A Conversation with Education Professor Pedro Noguera

David R. Jones, The Urban Agenda

I sat down recently with noted education scholar and UCLA Professor Pedro Noguera to get his views on our segregated public school system, Mayor de Blasio’s school-turnaround plan, Specialized High Schools admissions and his thoughts on charter schools.

Have we accepted the existence of a two-tiered educational system that relegates poor black and Latino kids to low-performing, under-sourced schools?

I think we have accepted it for some time but we shouldn’t. Throughout the nation, there are private schools for the wealthy and public schools for the poor. Within the public schools the better schools are generally reserved for the affluent, while under-resourced schools serve poor children of color. It is as though the Brown decision were never rendered. What has been missing for some time is an investment in educational opportunities in poor neighborhoods.  Today, most of the low-performing schools are in poor neighborhoods, and although some of them have been around over 100 years, they now have trouble attracting students because they offer very little to kids.

The State Senate dealt the mayor a blow on multi-year mayoral control. Will that hamper his efforts to transform the school system?

Well, I don’t think the mayor has made a strong case for continued control. I’m not opposed to mayoral control but neither Mayor De Blasio nor Chancellor Farina have laid out a strategy for what they will do to improve schools. The real issue to me is how you develop strong support systems for schools in high poverty communities. The mayor and the chancellor have called for the development of “community schools” but they don’t seem to realize that this alone will not improve the academic environment in high poverty schools. The irony is we have models for how to do this. The Children’s Aid Society, the Harlem Children’s Zone and others have been doing this work effectively for some time. The city has not devised a strategy for doing this on a larger scale. What you see from the mayor is a rhetorical commitment to this issue, but not a substantive approach that the community can be optimistic about.

Entry into the city’s elite high schools is based on single standardized test. Is a single test a fair and valid assessment of student ability?

No, it is not. And the Supreme Court has recently upheld that other factors, including race, can be considered in college admissions. Think about this: people are celebrating the play “Hamilton” and its creator Lin-Manuel Miranda. He went to Hunter College High School. But how many black and Latino kids from the South Bronx and East New York are at Hunter today? Not many. Kids like Lin Manuel are not getting into these schools, and not because there is a lack of talent.  What’s missing is the opportunity, and we should be outraged by that. Harvard, Stanford and other top academic institutions in the country, don’t use a single test as the criteria for admission.  A broader criteria should apply. The same goes for CUNY’s admission policy, which now screens most black and Latino kids into community colleges. The city’s poorest public school students are not getting into CUNY’s top schools. Are they diverse? Sure. But what is important to remember is these schools were once the pipeline to the middle class for white and Jewish New Yorkers. They don’t play that role now but we need them to.

Have charter schools lived up to their billing as laboratories for innovative school models that can be replicated system-wide to the benefit of all students?

They are certainly not serving as laboratories for innovation. In fact, many are just like traditional schools. But I am not against charter schools or the parents who choose them. My criticism lies with the legislature which has imposed very few accountability measures on charters. If charters benefit from increased flexibility, then let public schools have the same flexibility so they can be more competitive instead of compliance driven. The state has not done enough to level the playing field between charters and traditional public schools. Middle class parents always have school options, so it would be blatantly unfair to deny that to poor parents. However, it is also evident that many charters aren’t serving the same kids as the public schools and they have not been held accountable for pushing out children that are often harder to serve such as kids with special needs.

What are your thoughts on universal summer jobs as a model for how we transform summer youth employment programs?

It is absolutely essential. We have too many kids not working in the summer, and who are unable to find work when they graduate. By the time they get to adulthood they’ve had no employment experience, making them more vulnerable to unemployment and poverty. De Blasio came into office promising to address income inequality. That was his issue. I was expecting a well thought out strategy for jobs and economic development. He should have put more focus on career and technical education, and industries where we know jobs are growing. To me, it represents a real loss of opportunity for kids in the city.

Issues Covered

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