TBR: Debunking the Middle-Class Myth

Today’s book is Debunking the Middle-Class Myth: Why Diverse Schools Are Good for All Kids, by Eileen Gale Kugler.  It was recommended to me by a reader of this blog. Kugler is a parent whose children attended Annandale HS in Fairfax, one of the most diverse schools in the country, and she one by one she knocks down the myths that make parents fearful of sending their kids to such schools (e.g. the best schools are those with the highest test scores, diverse schools aren’t safe, etc).

I agree with most of Kugler’s overall points, especially her argument that that many of the people who are the quickest to dismiss diverse schools are the ones who haven’t set foot in them.  But I can’t say that I feel particularly more encouraged about our local elementary school after reading the book.  First, I’m not sure that it counts as diverse by Kulger’s standards, as it’s about 80 percent one race.  Second, Kugler is careful to say that "well-run" diverse schools can provide an excellent education to all students, and I’m not sure that our school qualifies as well-run.  (This isn’t a knock on the new principal, just on the lack of continuity.)

Overall, the major problem with the book is that I’m not sure who the audience for it is.  I have trouble imagining anyone reading it who isn’t already convinced of the value of diversity.  And the chapters on what school board members, superintendents, principals, teachers and parents can do are pretty simplistic.

***

Oh, yes, D did start kindergarten today. We did manage to get out the door on time (and I even made pancakes.)  His teacher is an older man with a ponytail who talks to the children in a very soft voice.   D was annoyed that it was pouring this morning when we walked him over, but was happy to sit down in the classroom and say goodbye to us.  In the afternoon, he didn’t tell us much about what they did today, but didn’t have any complaints.  (When I noticed that he had only eaten one of the two cookies I packed in his lunch box, and asked him why, he explained that by the time he finished his sandwich and the first cookie, it was nap time, but he didn’t seem particularly upset about it.)  In his backpack, we found a stack of forms to fill out and return (and yet another version of the supply list).  So far, so good, I guess.

***

I just read Sandra Tsing-Loh’s interview on the Atlantic online, which includes this wonderful quote illustrating Kugler’s point:

"I found that once we actually got to public school, everything I’d been told about it was wrong. That’s because we’ve gotten to the point now where in my social class—the media class in big cities—not one person I know professionally sends his or her kids to public school. So nobody actually knows what it’s like anymore. So they’re telling each other about a land, like the North Pole, which no one has set foot in."

I’d love to hear anyone in LA’s reaction to her "Scandalously Informal Guide to Los Angeles Schools."

12 Responses to “TBR: Debunking the Middle-Class Myth”

  1. landismom Says:

    Sounds like an interesting book, although I agree on the audience question. We’re starting school here tomorrow–I’m not looking forward to the huge stack of forms to fill out.

  2. Jody Says:

    The consensus view seems to be emerging: no kindergartener talks about his or her day in any manner useful to the parents.
    I have the unique advantage of eavesdropping on the kids as they catch up with each other. Perhaps you could rent another kindergartener for weekly updates?

  3. Lee Says:

    Congratulations on a successful first day. I’m looking forward to hearing updates as his year progresses.

  4. merseydotes Says:

    Keep us posted on how D does with kindergarten. And here’s hoping that his school has finally found a principal that will be allowed to stick around and do a good job for several years in a row. Maybe he got in on the ground floor of a new legacy! 8-)

  5. Moxie Says:

    I know exactly who the audience is. A parent who wants to send her child to a diverse school will get the book to help persuade her partner/mother/MIL that a diverse school will serve their child better than the all-white school with the higher test scores.

  6. Jennifer Says:

    Glad to hear that D had a good first day. We’ve got our son at a public school (in Australia, so maybe not comparable) and while it’s a middle class neighbourhood, so not much income diversity, I’m pleased he’s got two non english speakers in his class.

  7. Alice Says:

    I was one of those who complained about public education without knowing much about it at all. I attended public schools for nine years only, then went off to boarding school and private college, then taught for nine years at private day schools. I thought I that if I could only be allowed to run a public school (maybe an entire district!) that I would fix all the problems of American education. What a joke I was. Nothing received my scorn more than education schools.
    Now I am relocated to an area where the only non-public school option is a rather weak Catholic school. My daughter is in her second week of kindergarten and I am SO grateful for the training public school teachers get and for their experience and skills. Which is not to say that I am thrilled about her school, her teacher, or her principal. But it’s my only option, and I’ve got no choice but to make it work.

