School diversity as a means to build shared values and understanding

I’ve written here before about why I believe we need our schools to reflect the broader diversity of our society from the lens of fighting prejudice.

I also believe that nourishing diversity in our schools serves a civic purpose: building shared values and understanding. This is what can allow our democratic republic to flourish.

My attempt to voice is this has been published on The Hechinger Report; I would greatly appreciate it if you read it, and will be interested in your thoughts.


How Did New York Become So Segregated?


How did New York end up so segregated? As part of my NY Policy Fellowship, I did a little bit of research to try and answer this question.

The Great Migrations

During WWI, industrial urban cities in the North actively recruited Southern black laborers due to labor shortages and war production demand. By the 1920s, Harlem housed 200,000 African Americans and became an epicenter of black literature, music, and visual arts. NYC’s black population expanded from 140,000 in 1910 to 660,000 by 1940. Only a quarter of that 1940 population were born in New York. Economic demand during and after WWII similarly spurred a large influx from southern states. By 1970, NYC’s black population was at 2,350,000, and Buffalo’s at 108,000. Meanwhile, “NYC’s Hispanic population increased by almost twenty times between 1940 and 2010, while its total non-Hispanic White population decreased by over 60% over the same time period.”


After WWII, the Federal Housing Authority provided funding for homeownership for many white working class families. However, some banks would refuse to lend money to aspiring black homeowners. The practice of “redlining” refers to maps banks would keep of neighborhood racial demographics, which they would use to determine “bad investments.” Banks would then deny services to African American families, or selectively raise prices. This practice furthered racial segregation, and also guaranteed that many black neighborhoods were either underdeveloped or left in disrepair.

Urban Redevelopment and Highways

Robert Moses engineered passage and amendment to the 1942 Hampton-Mitchell Bill (enacted as the Urban Redevelopment Companies Law), which allowed the displacement of communities (typically low income) by private developers. The NY State Court of Appeals, in a 1949 case, Dorsey v. Stuyvesant Town Corp., later upheld the right of private property owners to discriminate by race. The court ruled: “It is well settled that the landlord of a private apartment or dwelling house may, without violating any provision of the Federal or State Constitutions, select tenants of its own choice because of race, color, creed or religion … Clearly, housing accommodation is not a recognized civil right.”

In a trend-setting development, Moses built the first highway through a crowded urban center, the Cross Bronx Expressway. This development, like the Stuyvesant development on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, resulted in the displacement of lower-income families and reinforced segregation.

Other cities in New York followed suit, with the Skyway in Buffalo and the I-81 in Syracuse similarly stranding low-income families in noisy, polluted inner cities, while creating swift escape routes for suburban commuters. Coupled with strict zoning rules and the lack of affordable housing and public transportation options in many suburban areas, poorer families found it difficult to gain the means either to leave or improve their high poverty neighborhoods.

Loss of Industrial Jobs

While the Fair Housing Act of 1968 made redlining practices illegal, the stagnation of the economy in the 1970s, coupled with deindustrialization, spurred the flight of white and middle class families to suburbs, leaving behind inner city neighborhoods with few employment opportunities and resources. According to EdBuild, twenty nine of the country’s 50 most extremely segregated school districts are in the Rust Belt, with New York State number 6 on that list.

Fruitless Fights for Integration

In the 1950s and 60s, a Reverend in Brooklyn, Milton Galamison, fought for integration, first as chair for the Education Chapter of the NAACP, then as founder of the Parent’s Workshop for Equality in New York City Schools. His group “presented a series of integration proposals to the New York City Board of Education, none of which were implemented.” In 1964, Galamison led a group of civil rights organizations to boycott NYC public schools, but he did not gain the support of the teacher’s union and later lost the support of national civil rights groups. In the late 60s, he began fighting for community control of schools, creating tension with the teacher’s union, the Al Shanker-led UFT. This tension came to a head in Ocean-Hill Brownsville in 1968. Tensions between labor rights and community control advocates, as well as between advocates of integration and of black separatism, created fissures in liberal thought that shifted key narratives and perceptions of public education. As Dana Goldstein notes in her book, Teacher Wars, “Ocean Hill-Brownsville created rifts between teacher unions and black civil rights groups, as well as between liberal elites and the union.” These rifts and tensions continue to reverberate today, especially via the critique of teachers unions and traditional district schools offered by parental choice and charter school advocates.

