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What NYC can learn from my experience ending tracking — and running into the politics of ‘keeping white people happy’

Stacey Rupolo

The hullabaloo over the recommendation to eliminate some gifted and talented programs in the New York City schools elicits an uncomfortable side of school system leadership. Most district leaders get into the business because they want to do big and bold things for children. Often, the moral imperative of serving traditionally underserved students of color increases the urgency of this mandate. In most cities and diverse districts, though, the power structures don’t necessarily reflect the student population.

Therein lies the rub: School system leaders must confront what Derrick Bell referred to as “interest convergence” — the idea that white people will only support acts of racial justice if there’s something in it for them.

When I work with district leaders now, I often share one of the most important lessons I learned while de-tracking the Stamford Public Schools: Leaders can’t take something away from white people without giving them something better in return. So the question before me, when I became Stamford, Connecticut’s school superintendent in 2005, was how to improve the system for everyone, while forcefully dealing with the urgent need to get rid of tracks that were hurting kids of color.

Eliminating rigid academic tracks that typically placed white and Asian students in upper-level courses and black and brown kids in lower-level ones confronted white people’s belief that they were entitled to the best teachers and the most rigorous courses, even if was at the expense of other people’s children. By staying in the public school system while regularly making it known that they had options outside of it, white people made it clear that they must be kept happy. Or else.

In low tones, over a cocktail at a conference with trusted fellow superintendents from different states, leaders might even admit to the political reality of having a “keep the white people happy,” strategy. But they’ll rarely admit it publicly, though coded language and resource allocation decisions might suggest otherwise.

By the time I arrived in Stamford, the district had been assigning students to academic tracks for more than 40 years. (You can find more of that story here.) When I started there, I spoke with elected officials, prominent civic and business leaders, parents and, of course, every school principal. Half of them told me that if I didn’t eliminate tracking immediately, I’d be run out of town. The other half told me that if I changed the status quo, first all the “good” families would leave, and then I’d be run out of town.

Even though Stamford had adopted a voluntary desegregation policy in the late 1960s that ensured students of different racial groups were at the same schools, policy dictated that students be separated academically by their scores on a standardized test. Desegregated schools within a district with a complex bussing and magnet system had deeply segregated classrooms. In the era of No Child Left Behind, I had been hired to do something about it.

To be sure, I tell my story from a place of enormous privilege, as a white, male superintendent. A leader of color would not likely be able to operate in the same way. (Just look at the response New York City Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza — full disclosure, a good friend — has gotten to his unapologetic efforts to confront institutional racism and bias.)

Early in my tenure in Stamford, I merely hinted at my intention to de-track, without stating it publicly. To get the buy-in I knew I needed to de-track successfully, I had to make a public case for change — including to teachers who were resistant to teaching heterogeneous groups. I had to build the infrastructure for improved teaching, learning, and professional development, all the while signaling to communities and families of color that tracking would be going away. Over the next few years, as we built momentum to de-track, it helped that student achievement had been climbing steadily, that parent surveys were mostly positive, and that we had increasing support from foundations and state agencies for our emerging approach.

This work took time, and it wasn’t until five years after I became superintendent that Stamford Public Schools succeeded in formally eliminating tracking.

While I had vocal critics in the process, no one could say that we weren’t completely transparent about why we were making the change, the details of the new approach, the research supporting it, and the timelines. A critical lesson and one that any leaders looking to make a transformative change should heed: Even those who don’t agree with you — and not everybody will — have a right to a transparent decision-making process.

During that process, I assumed that most parents were reasonable, and that most white parents weren’t part of the highly organized opposition, who told me that de-tracking would ruin the schools and chase “good” families away, that I was race-baiting, and that what vulnerable students needed most were not integrated classrooms but separate ones with additional resources. In fact, while we were making the changes, we conducted a parent survey, asking, “how likely are you to recommend your child’s school to another parent?” That number inched up every year, which enabled me to show the resistors that most parents were just fine with the changes.

As New York City leaders consider the realities of eliminating gifted programs, they need a plan to attend to the politics of entitlement and privilege, regardless of the moral imperative. I hate typing that sentence. Because if there’s a way to make dramatic, lasting change without attending to the political power structure that would prefer the status quo, please let me know.

New York City certainly isn’t Stamford, but there are essential principles that underpin any successful change like this. I didn’t have every teacher and principal in my corner, but there was a critical mass who were actively participating in designing the changes. Help from the outside can be crucial, too. Both the GE Foundation and the Connecticut state department of education publicly supported de-tracking. It took me time to get them both on record about this, but it was well worth the effort.

Evidence is another critical piece, as the case needs to be made repeatedly in many different ways, that the change will be good for children. For years, we held community forums, published the research base, and relentlessly presented evidence of the benefits of the changes and the destructiveness of the existing system.

We built a coalition that proved not just necessary, but personally rewarding. We built relationships with and activated communities of color that had never been asked to participate in this way before. We prioritized teacher voice and leadership, and teachers publicly had my back. We also found white allies whose own children benefited from tracking, but knew how wrong the system was; their help was immeasurable.

Yes, as a middle-aged, white man who has benefited greatly from the white supremacy that our public-school systems are organized around, I invite — and welcome — criticism for suggesting that New York City leaders should heed Bell’s warning of the need for interest convergence. I hope that if the chancellor decides to die on this hill, he’ll have enough support from communities of color and white allies, too.

Soon, a new mayoral campaign will begin in New York City. Gifted education is sure to be an issue on the trail, and those who have political power will exercise it in whatever ways they can. A new mayor and a new chancellor will have to decide whether and how to confront the institutional racism of the school system. They’ll need a long-term plan, as it’s not likely to truly transform in the span of one — or even two — terms.

Carranza has started to lay the foundation by speaking out on the issues. The School Diversity Advisory Group, which made the recommendations for New York City’s gifted programs — together with vocal student advocacy groups — have given the city a place to start the conversation. White allies need to continue to step up, educators need to get behind the change, emerging political coalitions need to be deepened and expanded, communities of color need to be placed front and center in the discourse, and national organizations need to support this work. Yet none of this will mean a thing if teaching, learning, and the student experience aren’t transformed for the better.

Joshua P. Starr is the CEO of PDK International. He was previously Superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland and, before that, Superintendent of Stamford Public Schools in Connecticut. Starr began his career as a District 75 teacher in New York City.

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