state monitor” is in place with the power to veto bad decisions by the school board and help force through some of the needed changes. If we miss this opportunity, we are unlikely to get another soon.
■ Thousands of good, dedicated teachers go home every day frustrated that they spent their day on bureaucratic mandates and handling undisciplined students instead of being able to teach, since the rigid system prevents them from instituting the positive school cultures that successful schools use to create a nurturing learning environment. They feel they have little support from administrators or the public. Frustration has led to a feeling of helplessness; many have bought into the destructive notion that children living in poverty can’t learn and that the low performance of the system is inevitable and acceptable.
■ Professional training and development are woefully lacking. The system suffers from inbreeding—no outside ideas are tolerated—and allows low-performing schools of education to continue feeding our schools with poorly prepared teachers. Licensing rules make it hard for bright, academically superior people who have actually mastered various subject matters to enter the teaching profession without being indoctrinated into the policies, procedures and attitudes of the failing system. New teachers receive little coaching and work in isolation. Tenure is given perfunctorily to almost all teachers. By contrast, high-performing schools across the country give their teachers intensive coaching, have them work in teams to improve effectiveness, and quickly weed out the low performers.
■ There is no real accountability for performance. Pay is based on seniority, not merit. Few are dismissed for poor performance, and nearly all teachers are given excellent ratings based on cursory observations and in disregard of their students’ poor academic growth. Schools are allowed to fail for decades without being subject to new leadership teams, significant reforms, or closure.
■ The system has been corrupted because politicians depend upon union contributions to maintain their positions and then cave to union demands for laws protecting the current system. Example: In New York, when a public union contract expires it continues in effect, with cost-of- living raises until a new one is agreed upon. This makes it almost impossible to negotiate needed changes.
Given these realities, is this not a glaring example of structural racism—staring us in the face but unacknowledged as such in our public discussions—defended, funded and perpetuated by our government and civic leaders? Isn’t a good education the only surefire route out of poverty? Why is this route not being provided to our city’s children?
Fortunately, the RASE Commission’s report offers a partial route out of these difficulties—at least enough to start us in the right direction. It suggests five “systemic solutions”:
1. Create and invest in sustainable economic opportunities in Black and Latinx communities.
The RCSD is a major employer, both directly and indirectly through its purchases, spending more than $1.2 billion a year, including construction projects. This should offer a huge economic opportunity to Black and Latinx communities. The structural problem is that many laws and union provisions make it very difficult to reorganize or to eliminate poor performers in order to make room for new hiring of minority teachers and staff.
2. Implement and incentivize practices and programs that increase racial/ethnic diversity and cultural competence of employees.
Currently, 80 percent of the district’s teaching staff is white; most live in the suburbs and may have difficulty understanding the cultural norms of their students. Cultural sensitivity training of all adults in the system is urgently needed in addition to hiring more people of color.
3. End practices that disproportionately drain resources from Black and Latinx communities.
Nothing would stop the drain of resources from these groups faster than improving the school system.
4. Decentralize services and embed them in trusted agencies throughout the community.
The city took a small step in this direction five years ago when it established East High and Middle Schools as independent entities with far more autonomy than other district schools, and a separate union contract. This could be replicated. Other cities, such as Indianapolis, have established multiple “innovation schools,” taking failing schools from the district and moving them to more autonomous operation with more accountability.
Rochester’s charter schools now educate 24 percent of the K-12 public school students and are taking more each year. Parents want them. These schools have their own school boards and governance systems and are given considerable autonomy to hire, fire, train and teach—exactly the sort of approach the commission calls for. The charter schools are carefully regulated and assessed by the state Education Department. They outperform the RCSD on every measure of student achievement by a large measure (3:1 on reading and math proficiency rates, 2:1 on Regents graduation rates).
Some of the charter schools are distinctly mediocre and all need to improve, but even the lower-performing ones do better than many of the district schools. Given time, their autonomy combined with accountability will lead to the improvement of the better charter schools and weeding out of the poorly performing ones. If the district system cannot be overhauled, growing the charter sector as a parallel system would seem an obvious route to take. As documented in a study by the Fordham Institute, in the 17-plus cities with more than 33 percent of their students in charter schools, the Black and Latinx students do better in both charter schools and district schools (which finally catch on and start changing).
5. Embed accountability measures in all policies to ensure equity and fairness.
Charter schools are judged against a comprehensive performance framework and closed if they fall short. Such a system is needed for the district schools. There are many flaws in the standardized tests, but when good teaching is applied to a strong, culturally appropriate curriculum, a good test tells a lot about how well the students are doing. If a child can’t read, changing the assessment system won’t help. Massachusetts underwent major reforms 20 years ago, combining improved curriculum with better teacher training, periodic teacher recertification, and improved tests, with the result that their students consistently score more than 10 percentage points higher on NAEP tests than New York’s students. It took a coalition of civic leaders, business people, legislators, parents and others to bring this about.
Much more could be said about possible solutions. One thing is clear. The situation cannot be remedied by minor tweaks to the present system, because the problem is indeed structural.
Nearly a decade ago, Jada Williams, an eighth grader in the RCSD, wrote an essay after reading one of Frederick Douglass’ books. The book told her that slave owners didn’t teach slaves to read as a way of keeping them down. She wrote that half of the students in her classroom couldn’t read, and she asked whether the school system was doing the same thing to our city’s children. As reported in the local press, the upshot was that her teachers punished her severely for daring to raise the issue.
The children can see what is going on and so can we, yet as in the fable of “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” the adults in our city all avoid speaking up for fear of having their heads chopped off. Isn’t it time for all of us in the Rochester region to engage in an honest conversation and join together to take action? Why is the civic and business leadership in Rochester silent? Improving the education of our city’s children is a solvable challenge. It would go a long way toward mitigating the impacts of racism in our city.
Bryan Hickman is a retired businessman who has devoted the past 10 years to helping charter schools (and offering to help district schools), based in part on his experience assisting bankrupt companies come back to success.