NYC has never been under a desegregation order. There were a few efforts made to increase diversity through an open enrollment program or by shifting zone lines, but the fiscal crisis of the 1970s and subsequent white flight ended any further efforts until very recently.

In 2014, State Commissioner John King and Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch initiated the Socioeconomic Integration Pilot Program (SIPP), providing grant funding to school districts that sought to integrate student populations by socioeconomic status. A number of school districts are now implementing programs, including Manhattan District 1.

Beyond Race & Class: Special Education Segregation

From 1894 through the mid 1900s in New York state, increasing attention was paid to the identification and specialized support for students with disabilities due to legislation. In 1967, a “handicapped child” was definedas an individual who ‘because of mental, physical or emotional reasons, cannot be educated in regular classes but can benefit by special services and programs.’ This definition summarized state policy, which since the early years of the century had favored removing handicapped children from regular classrooms and schools, and placing them in ‘special classes,’ home teaching, or private schools.” The policy of segregation and outsourcing of support began shifting in the 1960s. Federal legislation, culminating in the 1990 IDEA act, pushed states towards inclusion in a “least restrictive setting,” and NCLB in 2001 introduced school accountability for educating students with disabilities. However, in an IBO report as of 2013, 25% of students identified with a disability continue to be educated in separate, “self-contained” programs. The outcomes for self-contained students are not positive, while some research seems to suggest that including students with disabilities in general education classrooms has more positive outcomes for them, while not harming the outcomes of general education students. Yet the populations of students with disabilities are far from evenly distributed between schools.

Low floor, high ceiling, wide walls in ELA classrooms

Have you ever heard of a “low floor (or threshold), high ceiling” task?

I’ve stumbled across it over the last few years in the math realm, such as in articles by Jo Boaler, or in tasks by Dan Meyer, and I found it intriguing as a general framework for lesson and unit planning. Finding ways to include both lower and higher performing students in rigorous academic instruction is something I think a lot about, and this seemed worth exploring. However, I work primarily in special education and ELA, not math, so I was having trouble generalizing.

So I did a little more digging. Here’s what I found:

The concept of low floor, high ceiling was first formulated in the 1970s by Seymour Papert, a professor at MIT heavily influenced by Piaget, as a design principle for a programming language called Logo. The idea was to make programming accessible to young children, while simultaneously being usable at a more complex level by adults.

A robot turtle was developed to provide concrete access to kids for using the programming language.

By Valiant Technology Ltd., CC BY-SA 3.0,
By Valiant Technology Ltd., CC BY-SA 3.0


Mitchel Resnick, another professor at MIT, added the useful concept of “wide walls” to the design metaphor of a room:


When discussing technologies to support learning and education, my mentor Seymour Papert (who, sadly, passed away last month) often emphasized the importance of “low floors” and “high ceilings.” For a technology to be effective, he said, it should provide easy ways for novices to get started (low floor) but also ways for them to work on increasingly sophisticated projects over time (high ceiling). With his Logo programming language, for example, kids could start by drawing simple squares and triangles, but gradually create more complex geometric patterns over time.

But the most important lesson that I learned from Seymour isn’t captured in the low-floor/high-ceiling metaphor. For a more complete picture, we need to add an extra dimension: wide walls. It’s not enough to provide a single path from low floor to high ceiling; we need to provide wide walls so that kids can explore multiple pathways from floor to ceiling.

Why are wide walls important? We know that kids will become most engaged, and learn the most, when they are working on projects that are personally meaningful to them. But no single project will be meaningful to all kids. So if we want to engage all kids—from many different backgrounds, with many different interests—we need to support a wide diversity of pathways and projects.

. . . Our ultimate goal is to help all kids develop their thinking, develop their voices, and develop their identities. None of that will happen unless we continually ask: Who are we including? Who are we excluding? And how can we provide everyone—everyone—with opportunities for exploring, experimenting, and expressing themselves?

