Analysis: Christakis Enshrines the ‘Common’ Public School — but Somehow Forgets About the Achievement Gap

During one family engagement night last year, my son’s ninth-grade class competed in a contest called a policy slam. Working in teams of three, students were given two sets of data that, analyzed together, revealed a social issue. Students then created policy prescriptions to address the problem they found, detailed in short PowerPoints.

The numbers revealed that as educational attainment rose, crime rates fell. Reasoning that curbing dropout rates was crucial, the winning team proposed combating institutional racism in schools so kids would stay enrolled.

The kids at this public charter school in Minneapolis, Venture Academy, know way too much about systemic racism. The schools they opted out of struggle with nation-leading racial achievement gaps. There are mainline district schools in my city where you can count on one hand the number of black and brown students and kids, like mine, with disabilities who can read and compute proficiently.

As a consequence, many of my son’s classmates started high school several grade levels behind in math and reading. More than 90 percent qualify for free or discounted lunch, 26 percent are learning English, 26 percent receive special education services, and 6 percent are homeless.

I thought about the policy slam as I read Erika Christakis’s polemic, “Americans Have Given Up on Public Schools: That’s a Mistake.” Published in the October edition of The Atlantic, the piece decries school choice and a lack of civics education in U.S. schools. In Christakis’s view, both are signs that we have backed away from educating citizens, undermining republican democracy.

School choice, her thesis posits, has led the nation to focus not on an educated citizenry but on the individual. Under the social media clickbait tag “The War on Public Schools,” Christakis lumps everything that’s not a traditional district-run school into a conspiracy to yield education to the private sector.

By her lights, because it is a public charter, my son’s school is part of the problem. Never mind that, like its district brethren, it’s open to all comers and is subject to state standards and oversight via one of the nation’s strictest public charter school accountability laws.

I don’t see the same thing as Christakis, an early childhood educator and author who has written about what she sees as education reform’s threat to preschool. Wholly contrary to her hypothesis, one of the things that keeps me hopeful about democracy is the sight of a room full of disadvantaged 15-year-olds working to identify and resolve our most urgent social problems.

Would that the “common schools” the nation’s founders envisioned as an equalizing mechanism, in fact, equipped everyone the same foundation for participating in a democracy. Even with 2,500 words to play with, Christakis doesn’t manage to acknowledge that most children of color, immigrant children, and kids with disabilities are assigned by ZIP code to schools where staggering inequities are on display.

Christakis argues that the state of U.S. schools is fine and that student achievement has “risen significantly” since the 1970s. She exaggerates, but scores are up incrementally: Since 1970, overall scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, an apples-to-apples assessment frequently referred to as the nation’s report card, are up 2 points on a 500-point scale for 17-year-olds, 8 points for 13-year-olds, and 13 points for 9-year-olds.

The black-white achievement gap, however, is another story. The Coleman Report, issued in the wake of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, found that black 12th-graders on average placed in the 13th percentile of all student scores. A report by economist Eric Hanushek prepared on the 50th anniversary of the passage of the landmark law found that black 12th-grade average placement had risen to the 19th percentile.

(The 74: 50 Years Later, What America Still Hasn’t Learned From the Coleman Report)

“The largest gains in both math and reading were found in the Southern states, where the larger gaps observed in 1965 were brought in line with the rest of the nation by 2013, Hanushek’s analysis shows,” U.S. News & World Report’s Lauren Camera wrote.

Hanushek, the story continues, “estimates that if the achievement gaps continue to close at such an incremental rate, it will be roughly two and a half centuries before the black-white math gap closes and over one and a half centuries until the reading gap closes.”

Christakis’s article sparked immediate controversy among policy watchers and education journalists. “So many false statements,” Fordham Institute President Michael Petrilli noted on Twitter. “Pretty sloppy,” replied Education Week’s Stephen Sawchuk. “Regurgitated talking points,” lamented Chalkbeat’s Matt Barnum.

The piece does hit all of the high notes of arguments by the Network for Public Education, a group of bloggers and activists who oppose — loudly — any threat to the status quo in U.S. schools. Peter Greene, whose “Curmudgecation” blog is one of the loudest, bragged that he had made his Atlantic debut as “one observer.”