  8. Julie Says:

    I am a strong supporter of public schools and really believe in the principle of them as an equalizer. As a child, I didn’t have any other options because I was too poor to attend a private school, but I was fortunate to live in an area with a good (though certainly not diverse) public school. Today, I don’t have any children and thus am not experiencing the kinds of dilemmas that you all face over this decision, but I have a sister who has been teaching in public elementary schools in diverse neighborhoods for 7 years, first in Charlotte, NC and now outside of Boulder, CO. There is no doubt that she faces challenges in her classroom that wouldn’t be present in a private school. This year alone, she has one student with attachment issues (meaning he did not attach to a caregiver before the age of 2 and now acts out as a defense mechanism to keep anyone from getting close to him so that he doesn’t have to go through the pain of being neglected again), one child who meows all day, one child who tried to form a gang on the playground last year (he’s 8), and one who came to school yesterday in pjs that weren’t clean. However, from what I have seen of her and of her colleagues in this school, they really care a lot about the students, about educating them, and about doing a terrific job, despite the fact that they are paid a pittance and have so many requirements now on the curriculum (to make sure the kids pass the numerous tests). Knowing how much these teachers care gives me hope for the public school system in this country, but I also know that it would be vastly improved by having more resources and more time for teaching rather than testing.

  9. Karen Says:

    I read Kugler’s book last year as we are in Fairfax County and are in the Annandale high school school boundaries and I, too, was having an internal battle on public vs. private schools for my daughter. I took her book as almost a list of “talking points” for someone trying to justify (or rationalize) their choice to send their child to a diverse public school. What I did AFTER reading her book was to actually go to our public elementary school and meet the principal. She was incredibly supportive, and had me tour the school with one of the literacy teachers. I was brought on a tour and got to meet with and observe a variety of teachers (art, music, PE, Kindergarten, “reading recovery”) for over two hours. I met the two assistant principals. I was invited to attend a PTA meeting. I was introduced to parents. The reception I received was — frnakly — so incredibly warm and inviting, especially compared to the three private schools I was considering.
    So Tuesday, my daughter started Kindergarten at our local elementary school. It’s one of the elementary schools in Fairfax County that has full-day Kindergarten. It’s quite diverse on several levels (not only on ethnic lines) and I think she’ll do well there. Worse case, I can pull her out of the public schools and send her to a private school a few years from now. But for now, I have found it to be the best solution for our family.

  10. Sailorman Says:

    There are really two distinct kinds of diversity which are really relevant in education:
    1) Diversity of race/culture/upbringing/orientation/wealth/etc (e.g. that which is usually referred to as “diversity”), and
    2) Diversity of educational skills, experience, and family support.
    Parents don’t pull their kids out of school because they fear the FIRST type of diversity. They pull their kids out of public school because they fear the SECOND type of diversity.
    The problem, of course, is that the different levels of discrimination, status level, and governmental support which already exist in our society mean that there is a link between #1 and #2, in particular the “wealth” part of #1. That is a BAD THING. But it is, nonetheless, true.
    So if one wants to send their children to a school where their peers in kindergarten, at age 5, already know how to read: Well, that means that they had to have good preschool. And interested (preferably educated) parents, who ALSO had the time, knowledge, energy, and money to teach them to read. Which, in the U.S., means they will be disproportionately white.
    Julie said: “I am a strong supporter of public schools and really believe in the principle of them as an equalizer.”
    …And that is why rich people do not send their kids to public schools.
    See, the concepts of “equalization” and “normalization”, on a national level may improve our AVERAGE student education. But the fact of it is this: If, in a “nonequalized” school, you were going to do poorly, then an equalized school will benefit you. But if you were going to do unusually well in a nonequalized school, the school will not benefit you.
    If you have a class with widely diverse abilities and levels, it is very difficult to attend to all the students’ educational needs. It can be done by a very good teacher; my own public school experience was amazing. But that type of teaching skill is rare.
    I mean, think of it from a parental perspective:
    By the time my kid starts kindergarten a year from now, she will be able to read, write, and will have begun to learn addition. Many of her classmates will not be able to read. A significant portion will not have even learned their letters completely, much less be able to write them. Some will know numbers, but few will know them above 10.
    Now, my loyalty is solely to my daughter. Should I send her to public school? Should I subject her to the “great equalizer” KNOWING that in her case, she’ll in most cases be equalized down? Would you? I am trying to find a public school which has teachers capable of handling a diverse range of abilities. Otherwise, she’s going private.