Resnick offers some further advice for designers in an MIT paper, “Some Reflections on Designing Construction Kits for Kids” (bearing in mind this is for construction kits, not for academic content):

  • Design for Designers
  • Low Floor and Wide Walls
  • Make Powerful Ideas Salient – Not Forced
  • Support Many Paths, Many Styles
  • Make it as Simple as Possible – and Maybe Even Simpler
  • Give People What They Want – Not What They Ask For
    • “Often, designs with well-chosen parameters are more successful than designs with fully adjustable parameters” ← I like this quote. This connects to the idea of constraints.
  • Invent Things That You Would Want to Use Yourself
    • In ELA, this translates into assigning tasks that you would want to do yourself. For writing tasks, this most likely would result in something you’d actually enjoy reading.
  • Iterate, Iterate – then Iterate Again

This is all well and good if you’re designing a gadget or a programming language, and it kinda makes sense in math in the sense of a well-designed problem, but what does “low floor, high ceiling” mean in terms of designing lessons or units in ELA? This is where it gets murkier. Does a concept that applies to design have a translation to academic literacy instruction?

Here’s my thoughts on that question:

Usually in ELA we are engaged with texts. A rich text has multiple layers of meaning and ideas well-worth exploring, but the level of abstraction and demands of the language can be a barrier for many students. We can therefore think of the text itself as the “high ceiling” for many lessons (I think, in any case, I could certainly be off base on this).

In many cases, therefore,  the “high ceiling” aspect has already somewhat been defined in an ELA lesson (assuming you are studying rich texts together as a class).

So then, how you do you provide a “low floor” for all of your students to a complex text? And more abstractly, how do you support a wide diversity of pathways or perspectives?

Designing Scaffolded Tasks and Activities

What comes first to mind are the tasks and activities that a teacher designs to prepare their students for understanding the text, for interacting with the text, and for responding to the text. For an exemplar of this type of scaffolding, I highly recommend taking a look at Lesson 2 from Stanford’s Understanding Language unit on persuasion, specifically at how they scaffold student understanding of the Gettysburg address through multiple readings that are even fun. Close reading instruction will readily fail when a teacher simply asks students to re-read a complex text multiple times with no varied and scaffolded forms of engagement.

Designing Provocative Questions

I think the most critical consideration for “wide walls” and spanning from low floor to high ceiling is what sort of questions you plan. For example, for an 8th grade unit I co-designed on the topic of segregation, we generated a series of questions, ascending from elemental (“What is segregation? What is integration?”) to provocative and open-ended: (“NYC schools are largely segregated by race and class. Is it possible to provide all children an excellent education in a segregated school system? If so, how? If not, why not and what steps must we take to fix this?”). That final question represents the cumulative question for the unit. There’s certainly room for different ways of expressing knowledge based on a student’s own perspective on the topic. This could be via an essay, an action plan, a presentation, or a socratic discussion, as a few possible examples.

A critical element to both “low floor” and “high ceiling” is designing units and lessons around a provocative question. For example, watch this video of master teacher Sarah Wessling Brown modeling a high school ELA lesson on monsters (Easter egg: see if you can spot me in the background). She asks the provocative question, “What do monsters teach us about human nature?” and then designs engaging activities to engage students in the texts and knowledge they need to explore it.

I think questions like these embody what LFHCWW design is all about. They provide both engagement, and therefore access, but have ample room for sophistication and complex thinking.

One mistake some teachers make is to assume that a “higher order” question is beyond the purview of their struggling students, and they try to dumb down their questions. My advice is to worry less about the “cognitive level” of a question, and more about the language that you use and the manner in which you phrase it. Language and phrasing can either present a barrier to understanding, or a scaffold. A precisely constructed question provides the initial direction and language that students will need.

We haven’t even really gotten started

But this post is getting overlong. How do you think the concept of a task with low floor, high ceiling, and wide walls can apply in ELA classrooms? Share, and let’s build a common understanding of what this might mean in our lesson and unit design.

Good Advice

Here are three takeaways from a recent workshop for about 40 New York City teachers representing a range public, charter and private schools. 

1) Know your history. Racism dates back many centuries, to when European writers and explorers first classified people by physical characteristics. It’s affected our social and political institutions, from slavery to segregation. Vasquez advised teachers to use this history and to add materials when necessary, “to have students see themselves in the curriculum and also see other folks in the curriculum as well.” He calls this a “racial equity lens.”

2) Know yourself. About 85 percent of New York City public school students are children of color; 60 percent of their teachers are white. One white teacher at the workshop, who didn’t want to be identified, said he tries to play to his strengths. “I think that white children should see me as a model as how to listen to other people, and how to acknowledge when I make mistakes,” he explained. With his students of color, he added, “I want to prove myself worthy of their trust.”

