Several days ago the New York Times published an article about an issue that’s been around since the genesis of American public schools: integration. Before I get to the article itself, I’m going to go back once again to the Teach For America 20th Anniversary Summit a few weeks ago, where I attended a session called “Segregation in American Schools and Its Impact on the Achievement Gap”. The panelists included: Russlyn Ali (Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education), Pedro Noguera (Education/Sociology professor at NYU), Bill Kurtz (CEO of the Denver School of Science and Technology), Michael Petrilli (Executive Vice President of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and Executive Editor of Education Next), and Beverly Tatum (President of Spelman College). Like I did in my other sessions, I spent the bulk of this one furiously scribbling notes as these amazing people talked. Here are some of the best:
- Schools today are more segregated than they were at the time of Brown v. Board of Education. According to Russlyn Ali, 40% of Latino students and 30% of Black students are in schools where they are 90-100% of the student body.
We know that the least diverse schools, especially when it comes to these populations, are unfortunately also the least likely to be successful. As Pedro Noguera pointed out:
- Minorities are going to be the majority in 2041. “It’ll be a big problem if we don’t figure this out before then!”
Beverly Tatum offered a number of powerful and insightful thoughts, starting with:
- The environment you’re in doesn’t guarantee anything; what matters is the level of expectations. “When you’re in an environment where there are high expectations and you are the center of attention, great things can happen.” Unfortunately, we know this is far too often not the case with minority students.
Michael Petrilli pointed out part of the reason for the general lack of awareness in the American public about how segregated schools really are.
- The number of racially isolated White schools has actually declined, so White people don’t realize the extent to which others are isolated.
The issue of choice came up next, after Michael Petrilli pointed out that very elite private schools are often diverse because the parents realize the value of having their children exposed to different backgrounds. Pedro Noguera pointed out that:
- Choice only works at delivering access to good schools if there are lots of choices.
He continued by discussing the fact that the worst schools just don’t attract the right people and resources, and until that happens, there aren’t going to be lots of choices for good schools. Even in cases where districts are trying to provide different opportunities, the quality of those opportunities varies greatly. Take, for example, the idea of bilingual education:
- “We live in a xenophobic society. We’re ending up now with kids who are semi-literate in two languages” because the schools with those programs don’t necessarily know how to do it the right way, nor do they necessarily have the resources to be a great school aside from that specialty.
And, at the end of the session (after some further talk of problem-solving, assessment, what works and doesn’t, etc), Beverly Tatum said something that is 100% true but never acknowledged:
- “We all have fundamentally racist assumptions. It doesn’t mean that we’re evil; it just means that we’ve grown up in the United States.”
The main take-away from this session was that the issue of school segregation is still incredibly complex on legal, cultural, social, and pedagogical levels. There’s no one thing that will fix the racial isolation of students, and integrating everyone doesn’t guarantee success for all students either. Still, the general consensus over the years has been that it is better to have racially mixed schools than racially isolated ones.
Various school systems have tried to figure this out in the last several decades, and the interesting thing is that good-faith efforts to get everyone together have sometimes been ruled as unconstitutional because, like affirmative action, there is a possibility of negatively impacting one group while trying to help another.
The New York Times article I mentioned at the beginning involves Wake County, North Carolina. (Coincidentally, Michelle Rhee’s Chief Operating Officer from 2007-2010, Brigadier General Anthony Tata, just started as the superintendent there.) Wake County has come up with a plan to integrate their schools by student achievement.
According to the article, Wake County previously used a system of socioeconomic integration. The idea was that all schools would have a ratio of 60% students who did not qualify for free/reduced lunch to 40% of students who did qualify. Last year, the newly elected, conservative school board voted to dismantle that system, much to the chagrin of the NAACP and the Department of Education.
The new plan for integration based on achievement would aim to create schools where about 70% of the students have scored proficient on state tests. It is unclear to me exactly how this would work at the elementary level, where testing starts later and you have the widest range of ages. The plan would supposedly guarantee that students wouldn’t have to switch schools once they were there, which sounds a little impossible to me.
Does the plan sound like a solution?
I’ve been of the opinion since I started teaching that socioeconomic integration is the way to go. Prince George’s County, Maryland, where I taught, is the wealthiest, predominantly African-American county in the United States. Are its students among the highest performing despite the relative wealth of the county as a whole? No – because there is significant poverty mixed in with the affluence, and it’s all concentrated in certain schools. Racial integration isn’t the answer; most of the county is one race to begin with! Socioeconomic integration, however, would make a big difference. The example that stands out most in my mind is from my experience as the swim coach at my school. When I took my small team to the county championship to compete against all the other high schools, the differences in resources and achievement were staggeringly visible. While my team barely had funding enough to cover bathing suits, other teams arrived with banners, sports bags, and a host of other accessories that proclaimed their superiority. It is no coincidence that these same schools were the ones with the highest test scores. Their students were a world apart from mine even though they lived in the same county and shared the same skin color. Ultimately, the push for diversity is about resources – poor students do better when they’re around more privileged students and can share their privilege.
The creator of the Wake County plan thinks that schools will look pretty similar under the achievement-driven integration as they did under the socioeconomic integration model; that makes sense. I have not seen data to indicate whether the socioeconomic integration did anything to raise achievement levels in all of the schools, but I think it’s safe to say that achievement didn’t decrease as a result. The same will probably be true of this integration-by-achievement plan. I’ll be interested to see how it goes.