  11. Eileen Gale Kugler Says:

    I am thrilled to read the ongoing dialogue on the message of my book, “Debunking the Middle-class Myth: Why diverse schools are good for all kids.” It’s exactly what I hoped the book would do — inspire discussion of a topic that isn’t always honestly discussed in the open. Unfortunately much of the discussion is usually whispered around neighborhood pools or soccer fields, with a “You aren’t going to send your child THERE, are you?”
    I’m really gratified to read stories from parents like Karen who said that the book inspired her to find out personally about her neighborhood public school. Unfortunately, not every public school is great, which is why I made the distinction of a “well-run” school. But every school deserves a first-hand investigation to find out what is myth and what is reality.
    I felt so strongly about the experience that my 2 kids had at Annandale High School that I was compelled to write about it. It was far more than the social interaction that impressed me, but the broadening of their minds that made their school experience so valuable. And that’s exactly what I hear from other parents and educators. Students at well-run diverse schools learn to think more deeply, to question more, to be better problem solvers, to seek wisdom from unconventional sources. Now that my kids are 24 and 28, they will tell you that their experiences in their diverse school were critical in defining who they are today (and they are great kids!). As one commentor noted, no one wants to sacrifice their own child’s education on the altar of supporting the “great equalizer.” The message I’m trying to share is that this was the best possible education for my children and many, many others — diverse schools can be good for all kids.
    Re: the question of audience. I’m gratified to say it has definitely struck a chord with many people. Parents email me from all over the world (my email is on the last page of the book)to tell me how the book articulated exactly what they were feeling. I’ve had teachers come into workshops I’ve led with dog-eared copies of the book (my favorite was a teacher with 44 yellow stickies – I asked to her count them!) The head of Fairfax County Elementary Instruction gave a copy of the book to every one of the 137 elementary principals in the district.
    Since the book was published in 2002, my professional life has centered around speaking to parents and educators about the message of the book. In many communities, there are small groups of parents who instinctively get the message. But they have often been drowned out by other parents who fight for things like school boundary changes so their kids can go to the school with the highest test scores because that’s gotta be the best school. There is that pervasive belief that a “good school” is predominantly white with high test scores — that good old middle-class myth. After I share the message of the book, many parents come up to me and thank me for giving voice to those who believe that test scores are just one factor in judging a school’s quality.
    Being a white middle-class mother speaking about the benefits I’ve witnessed and documented from others has proved very powerful. I wish this were not true, but some parents can hear the message from me, although they would not be as receptive if this were presented by a parent of color. So I feel obligated to open this door where I can. In the end, we all benefit, and not just our schools, but our entire communities are stronger. I have gained immeasurably from my interactions with parents of all different backgrounds, which grew out of my involvement in our diverse school.
    In terms of an audience among educators, some fall prey to the myth themselves, particularly in schools where the demographics are changing. These teachers have been teaching successfully for years and they suddenly see that students from different backgrounds aren’t doing so well. So they figure it’s got to be the kids, since they know how to teach. I’m told that the book inspires them to be introspective about their teaching, and look for strategies to empower all students, not just some. It helps them understand that students of diverse background bring valuable resources into the classroom, resources that can’t be purchased. I’m very proud of the fact that the book won prestigious national “Book of the Year” awards from two educational associations — the National Association for Multicultural Education and Delta Kappa Gamma Women Educators’ Honor Society. These awards meant a great deal to me since they usually go to researchers or academics.
    Some of the strategies are simplistic, agreed, and that is something I’m working on the 2nd edition, which hopefully will be out in about a year. But even the basic strategies can go a long way. A principal who publicly champions the value of diversity can have a dramatic impact (and vice versa). The key is beginning with the mindset that diversity is a strength, not a burden, and then be creative in developing strategies to empower every child to succeed.
    Thanks for the opportunity to read your comments and share these thoughts. I hope others will read the book and let me know what you think. I’m always interested in insights or personal stories about experiences in diverse schools. Feel free to email me at EKugler@EmbraceDiverseSchools.com . This has certainly been a journey for me, and I learn more with every school I visit and every person I speak with. That’s why I love doing booksignings — I get to talk to people individually about their experiences. You may also be interested in a Commentary that I wrote for Education Week on the value of immigrant students in American classrooms. You can read “What we Owe Immigrant Students” on my website http://www.EmbraceDiverseSchools.com
    I can’t tell you how great it is to be a part of this dialogue. Thanks.
    Eileen

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