3) Know your students. Create classrooms where all kids feel safe. Children pick up clues from the world around them, and have their own biases.  Vasquez said teachers – and kids – may feel uncomfortable talking about race but that’s part of the work. They must keep talking.

While some might not consider this essential work for teachers, Vasquez likened it to a core subject.

–Beth Fertig, “Teachers Get Schooled On Talking Race” on WNYC

Smorgasbord: Sundries, Inclusion, and Democracy


Sundry Items from the World Wide Web

Here’s a handy infographic of the 74 ways characters die in Shakespeare’s plays.

Clinical psychiatrist Daniel Siegel argues that our minds are best understood as a combination of bottom-up sensory experiences and top-down schematic models.

If you want to enhance your brain, stop wasting your time with “brain training” apps and pick up a new musical instrument, instead. And exercise.

In Los Olivos, California, parents pay $49,000 a year for their kids to chop their own wood and grow their own food. Seems like a worthy trade-off, to me. Especially given the growing amount of research substantiating the positive effects of the outdoors on learning.

Speaking of the outdoors, if you have a view of the ocean, you probably have lower levels of psychological distress. Supposedly this applies across income or neighborhood quality, but let’s be real: most neighborhoods with an ocean view usually have a few other competitive advantages.

We all know being born well-off (financially speaking) comes with benefits. But here’s some depressing results from a new report: “even poor kids who do everything right don’t do much better than rich kids who do everything wrong.” So much for meritocracy.

Speaking of meritocracy, boys read less than girls and even when they do read, they comprehend less. Which is a problem since even tech startups are trumpeting the value of reading.

And what separates champions from “almost champions” is how they respond to adversity. They put in the practice and training, and most critically, they compare themselves against past versions of themselves, rather than external comparisons against others. Implications for supporting our students in self-monitoring their progress here.

Because hey, even a ball of dough can learn to learn, with the right amount of electric shocks.

Sorry to inform you, frenetic button pushers: pushing those crosswalk and elevator close buttons are just placebo placating your sense of control.

In his new book, Messy, economist Tim Harford argues that allowing a bit of disorder and chaos into our lives can make us happier and more productive. One way, he suggests, is to force ourselves to interact with others who are different than us. (And here’s a past post on how allowing a little bit of chaos in a school can also be a good thing.)

Equity and Inclusion: Can we overcome our history?

While some may see this as merely a symbolic gesture, I think it’s a pretty big deal that a “president of America’s largest police management organization” issued a formal apology for police mistreatment of communities of color.

Knowing our history, as Politico’s Eliza Shapiro reports, is important as new battles about school zones and desegregation play out. Here’s a quote demonstrating why:

Recent meetings on the proposed rezoning have turned hostile: Lincoln Towers residents have wept and pleaded with the city not to go ahead with the rezoning, arguing that it would divide their community. Parents have shouted down Department of Education officials at meetings, accusing them of lying and intentionally concealing details about the plans. One person referred to PS 191 as a “cesspool.”

The principal of PS 191, Lauren Keville, has attended some of the public meetings, urging PS 199 parents — to apparently little effect — to visit her school before forming their judgment. PS 191 parents have been largely absent from the debate.

After the Council proposed its own plan and made explicit pleas for a more integrated district at a recent meeting, scores of parents spoke out against the plan. When one member of the council claimed he’d been “blindsided” by the plan, dozens of parents gave him a standing ovation. The PS 199 parents who support the integration plan — a constant but muted minority presence at public meetings — have been largely drowned out. (Bold added)

The parent group that is calling for integration, however, is making it’s views loud and clear.

A new report highlights what schools successful at increasing diversity are doing. Keys to increasing diversity: promote the school to diverse communities and make it welcoming to all, and change admission policies.

Democracy: Should complex decisions be made by the people, or their elected representatives?

Populist democracy is on the rise. Yet our founders envisioned the US as a representative democracy. George Thomas argues that we have lost sight of the educative function of political leadership, and that we are increasingly placing complex policy decisions in the hands of voters who may lack an understanding of the need for compromise that effective and experienced political leaders possess. Repercussions are to be found in Republican kowtowing to Trump and Tea Party supporters, Democrat kowtowing to Sanders supporters, across the pond in the Brexit referendum, and California’s ever increasing ballot measures. Some argue that voting should only be left to those who have the requisite knowledge. And there’s some evidence to back this up: education levels have a correlation to who you vote for. Just take a guess.

