Elephants in the Room

When mainstream media report on urban schools, the real story is often what goes unsaid

By Gregory Michie

Illustrator: J.D. King

Illustration: J.D. King

City teachers brace themselves when a school-related story makes the front page. The news usually isn’t good. In Chicago, where I’ve worked as a teacher and teacher educator for 16 years, we’re accustomed to being pummeled with horror stories about ourselves, our students, and our schools.

Those of us who spend time in urban classrooms understand that such stories are almost always gross oversimplifications of real-life complexities. Shock-and-awe headlines to the contrary, we know there is beauty, hope, and resilience in the communities and buildings in which we work.

But it’s not only the negativity of the coverage that’s a problem. Equally troubling is the tendency of mainstream media to gloss over or bury story threads that actually deserve a screaming headline or an hour-long special report. Indeed, what’s often most instructive about splashy, attention-grabbing pieces on urban schools is not what they mention, but what they don’t.

NCLB’s Problem?
Irresponsible Parents

In 2004 the Chicago Tribune published a three-part, front-page special report ostensibly focused on the impact of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) on Chicago’s schools. The protagonist of the series was 9-year-old Rayola Carwell. Rayola’s mother, Yolanda, had taken advantage of the school-transfer provision of NCLB by pulling her daughter out of a south side school that reporter Stephanie Banchero called “among the worst in the city” and enrolling her at Stockton Elementary, 13 miles from home. Rayola was one of only a handful of students to be transferred out of 270,000 who were eligible citywide.

The story that unfolded over three days and 10 full Tribune pages turned out to be less about a seriously flawed and woefully under-funded educational policy than about perpetuating stereotypes of low-income parents. The spotlight shined not on NCLB, but on Yolanda Carwell, who was described by Banchero as “a single mother of three who dropped out of high school . . . [and] spent her life moving from one low-paying job to another.” When tardies and absences began to mount for Rayola at her new school and her academic work suffered, Carwell’s parenting skills took center stage in the Tribune’s narrative.

Banchero reported that Carwell frequently allowed her children to stay up past midnight watching TV, and when they were too tired to get up, she let them miss school. When Rayola and her siblings got into arguments, readers were told that their mother couldn’t hear them because “she [was] upstairs on the phone.” We also learned that Carwell had “enrolled in, but not completed, three GED training courses at three different community colleges.” Paragraph after paragraph, day after day, the articles underscored the mother’s apparent disregard for her children’s welfare.

By the end of the series, which culminated with Rayola leaving Stockton and returning to a school near home, little attention had been given to the lack of federal funding to help schools address NCLB mandates. Nothing had been said about how NCLB’s intensified focus on high-stakes accountability measures has handcuffed teachers around the country, especially in big-city systems that serve large numbers of poor and immigrant children. And barely a mention was given to the sheer folly of the transfer provision: When the ground-level reality in Chicago was that schools had a thousand available spots for 270,000 eligible transferees, wasn’t that the big story?

But readers weren’t asked to consider any of that — at least not for long. Instead, they were left with the impression that the main thing holding Rayola back was a negligent mother. If there was any doubt about that conclusion, a Tribune editorial a few days later hammered the point home. While gingerly criticizing NCLB, the editorial reserved its harshest words for Carwell:

Yolanda Carwell had the best of intentions when she took advantage of the No Child Left Behind Act….But good intentions aren’t always enough to educate children…. Carwell couldn’t get her children out of bed early. She wouldn’t make them turn off the TV. She couldn’t manage to get herself to work and her kids to school…. The No Child Left Behind law has focused welcome attention on a critical issue that schools have long avoided confronting: the achievement gap between minority and non-minority students….[But] no well-intentioned law, no well-intentioned school can succeed without the follow-through of a child’s parent.

Just like that, all of us — except for Yolanda Carwell — were let off the hook, absolved from any collective responsibility for the failure of Chicago schools to provide a quality education to children like Rayola. Never mind re-hauling NCLB, the paper’s editors seemed to say. What really needs fixing is poor people.

Oprah Examines Educational Inequities — or Not

Insightful reporting isn’t what I usually expect from Oprah Winfrey, but last spring I watched her special, “American Schools in Crisis,” with an open mind. While Oprah’s shameless gushing over celebrity guests can be tiresome, she has also dedicated entire programs to issues that might not otherwise appear on her audience’s radar screen: the genocides in Darfur and Rwanda, the AIDS epidemic in Africa. Call me a sucker, but I’m willing to cut her a little slack.

The “American Schools in Crisis” special wasn’t focused solely on urban schools. But Oprah turned her attention to Chicago in a segment called “Trading Schools,” in which camera crews followed two groups of students — one from Harper High School on the city’s south side and another from Neuqua Valley High School in Chicago’s western suburbs — as they visited each other’s campuses for a day.

Anyone familiar with the vast inequities in our nation’s schools could’ve guessed what the kids might find, but that didn’t make the contrasts captured by Oprah’s cameras any less jaw-dropping. At Neuqua Valley, an Olympic-sized swimming pool and a state-of-the-art fitness center. At Harper, a pool that hadn’t seen water in 10 years and a gym with dilapidated equipment and a leaky ceiling. At Neuqua Valley, an award-winning music department; at Harper, an Instrumental Music class with no instruments. More striking still was the disparity in the schools’ core curricular offerings. According to the report, over two dozen Advanced Placement classes are offered at Neuqua Valley, while Harper has just two.

In a voice-over, Oprah narrated, “Over and over, [the students] see the glaring inequities between the two schools. It is a harsh lesson that leaves many of the kids asking why.”