And one of Christakis’s money lines — in which she quips that the logic behind school choice is akin to declaring that one would rather their tax dollars pay for a gym membership than a public park — is eerily similar to a Badass Teachers social media campaign opposing vouchers during the latest legislative session in Iowa.

It’s not the first time Christakis has taken up the anti-reform charge. In the January/February 2016 Atlantic, she argued that the push for pre-literacy skills and kindergarten readiness was doing the opposite of what early childhood education proponents had hoped and was, in fact, alienating generations of students.

And she certainly understands a thing or two about democracy, having landed in a very public hot seat in 2015, after a controversial email suggesting Yale University, where she and her husband were faculty and residence advisers, should not police student Halloween costumes or decide for the campus community what was and wasn’t offensive.

But if the health of democracy is truly what prompted her latest lament, it’s too bad she chose to conflate a valid concern for the state of civics instruction in U.S. schools, which is deplorable, with a jeremiad about school choice. In doing so, she has trivialized an important issue.

(The 74: Time Magazine Honors Sandra Day O’Connor as Pioneer on Supreme Court — and in Civics Education)

Christakis is correct that our founding fathers saw the “common school” as the place where all children are taught the skills necessary to participate in democracy. She’s correct that the amount of civics instruction has fallen in U.S. schools, though the second half of her assertion — that it’s not taught because it’s not tested — is a matter of opinion.

She reports accurately that one-fourth of American students passed the civics portion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress exams. And she is correct in asserting that researchers present powerful evidence that the “civic empowerment gap” between affluent citizens and historically disenfranchised ones is a threat to republican democracy.

But Christakis glosses over some hugely problematic historical and current realities. Those “common schools” our forefathers dreamed of were never intended to prepare all Americans for citizenship. It was against the law to educate blacks, who were not allowed by law to vote until 1870, until long after the Civil War in many places, and in practice in some Southern states until after the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Women did not get the vote until the 1920s.

And Brown v. Board of Education notwithstanding, white Americans of means have never been willing to send their children in large numbers to the same public schools as black and brown children. Today, impoverished children of color are, in the main, isolated in schools that lack the resources that enable civics instruction.

Put another way, if you can’t read, it’s awfully hard to keep up with “American Government” and “Problems of Democracy.” Indeed, segregation and poverty are the root issues identified in the gold-standard research on the “civic empowerment gap” by Harvard researcher Meira Levinson, author of No Citizen Left Behind.

Students in schools with “average” income levels are half as likely to report studying how laws are made or participating in service activities, Levinson reports in a 2010 study, “The Civic Empowerment Gap: Defining the Problem and Locating Solutions.” Disparities are far worse in impoverished schools, and “school-level differences are partly to blame.”

(For another day, perhaps, are efforts underway to ensure that civics, which is embedded in most states’ standards, is taken much more seriously. In recent years, 17 states adopted laws requiring high school students to at least take citizenship classes and another 21 considered legislation.)

Finally, Christakis only feints at the inflexible union contracts that allow teachers with any level of seniority at all to opt out of impoverished schools. That consigning the children with the biggest challenges to the teachers least likely to have the skills to help them grow does not strike her as a much bigger threat to democracy.

A lone sentence of the essay hints that this might be an issue: “Liberals must also work to better understand the appeal of school choice, especially for families in poor areas where teacher quality and attrition are serious problems.”

If Christakis is serious about fulfilling the promise of the common school, she might want to spend some time visiting schools of choice that not only prize civics but see it as a route to making core academics more engaging and relevant to young people who experience the ills of democracy viscerally and personally.

The policy slam at my son’s school was intended to show parents how classes are more effective when students are taught reading and math alongside a subject where they can apply those academic basics to solve real problems — in line with the solutions proposed by the Harvard research.

When they are not mining data, Venture’s students participate in Model United Nations and Model Assembly, where I’m sure it would surprise Christakis to hear that, given the chance to raise their voices, these impoverished students of color focused their efforts on equity in education.

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