And the 538 explores some of these issues from another angle: a science experiment in Key West open to public vote.

Deaf Space

Some interesting design considerations for design of spaces that can not only provide a better environment for the deaf, but possibly a better environment for all.

Diversity builds a student’s understanding of the world

“Schools are not just about whether you can read or calculate; they are about how robustly you perceive the world around you. Even if you go to high-performing schools, segregated white or segregated black schools, it can still be difficult for kids to understand the world they inhabit. They need to have some understanding of their community, and not just their immediate community, but in the broader sense.”

—Ansley Erickson, in an interview with Rachel Cohen on American Prospect, “Learning from History: The Prospects for School Desegregation

Unconscious Bias


We’ve explored the concept of cognitive bias here before, and it’s an important idea to continuously remind ourselves of, as we all are prone to fall prey to problematic thinking each day, given our brain’s reliance on short cuts, heuristics and stereotypes.

Here’s a useful short video from the Royal Society on “Understanding Unconscious Bias” to give you a quick refresher, or introduction, as the case may be:

Further posts here on the topic:

How Can We Design Better Schools Within Aging Infrastructure?

Many schools are relegated to working in outdated facilities, in forms that no longer follow their function. Kurani saw an opportunity for design to make a difference. . . 

The campus design started from the logic that if lines between subjects are no longer clear, then lines between classrooms should not be either.

Working with schools especially, Kurani sees the value of “taking the school and nearby residents through a period of research, observation, and self-discovery,” he says. “It allows us to base design on meaningful insights about the project’s users and their daily lives.”

He calls this “community-centric design,” and it has dictated all of his projects so far.

—Zoe Balaconis, on architect Danish Kurani, “For Aging Schools: What ‘Community-Centric Design’ Could Look Like” on Mind/Shift

Race Relations in the United States: A Call for Integration

By Chicago Commission on Race Relations. (1922) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
I’ve been thinking about #Ferguson (not just the place, you see, but the happening—like Vietnam the war, not just the country) and Tamir Rice, and how these tragedies join an uninterrupted thematic patterning of race relations in our country. I think it’s easier for white people to process (or ignore) these as isolated events, rather than disturbing motifs.
So I’m going to put my thoughts out there, however malformed and incoherent they might be, because I think it’s better that we talk about this, rather than ignore it. This is a bit different than the norm on this blog, but I think it has everything to do with public education.

There are wounds in this country we can’t pretend away. Wounds so deep they surface visible in the skin.

White people may only know this subconsciously, flinching when a black male crosses their radar. Black people probably can’t forget it, saddled to an everpresent self­-awareness. How one comports oneself in mixed company, when around the presence of a policeman, when in a downtown department store.

So it’s important to bring this to the fore. To hash it out, however convoluted, via blog posts, protests, and media feeds. To experience that discomfort, and contemplate how it relates to the deepseated longsuffering of a community.

But I have the sense that so long as white and black people live wholly segregated lives, both culturally and geographically, then the problems of skin will remain perennial. It’s hard to empathize with someone when you lack any context beyond what’s portrayed on a screen.

I respect the inclination of some in the black community to choose to remain separate from white people.

But I do not respect the inclination of white people to self-segregate.

I believe that our society has an obligation to promote inclusion and diversity, both racial and economic. And by promote, I mean by the force of law.

Let me rephrase that in yet more stark terms: I believe that white people should be forced to live and work alongside black and brown people. And I believe that wealthier people should be forced to live and work alongside poorer people.

Some will say that we tried that out already with federally mandated busing to diversify schools, and look how that turned out? Except we didn’t really try it. Not for long enough to have any kind of impact.

It’s the natural tendency of human beings for like to congregate with like, and for the rich to get richer. So in the absence of any regulation, economic and racial segregation will only increase.

When Ta­-Nehisi Coates wrote in June about a case for reparations, this made sense to me in terms of a “moral reckoning” for our nation. We can only begin to square up with our sordid history of race relations when we take concrete action in the form of policies that create inclusive housing, schools, and businesses.

It’s convenient for white people to either pretend blackness, as a concept and as a representation of the divisive history of the United States, doesn’t exist at all, or to pretend that the problems that stem from that blackness are something that they can swoop in and fix, like a superhero.

I don’t think any problems will be fixed until they become all of our problems. And they won’t become all of our problems until we live and work together.

That’s my take on this. Let me know what you think.