If that’s what they were asking, though, the rest of the program did little to help them arrive at any answers. Several of the most significant causes of such disparities — state funding formulas that perpetuate abominable monetary gaps between rich and poor districts, persistent residential segregation, and the near-total abandonment of public schools by white and middle-class city dwellers — went unmentioned.

Yes, there was a sound bite from author Jonathan Kozol, who unapologetically used the word “apartheid” to describe public schooling in the U.S. But Oprah never picked up on that thread in a meaningful way. Instead, she resorted to platitudes: “We’re doing this [program] so that every school will be as good as the best school. Because I believe, just as I know all of you watching believe, that every American child deserves the best school.”

But if Oprah really thought her audience believed that, she could have laid the funding and race questions on the table, instead of allowing them to go unspoken. While she was at it, she could have pointed out that the hundreds of billions of dollars funneled into the Iraq war could go a long way toward achieving equity in our schools.

To her credit, Oprah urged all parents — not just poor parents — to push for change, saying, “You need to elect people who are really going to get the job done for you and your children’s future.” What she didn’t say, but I’m sure she realizes, is that many in her upper-income suburban fan base already do just that: They elect lawmakers who “get the job done” by keeping things exactly as they are.

The Best (White, Middle-Class) Schools in Chicago

I rarely read Chicago magazine, but the October 2006 cover story caught my eye: “The Best Elementary Schools: 140 Winners in the City and Suburbs and What Makes Them Good.” Published by a Tribune subsidiary, Chicago targets an upscale audience. Its pages are flush with full-page advertisements for Graff Diamonds, Ritz-Carlton Residences, and the Cadillac Escalade. Flipping through the pages, I wondered how many of the magazine’s subscribers or writers send their kids to Chicago Public Schools (CPS). Still, I read on.

The article’s authors explained that they “tunneled into a mountain of data” (all, it turns out, from one source: the Illinois State Board of Education [ISBE]) to unearth “all-around top performers” in Chicagoland. While they claimed that evaluating schools based solely on numbers is “too reductionist,” that’s exactly what they did. Their chart listing Chicago’s 30 “best” public elementary schools compares them in six areas: average class size, student-teacher ratio, teachers’ average years of experience, teachers’ average salary, per-student spending, and the percentage of students who meet or exceed state standards in core subjects.

What struck me immediately was how few of the schools I recognized. That might not seem strange — after all, Chicago has 481 elementary schools. But in my work with student teachers over the past six years, I’ve visited close to a hundred elementary buildings, mostly on the city’s south and west sides. Of the 30 on Chicago’s list, I’d been in three.

My curiosity piqued, I went home and plugged the names of the schools into the ISBE database. I was hunting for numbers missing from the magazine’s chart: data on the racial and socioeconomic composition of each school. Systemwide, as in many big-city districts, the overwhelming majority of students (85.6 percent) come from low-income households. Combined, African Americans (48.6 percent) and Latinos (37.6 percent) make up over 86 percent of the student population. Asians are 3.2 percent of the total, and just 8.1 percent of the system’s students are white.

I didn’t expect the schools on Chicago’s list to reflect the system’s demographics precisely. Even so, I was taken aback. In only seven of the 30 “best” schools are African-American students the predominant racial group. Latinos are the largest group in two, and Asians in one. In 21 of the 30 schools, white students are the predominant racial group; in seven of those, whites make up 68 percent or more of the student body.

More glaring, in only five of the 30 “best” schools do even a majority of the students qualify as low-income. And in only one does the percentage (79 percent) come close to the system average of 86 percent. What’s more, in nine of the 30 schools, the percentage of students from low-income families is less than 20 percent. Talk about apartheid education.

The only references to class in Chicago’s article, however, are either throwaway sentences or attempts to talk around the subject. Race isn’t mentioned once. The single veiled reference comes when the authors ponder the “extra layers of worldly education” students at one Chicago school receive “by growing up in an urban mix.” Yet even that seemingly harmless euphemism obscures more than it reveals: many of the city’s neighborhoods continue to be segregated along race and class lines, and over half of CPS schools are racially isolated (more than 90 percent black or 90 percent Latino).

The Stories We Tell

In A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn outlines several ways historians can distort the past. They can lie outright, they can omit details, or they can state the facts quickly and then “bury them in a mass of other information.”

Such distortions aren’t limited to stories about the past, however. Like historians, journalists and television producers make choices: what to show and what to leave out, what to emphasize and what to minimize. These choices are unavoidable, of course — no historical account or front-page article tells a story completely. But once made, they say something about the storyteller’s assumptions, beliefs, and worldview.

In the Tribune series on NCLB, the choices lay bare the paper’s conservative politics. As for The Oprah Winfrey Show and Chicago, their choices seem to be dictated more by a profit-driven desire to appease mainstream sensibilities. Even if we concede that Oprah and her producers had hoped to “do good” by devoting an entire segment to inequities in public education, they clearly made calculations in determining how far to go. By dodging complexities they knew could implicate and possibly alienate their core audience, they ended up further mystifying the issues. And they allowed their viewers to remain, if they wished, in a bubble of isolation and absolution, where the challenges of city schools are somebody else’s problem.

Those of us who believe differently need to pay close attention to the silences in popular accounts of urban education, and to seek out public spaces where we can tell counter-narratives: op-ed pages, letters to the editor, community or city council meetings, blogs, online discussion boards. There’s not just an elephant in the room — there’s a herd. As often and as conspicuously as possible, we need to wave our arms, point each one out, and call it by name.

Gregory Michie (Contact Me) teaches in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at Illinois State University, where he coordinates a year-long student-teaching internship program in Chicago Public Schools.