When Dr. Pedro Noguera first began studying race and equity in American public schools 40 years ago, the nation’s educational landscape had little in common with today’s. School accountability was not yet part of the national conversation. Policies like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, as well as voucher programs and charter schools, were not yet in place. Our K–12 public education system was only a few decades removed from Brown v. Board of Education, Noguera says, but most of the nation’s policy makers were insistent that the days of racial and educational inequality were in the past. American students of all ethnic and economic backgrounds, they claimed, benefited from equal opportunity.
Over the following years, Noguera—as a scholar, professor, and frequent contributor to publications like The New York Times, The Nation, and Education Week—was instrumental in exposing the countless ways in which the battle for equal rights in schools was just beginning. As the author of such influential bestsellers as The Trouble With Black Boys... and Other Reflections on Race, Equity, and the Future of Public Education and later City Schools and the American Dream 2: The Enduring Promise of Public Education (an updated edition of which is now available from Teachers College Press), Noguera laid bare how our schools, like the broader culture in which they operate, continue to come up short on issues of racial, economic, and social justice.
I recently spoke with Noguera about our ongoing national reckoning on race and equity, how education can finally live up to its long-deferred promises, and what you’d need to do to reimagine the way we train, and then retain, our national teaching force. Our conversation has been edited for length, clarity, and flow.
EMILY KAPLAN: As a society, we’re facing a reckoning in terms of race and equity. What are your thoughts on this moment in American history, with the Black Lives Matter movement and the increased attention on police brutality?
PEDRO NOGUERA: I’ve been writing about these issues for a long time because to me they were obvious and accepted—we’ve accepted unequal schools throughout American history. Even though the Supreme Court in 1954 said, “Separate and unequal is blatantly wrong, unconstitutional, and we need to stop it,” we never stopped it—we just pretended we did. During the No Child Left Behind period, we acted as though schools were operating on a level playing field, and therefore we could hold every school and every student accountable for standardized test scores, even though we hadn’t done the work of extending equal educational opportunities to all kids and in all schools. That’s what the achievement gap that we talk about really is—it’s a manifestation of that racial inequality.
The way Black communities are policed hasn’t really changed much over the years. The only thing that’s changed is that we capture it all on film now, so everyone can see what’s happening. What worries me is that we’ll focus only on the most extreme examples of racial injustice and ignore the ways in which racial injustice is baked into the system. We still have these gross inequities that correspond with race and class throughout America.
So now the question is: What do we do about them? Health care is unequal, housing is unequal, access to clean air and water is unequal in America, but we believe that education should be the way we level the playing field. If we’re going to achieve that, then we need to make sure that the opportunities we provide are equal for all kids. It’s as basic as whether or not you’re in a school that has a library, or has science labs, or has qualified teachers.
KAPLAN: Do you believe that education is special in that way? That it’s uniquely positioned to give kids a path to a better life?
NOGUERA: Well, yes and no. Yes, in that I think most Americans, of all kinds, do believe that all kids should get an education and that education should be the way we provide opportunity.
On the other hand, I think that leads to unrealistic expectations for education. No society in the world expects schools to solve all of our social problems—expects education alone to reduce inequality and poverty. It can’t, and it won’t.
What our education system can do is make it possible for a few to improve their lives. I’m living proof of that, and there are others. But it’s just a few. And while we like to celebrate the exceptional individuals who are able to use education to improve their lives, that’s not the norm in America. The norm is there are lots of people out there with talent and ability who haven’t had the opportunity, and because of that, they are stuck in low-wage jobs permanently, stuck in a cycle of poverty. That should trouble all of us, because the whole idea behind the American Dream is a society that doesn’t reward birthright and privilege, but rewards effort and talent. We’re very far from that, as the data shows.
An affluent student with a C average has a much better chance of graduating from college and finding a good job than a low-income student with an A average.
KAPLAN: So if you could create policies that truly addressed the equity issues, what might that look like?
