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Looking for Equity on the Yellow School Bus: Let’s Not Forget About the Drivers (1/18/14)

In a 1/8/14 Education Week article Peter Cookson uses the school bus as a symbol for equity in his discussion of inequitable practices in schools in the United States. Cookson uses the school bus as the symbol of equity because of its universal recognition and ability to invoke deference from all Americans in respect to yielding the driving right-of-way to buses. Cookson asserts that when we yield to buses, as the law requires, we do not see any of the social factors that sometimes shade our perceptions but instead we just see children on the way to school and we respect it.

Cookson then steps away from his analogy of the bus to detail some of his research in high schools in the United States. Cookson informs us that in a study of elite private, upper middle class [public], middle class [public], working class [public], and impoverished [public] schools that he has come to recognize schools as the major socializing agent in the students’ lives as they are prepared for adulthood. Cookson further states that the nature of one’s high school determines what one will study, who you will study with, what colleges a student will attend, and ultimately the student’s chances at having a productive and successful life. Cookson also asserts that his research has shown that the type of high school a student attends will impact the quantity and quality of food they receive at school, the student’s emotional and physical safety, the ability to find a quiet place to study, and whether or not the student has access to clean and sanitary restrooms.

After making the analogy of the bus and presenting his research, Cookson submits that schools are “emotional hothouses” where students create individual memories and shared experiences that program their adult thinking. Cookson also forwards the idea that schools accomplish this great acculturation through rites of passage that include aesthetics and architecture, authority-  relations, pedagogy and curriculum, definitions of self, and most likely occupational destinations. Cookson defines these factors as the deep curriculum of schools. In Cookson’s view it is the deep curriculum that determines student outcomes.

There is no denying that schools are great socializing agents. However, in Cookson’s analysis of schools and in his subsequent argument for their democratization, the role of the school bus driver was not explored; this point is where we must expand Cookson’s analogy more fully, if we are to determine how the bus will effectively serve its purpose in getting all students to the destination.

If the yellow bus represents the school and the equity in it then the drivers are school administrators and their staffs. One cannot discount their importance in determining the culture of the schools that they work in, regardless of the economic or social context in which they exist. Literature and practice support this assertion. We have evidence of the roadmap for success in challenging environments, visionary leaders with teachers who share their vision and the unified support of the entire school community.  

One of the most prevalent examples of schools that are battling and even defying socioeconomic and cultural stereotypes is seen in the turnaround schools that have been birthed from the heightened accountability in public education in the United States over the past 15 years. In turnaround schools local school districts, often with the support of supplemental state and/or federal funding, have made earnest efforts to reform the culture, practices, and subsequent outcomes of their most challenging schools. 

It is important to acknowledge that not all turnaround schools have been successful. In fact the results are mixed on the measured success of turnaround schools throughout the United States as a whole. However, there is no denying the effort of the practice and the fact that these turnaround schools are better institutions of learning today than they ever would have been if not for current accountability requirements and school reform efforts. The administrators and teachers or drivers who work in these schools should be applauded for they do the heavy lifting in PK – 12 education in the United States each day. Like research scientists who work in labs behind the scenes, addressing some of mankind’s most pressing problems, these educators are unsung heroes. A critical mass of their kind is needed to fundamentally change the performance and the perception of schools in the United States.  

In conclusion, more can and must be done in making sure that schools are supported equitably, as Cookson pointed out. This is work that must be supported at the federal and state levels and implemented with fidelity locally. Boards of education and school superintendents have a moral obligation to provide the extra supports that their most challenging schools require. School districts must also be deliberate in their staffing efforts as well, ensuring that their most challenging schools have the turnaround leaders and teachers in place to drive the “yellow bus” to it its destination of a quality education for all students, regardless of their socioeconomic status.

Shawn McCollough President & CEO ABCTE


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