Know Your Worth And The Property Of Training
There is nothing wrong with blacks that ending racism cannot solve.
This is a central point of Andre Perry’s Know Your Price, published by Brookings Institution Press earlier this year. Perry’s book, in particular, rejects the idea of measuring black communities by how they compare or lag behind white communities, but rather examines how valuable black communities and families actually are.
The book travels through six US cities. Perry’s background as a scholar, journalist, and educator allows him to share a raw and honest perspective on the questions he asks when considering everything from medical treatment to real estate. He argues that black assets in the US have been regularly and systematically devalued, creating a myriad of problems, including difficulties building and maintaining wealth for both black individuals and communities.
The book is powerful and moving; The stories of his childhood in Wilkinsburg, PA, and the medical battles he and his wife faced are both scorching and revealing. But Perry also provides the facts, figures, and charts you’d expect from a colleague at the Brookings Institution.
Perry dedicates two of the book’s chapters to schools. In one case, he traces the declining fortunes of the Wilkinsburg schools he grew up in to investigate how school closings are destroying a valuable community asset. Schools, he argues, are a large part of a community’s social infrastructure, and when they are lost, there is a cost to the community’s social cohesion. This is where people meet to vote for citizens’ organizations to meet and to send the children from the neighborhood to play in the playground in the evenings.
Schools are economic and social assets. Perry cites the work of economist Henry Levin who found that the economic benefit of a high school graduate is two and a half times the cost of that student’s education.
However, the rise of high-stakes testing has become a tool for school devaluation. Last year, the debate was renewed on GreatSchools, a website designed to provide school ratings to help families make choices. In the end, however, a system was used that some critics say punishes schools in less white and less affluent communities. GreatSchools relies heavily on standardized test scores, and those scores have long had racial biases with a consistent gap between white and black test takers. Chris Tienken (Seton Hall University) demonstrated years ago that he and his research team can accurately predict a school’s test score profile based on family and demographic information. The tests measure something, but it does not appear to be school quality and the use of test data results in schools in non-white, non-affluent communities being devalued.
In his other school-related chapter, Perry draws on his experiences from Katrina New Orleans. He went to town as part of the charter school revolution that followed the devastating hurricane that made New Orleans the first major US city to have no public schools. This unique status has led to much study and writing about the New Orleans schools, including a recently published glowing study by Douglas Harris (Tulane University). NOLA is often viewed as a model for great charter performance in action as test scores increase rapidly. But as conservative reviewers of Harris’ book point out, research doesn’t definitely link these scoring improvements to guidelines for charter schools, and as numerous other reviewers have pointed out, it’s easy to improve test scores quickly when you start at the very bottom, and New Orleans is still mostly there.
But Perry’s book points to another important effect of the New Orleans Charter Revolution – the destruction of the fortunes of the black community. Like many executives at the time, Perry said he considered himself “data-driven.” However, the data conductors who tracked them were strictly performance-based (aka test scores) and not focused on community assets. Within a few years, Perry left the New Orleans charter business.
“If ever there was a time when New Orleans and members of the black community needed teachers to have job security, it was after Hurricane Katrina,” Perry writes. Instead, 7,500 teachers were fired, including 3,000 black teachers. Dismissal was facilitated by a system that linked teachers’ assessment to student test scores. Between 2005 and 2014, black teachers dropped from 71% to 49% of the teaching staff, despite a concerted effort to attract young, white, inexperienced teachers, including recruits from Teach for America who were only involved in the classroom for two years to work – not a great way to build social capital or institutional stability. Students often moved from a community school to a charter that was remote from their own neighborhood. And, as Perry points out, the emphasis on charter organizations meant that the management of the city’s schools was being shifted from the local to the national level.
Nobody in power asked, “Hey, what kind of social capital and community property are we destroying here?” Instead, Perry says, “After Katrina, New Orleans became a place where test scores growth was the ultimate excuse to ignore community and ethical considerations.” Education reformers continue to advocate repeating the “success” of New Orleans, but Perry notes, “Nobody wants to repeat what happened in New Orleans among their own communities, children, colleagues and neighbors.”