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Fixing our schools in a weak economy

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KAI RYSSDAL: Like so many presidents before him, President Obama has talked a lot about the importance of education. He’s talked about the need for arts in schools. The need for teacher training. Good ideas, but ones that cost money — money that we’re in short supply of these days.

Harvard researcher Susan Eaton’s most recent book is called “The Children in Room E4: American Education on Trial.” We got her on the line to talk about education, the Obama administration, and the economy. Welcome to the program.

SUSAN EATON: Hi, great to be here.

RYSSDAL: You, in the course of writing your book, spent a lot of time in and out of public school classrooms in the United States. What’s your take on the biggest problems that are out there?

EATON: Well, I think that the biggest problem is the fact that huge shares of our children in the United States — disproportionately, children of color; Latino and African American children — are simply not connected to mainstream opportunities. And our schools are really . . . have not, at least in the last eight years or so — and probably even more than that — been trying to connect them to those opportunities.

RYSSDAL: But it does, in a lot of measure, come down to money. Doesn’t it?

EATON: Yes. And absolutely. And I think a lot of things that would go a very far way in helping children who aren’t connected to opportunity be connected would absolutely cost quite a bit of money and would require us to make some choices about what our priorities are. And one of those things is certainly preschool. However, it’s also shown by studies by economists, not just by educators but by economists, that there’s huge payoff over the long run. But there’s also things that schools can do, policies that can be changed and reoriented that wouldn’t cost an enormous amount of more money.

RYSSDAL: What might some of those be, then?

EATON: Over the last eight years, it seems to me, that public schools — especially schools that enroll disproportionate shares of children of color — have become more exclusionary and less inclusive. And one example is through what’s often referred to as “zero-tolerance” discipline policies. And these are policies that rely heavily on suspending and expelling kids for what are often minor infractions. And what has been shown time and time again by research is that these policies of suspension and expulsion lead directly to dropping out. And then dropping out is quite directly related to incarceration. I think that this is one thing that we could look at that would be very easy to find alternatives to suspension and expulsion.

And then, secondly, if you look at the curriculum in public schools, kids in poor schools are far less likely to receive civics education. They’re far less likely to engage in the types of activities that would help them prepare for democratic decision-making, and for being citizens, and for being full participants in a democracy. And that, I think, is pretty telling when you look at public schools at a whole. And that’s something that we could certainly work on and work towards, and that does not cost very much money.

RYSSDAL: Do you worry that the debate over public education in this country at the highest levels is going to be circumscribed because of the financial crisis and the state of the economy? I mean, if there’s not money to do some of these things, how disheartening is it to talk about them?

EATON: I . . . No, I don’t. I think that the discourse is going to improve. And with education, money has always been tight. That’s not a surprise. Even with President Obama, nobody expects the spigots to start flowing for education, especially education for poor kids. Yes, there will be less money and there will need to be cutbacks. And that will effect neighborhoods of concentrated disadvantage and the schools that enroll kids from those neighborhoods far more profoundly than any other neighborhood. But I do see the rhetoric shifting. And I do see people within public education — teachers, administrators, students — feeling a lot more hopeful. And again, not all of these things require money. In some respects they require a reorientation.

RYSSDAL: Susan Eaton’s the research director at the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School. Her book about public education in urban environments is called “The Children in Room E4.” Susan, thanks a lot for your time.

EATON: Thank you so much.

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