Guest post: Engineer schools for equity and integration

This week, we offer a piece that Arthur Camins posted on Huffingtonpost, which he thought readers of this blog might find interesting. Arthur is Director of the Center for Innovation in Engineering and Science Education, Stevens Institute of Technology, and is one of the leaders on the PISA2: Partnership to Improve Student Achievement in Physical Sciences MSP. Arthur’s writings also appear on his website

He writes:

Across the United States, students have returned to schools that are engineered to be inequitable and segregated. They are designed to protect the privileges of some at the expense of others. They have been that way for a very long time, but that is an intentional decision — a human-made arrangement — not a natural unalterable occurrence like the rising and setting of the sun each day. Equity and democracy demand a different design. The education designs we accept, ignore, and reject for our children are a window into the soul of our nation, revealing what we care about most deeply.

Look around. Think about your life. Except maybe in a remote virgin forest, almost everything else has the imprint of human interaction, of design. Everything is either natural or engineered- that is, designed by humans who were guided by their goals, values, and by judgments about criteria and constraints.

From an engineering perspective, design begins with identifying the criteria and constraints that frame the problems that are chosen to solve, which features of those problems are selected to address, and the conditions or limits that are imposed on possible solutions.

As I write, I am thinking about the view from my desk where I work at Stevens Institute of Technology. I hear my colleagues at the Center for Innovation in Engineering and Science Education talking in the background and sounds from the street — cars, trucks, lawnmowers, and construction noises. I am lucky to have a view of the Hudson River and the George Washington Bridge. The scene also includes boats, trees, grass, electric wires, and campus buildings. The river is natural, although the water that flows certain bears the mark of human design. Everything else is the result of human decisions.

The southerly flow of the Hudson River is a natural occurrence, but inequity in funding and achievement are the outcome of design features of our government and economic structure. Wealthy students attend schools that have more resources than those attended by poor students who live in neighborhoods that are the result of decades of intentional housing policies. Academic achievement is highly correlated with family income and mothers’ educational level. These outcomes are not natural occurrences, but rather the inevitable result of design decisions.

The natural world imposes constraints. Objects do not fall up. If we want an object to go up — to counteract the unalterable force of gravity — we must expend energy. Energy use is a zero-sum game. Spend it in one place. Lose it in another. As we have learned, if we are not careful about design, there is a price to pay. When we take the potential energy out of fossil fuels, some of it is spent on generating electricity, but the rest is spent on heating the atmosphere.

Design decisions about the engineered world of social interactions, such as schools, are different. Those decisions reflect our countries goals and values and judgments about criteria and constraints. For example, design criteria for public schools attendance can either specify acceptance of all children who apply within a designated geographic area or alternatively, enable some of the children to compete in a lottery for entry into a charter school. Similarly, whether or not a school’s zoned attendance area makes it diverse or racially isolated is a design criteria decision. Constraints related to how schools are funded in the United States are the product of a design decision too. Supporting schools through inequitable local tax revenue rather than progressive income tax is a decision based on goals and values. Federal and state aid to schools do not make up for differences in the tax capacity between states or between local districts. As a nation, this reflects a decision to protect the privilege of the wealthy at the expense everyone else.

I know that the term “social engineering” has come to be used as a pejorative to attack government action to advance progressive issues such as equity and diversity. However, to be clear, existing inequity and segregation are also the products of engineering — albeit without transparency about means and goals.

In the current political climate, everyone claims to be on the side education that provides access to the middle class with little talk and even fewer real policy proposals to eliminate poverty or inequitable school funding. There is virtually no discussion about promoting integrated neighborhoods and schools. From a systems engineering perspective, this is a doomed approach that restrains greater equity or education improvement. Inequity and segregation have long been inextricably linked. Segregation — and the economic and racial isolation that accompanies it — are the means by which privilege is protected. Segregation maintains and promotes unchallenged distrust at a distance that allows the “other” to be dehumanized so that common cause on behalf of equity can be thwarted. Alternatively, daily proximity and interaction across perceived difference tend to humanize and provide the potential for a common struggle for equity.

It is long past time to start engineering for equity and integration. Education policy is a great place to start.

We should:

  • Enact and fund housing policies to promote integrated neighborhoods and schools;
  • Adopt equitable school funding formulas with revenue from graduated state and Federal income and corporate taxes with increases on the most privileged;
  • Mediate the effects of income-related disparities through government-supported services, such as universal health care and pre-school;
  • Provide funds to reduce class size;
  • Fully fund services for special education and English language learners;
  • Enact laws that require employers to pay workers a living wage;
  • Fund job-creating investments in infrastructure and research.

Let’s engineer a different future.

Arthur H. Camins is the Director of the Center for Innovation in Engineering and Science Education at Stevens Institute of Technology. He has taught and been an administrator in New York City, Massachusetts and Louisville, Kentucky. The views expressed in this article are his alone.

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