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Lessons from a Big, Flawed Story About the New York Public School System

Alexandria Neason critiques a widely circulated article by Atlantic writer George Packer on his experience with New York public schools, and how the lack of diversity in its ranks allows the media to easily label one experience as emblematic of many.

Public School #10, Brooklyn, New York.
New York’s public school system is “starkly segregated and notoriously hard to parse,” but some have more options than others.,Yasmeen Khan

IN A NEW ESSAY for The Atlantic, staff writer George Packer chronicles his family’s experience navigating the mammoth New York City public school system—the country’s largest, and one that is both starkly segregated and notoriously hard to parse. The piece laments the racism and inequities upon which the American public school system rests, and Packer acknowledges that his family—white, connected, financially secure—benefits from this. He criticizes the false promises of meritocracy, even as he describes the ways in which he agitated for them in a school setting he describes, with little in the way of other parents’ perspectives, as overcorrecting them. 

Packer takes aim at the so-called “culture wars,” and their arrival in the classroom. His son’s elementary school eliminates gender specific bathrooms in an attempt to accommodate a trans student; teachers and administrators encourage parents to opt their children out of standardized testing at a controversial moment when parents across the state were empowered by their right to do so. Project-based learning in his son’s classroom, sometimes produced thoughtful results on historically undercovered areas such as the climate crisis and slavery, but at the expense, Packer writes, of basic mathematical skills. Being a parent, he says, is complicated. And he’s right. The true test of one’s values, liberal or not, comes when people of means begin to understand that they have choices where others do not.

The disconnect between the realities of most public school parents and the ease with which the media labels one experience as emblematic of many reflects a press corps that continues to fail at the goal of achieving meaningful racial diversity within its ranks

At the heart of his argument is a criticism of what Packer might describe as the tension between individualism—the desire to provide the very best for your family even at the expense of others—and collectivism, the valuing of the many and the prioritizing of the most disadvantaged members of that majority. The piece demonstrates the common contradictions in what we say we believe and what we will tolerate when it comes to our children—the inner conflict of people who believe themselves to be “liberal” but struggle to come to terms with what they must risk in order to see those values realized, to enable entire classes of people who have been repeatedly marginalized to get a fair shake. Packer praises the benefits that his child has enjoyed as a student in a racially and socioeconomically diverse school setting, but is concerned by what he sees as the politicization of the classroom, led by a hyperactive progressivism that, he says, thrives on groupthink. Nevermind that for some children, the classroom has long been a politicized space, in which those kids and adults with more social power are taught—either outright or by omission—to devalue the lives and histories of people who are not like them.

The article, nearly 10,000 words in length, attracted attention in media circles. On Twitter, Meredith Kolodner, an education reporter and parent of two children at the unnamed elementary school Packer criticizes, said that she was “somewhere between surprised and shocked” by the story.

Local education reporters pointed out that the progressive elementary school Packer describes is an outlier. But perhaps most interesting has been the swiftness with which Packer’s point of view was accepted as familiar, as typical of the experience of most parents navigating their way through public schools in New York. 

MSNBC’s Morning Joe described the piece as “extraordinary, especially for anyone who has navigated the New York City school system, either public or private.” But that assumption—that the series of choices available to Packer, which included a private preschool that cost tens of thousands of dollars, waiting in lines early in the morning to guarantee his child access to the best schools, and spending significant time and money volunteering in a classroom, reflects the experience of most other public school parents—is obviously wrong. As Nikole Hannah-Jones, a staff writer at The New York Times Magazine and the country’s premier education journalist covering American school segregation, noted on Twitter, Packer’s experience reflects that of a small minority of wealthy, connected parents in the city for whom access affords radically different opportunities within the school system. Packer demonstrates this in his own story, describing the moment that he and his wife decided to pull their daughter out of public school and put her in private school. It’s true that thousands of families struggle through convoluted school applications in New York. But for most of them, the decision to opt out of the system altogether if their kids don’t get into the city’s very best public schools is simply not an option. A basic Google search of the city’s schools demographics demonstrates this.

The disconnect between the realities of most public school parents and the ease with which the media labels one experience as emblematic of many reflects a press corps that continues to fail at the goal of achieving meaningful racial diversity within its ranks. Forty percent of the US population are racial and ethnic minorities. Five years ago, the public school population, for the first time in American history, became majority “minority.” But within the journalism industry, just 17 percent of newsroom staffare racial minorities. Amongst management, the number is 13 percent. Who we are—those markers of identity that Packer criticizes—influences everything from what stories we assign and to whom, to what articles are deemed relatable on social media and television. The industry has miserably and repeatedly failed to live up to what it claims are its own values when it comes to diversity. Most editors are white, highly educated, and middle class. The reception of this piece is a timely reminder that a press corps that does not sufficiently reflect the people whose stories it purports to tell fundamentally fails at its civic mission.

Below, more on the complicated ecosystem of New York City public schools:

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[Alexandria Neason is CJR's Staff Writer and Senior Delacorte Fellow. Previously, she was a reporter at The Village Voice and covered education for the Teacher Project, a partnership between Columbia Journalism School and Slate. A team she worked on won the 2016 Education Writers Association award for news features. Follow her on Twitter @alexandrianeas.]