NOGUERA: Let me start by saying you can’t solve our social problems at an individual level. Self-interest is too powerful, and we’re seeing that now during the pandemic. Some people can afford learning pods for their kids, so they say, “I want the best for my kids. I’m not going to put them on Zoom with the public school.” You can’t tell them, “No, do Zooms—support public education.”
But you can create better public options that benefit everyone. Think about it—until recently, the subway system in New York served all kinds of people, because it is efficient and relatively safe and clean, and it was better than getting a ride in cars. So you would see wealthy people and poor people, all taking the subway. We need to invest in public institutions like schools, parks, museums, transportation, and hospitals so that we all have an interest in supporting those institutions. We need policies that elevate living conditions so that people can lead a decent life.
In terms of education policy, I would start by making sure that we’re funding schools more equitably. We have to move away from using local property taxes as the basis for funding schools. We need a state formula that funds education more equitably, and then the federal government has to help because you have some states that don’t really have the money. And we should invest in things like preschool, because the research shows there are long-term benefits for children well into adulthood.
These aren’t quick fixes, because there are those with a vested interest in keeping the system as it is, but I think if we had the political will to do something about it, we could.
KAPLAN: The pandemic has ruthlessly exposed systemic inequalities. At the same time, it seems that it could be a real turning point in education. What should we do with that opportunity?
NOGUERA: Imagine if as a society we said, “Look, we are seeing the inequities. Let’s do something to reduce them. Let’s do something to make sure that when we reopen schools, we don’t just reopen the same schools, we make them better—schools that are developmentally focused on the needs of children.” We’ve known for years that the social and emotional development of a child impacts their academic development.
I would say that would lead to a massive reorganization in the way we deliver instruction. We’d be moving away from talking at kids to a much more interactive approach with much more applied learning, because that’s the way kids actually learn. We would make schools places that are much more supportive because we have a lot of kids who are stressed out and anxious and need to be in a supportive environment. We would emphasize relationships. We would recognize that the path we were on was not working and is not sustainable.
KAPLAN: How might a complete overhaul look for attracting and training teachers?
NOGUERA: I have been able to convince many of my students to consider teaching out of a sense of idealism. But many of them don’t stay because the work is so hard, the pay is so low; it‘s almost like you have to live with your parents if you’re going to become a teacher in many of our cities. And so instead of building a professional teaching force, we have a revolving door for a lot of our teachers.
Imagine if instead of pressuring schools that are struggling, or staffing them with inexperienced teachers, we provide incentives to get really talented people into teaching. What if we made those schools places that were attractive to work in, where kids wanted to be? What if we subsidized housing for those teachers so that they could live nearby? We could create much better schools if we had the will and the vision to do so.
We shouldn’t assign new teachers the most challenging kids. We shouldn’t work people to death. We should give them sabbaticals. Teaching is exhausting, emotionally and psychologically exhausting. And if you don’t give people support, they won’t stay in the career.
KAPLAN: How do you think the systems we use to evaluate and assess students and teachers could be reimagined?
NOGUERA: Assessment is an essential part of education, because you have to know what kids are learning. So you have to assess their growth, their progress. But assessments should be used for that purpose and to diagnose learning needs, not to rank people, which is what we are doing now.
Why is that? I think it’s because the push for assessment and accountability didn’t come from educators. It came from policy makers who wanted to monitor schools and hold them accountable. And they were actually operating with the assumption they could pressure schools into improvement.
They thought they could use competition so that the bad schools would lose kids and the good schools would gain kids and suddenly the bad schools would disappear. Well, that didn’t happen. All it did was disincentivize people from going to those schools, and that’s exacerbated the inequality in schools. I’ve never seen schools improved because of threats and pressures. I’ve seen the teachers who can get out of those schools go someplace else.
Canada uses capacity building to help schools that are struggling to improve. But if the kids aren’t doing well in math, the assumption is the teachers need help in teaching math. So they send people in to support teachers in teaching math, and guess what? Over time, math improves. They use trust and guidance, rather than threats, and that makes a huge difference.