What Planet Do You Live On? How elitism exacerbates the achievement gap and makes you look like a jerk.

My elementary school in Flint, Mich.

My elementary school in Flint, Mich. built in 1928. Closed in 2011due to low enrollment and sold in 2015. Photo taken in 2009.

I grew up in Flint, Michigan. Maybe you’ve heard of it­–that blue collar town known for being the birthplace of General Motors, the UAW, Michael Moore and Mark Ingram. A city that once boasted one of the highest median incomes in the country, now with sad regularity, tops lists for highest unemployment and crime rates. Not surprisingly, its public education system leaves much to be desired. As much as 35% of Flint residents read at only a first grade level.

I don’t live in Flint anymore. Today, I live in an affluent suburban community with well-maintained parks and trails and regular trash pickup–something I see as a marvel when considering places like Flint that struggle to provide basic services. And the schools here! Oh my goodness, the quality of public education in my suburban land of enchantment is astounding. So much so, that sometimes when I overhear seemingly trivial things that parents in this district complain about, I think, “REALLY? You have no idea how good our children have it here compared to the state of public education in other, less fortunate communities.”

But of course parents in wealthy school districts have high standards. Why wouldn’t they? It’s most likely part of why they choose to live in areas with the “best” schools. But I wonder how much of our perception perpetuates reality.

It’s my belief that few schools are inherently better than others. Schools are made better–as defined by test scores and graduation rates–by parents who are educated, involved and typically wealthier than families whose children attend schools considered “not the best.” And when educated, involved and wealthy parents decide to move their children to schools they perceive are “better,” they take their education, involvement and disposable income with them, leaving a higher concentration of less educated, more dysfunctional and less affluent families behind.

Gradually over time, this money, stability and brain drain likely impact the quality of educators available to families less able to relocate. Because, let’s face it. It’s got to be easier for teachers to manage classrooms filled with kids whose home lives are not as negatively impacted by maladies associated with lower incomes. It takes compassion and conviction for quality educators to choose to teach in less affluent school districts. Their jobs are tougher and their burnout rates are higher most likely because they lack the advantages of teachers at richer schools.

But it is my assertion that kids of educated, involved and affluent families succeed in large part due to their privileged home lives. Successful, stable families tend to produce successful, stable offspring. Going to the “best” schools is simply icing on our fortune-filled cake. And if that’s the case, then are wealthy families partly responsible for the “underperformance” of some schools by refusing to send their children there? By chasing the perceived best, the rich get richer, a principle known as cumulative advantage.

Maybe you’re not convinced that you have any responsibility beyond providing the best opportunities for your own kids. Fine. I get it. I really do. I worry sometimes about how my children will achieve the American dream in such a competitive meritocracy. But let’s at least acknowledge our privilege and not look down our noses at schools we believe aren’t good enough for our own little darlings. For example, there are three senior high schools in the suburban school district where I live. Each one is governed by the same school board and education standards, thus presumably deliver the same quality education. But they are geographically located in three distinctly different socio-economic areas–albeit all suburban mind you. And yet, the most common perception around here is to rank these schools as bad, better and best in direct correlation with the age of the building and the number of students who receive free and reduced price lunch.

Worse is whenever I encounter a teen who laments spending even a few hours for a sporting event at the school they (and their parents) consider the “worst.” I’ve heard students say things like, “It was scary, like going to the ghetto.” What?! The school isn’t in Beirut. Hell, it’s not even in Flint! We’re still talking about a suburban high school located in a city with a crime rate well below the U.S. average. Plus kid, it’s by God’s grace, dumb luck or the adroitness of your parents and their realtor that you get to go to the shiniest schools. So let’s dispense with the elitist attitude lest you turn out like this…

Flint’s deterioration is certainly due to a confluence of many factors, chief among them, deindustrialization. But the degradation of some of its schools began long before that. It began with rich folks bent on moving their kiddos to “better” schools lest they be forced to rub shoulders with the lower classes. My mother, who still lives in Flint, once asked me if it ever feels like I’m living on another planet. The answer is, “Yes Mom. Sometimes it does.”

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2 thoughts on “What Planet Do You Live On? How elitism exacerbates the achievement gap and makes you look like a jerk.

  1. Donna Trump says:

    We don’t like to be told we are privileged. We like to think our success is our own doing. And much of it is–hard work, good decisions. But what about luck? What about good health, and children who are born able-bodied? What about parents who read to us? What Roxane Gay says in Bad Feminist is only that we have a responsibility to other human beings to recognize our privilege. We don’t need to get defensive about it–everyone owns their own truth. But sometimes that truth includes things (the best high school in an already excellent district) that we didn’t really deserve more than the next guy. And then the question is: What are we going to do about that?
    Great post, as always, Angela.

    • I suppose I’m not asking readers to do anything about their privilege except maybe to acknowledge it as you suggest and to not be a jerk about it.
      It’s when people behave as if other people, or in this case other schools, are beneath them that I get a little frosty.
      Having families think and care a bit more about economic diversity in order to create better education opportunities for more children would certainly be a bonus.

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