The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The end of public school desegregation?

U.S. public schools are more segregated today than they have been for decades, and many believe the country’s policymakers have abandoned efforts to re-integrate schools. Here is a TedX Talk that looks at the issue, by Leslie Hinkson, an assistant professor of sociology at Georgetown University.  Hinkson focuses on two questions:

Have we really seen the end of meaningful efforts to desegregate most of our public schools? 2) And in those schools where desegregation has taken place, how do they understand what integration means?

Here’s the video of the speech, and the transcript follows.

The transcript:

Academia is not populated by many people like me, people who grew up in post-Jim Crow America relegated to highly segregated, high poverty neighborhoods. We’re like the unicorns of the academy, quite rare, except we do exist.
For people like us, regardless of whether we choose to make this our official area of research, the question of, “Why me?” persists. People like us who attended racially segregated schools where more than 75 percent of the students qualified for free lunch. Who were given a chance to excel beyond the bounds of such schools simply because a teacher pulled aside our mother or father and said, “Your child doesn’t belong here.” Every year, in a school like the one I described, a handful of students or fewer are plucked out and placed in institutions far removed from their communities so that they can thrive academically, leaving behind the vast majority of their classmates. I started asking that question, “Why me?” around 7th grade. It wouldn’t be until college that I started to ask the question, “Why not them?”
Today, the average black student scores below 75 percent of whites on most standardized assessments. Black students score lower than their White counterparts on standardized exams in reading, science, mathematics, and a host of other assessments said to measure scholastic aptitude. I decided to pursue a Ph.D. in sociology with the intention of answering one little question – What explains this black-white test score gap – my grown-up version of, “Why not them?”
This gap has remained steady since the late 1980s and showed no signs of diminishing, with the exception of a slight reduction in the early 2000s. Where we have seen steady declines in the gap are in the years between 1971 and 1988. During this time, shite student test scores remained steady on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or the NAEP, the largest nationally representative and continuing assessment of students in the U.S. However, scores for black student 9, 13, and 17-year olds rose significantly. Interestingly around 1970,  the percentage of black students in intensely segregated schools – meaning that they comprised 90 percent or more of a school’s population – began declining in every region of the country – except the Northeast, where I grew up, and incidentally, where we are today. This decline stops around – you guessed it – 1988 – and the percentage of these intensely segregated schools has been rising ever since.
Was that it? Did segregation explain persistent racial gaps test scores? Was integration the key to eradicating these gaps? If so, why were we allowing our public schools to become more intensely segregated over time?
The name of my talk is, “The End of School Desegregation.” It’s a play on the word “end,” meaning both the death of some thing, as well as its purpose. Regarding the first, I believe that we have witnessed the death of any meaningful efforts to desegregate our public schools.
In declaring legally sanctioned school segregation inherently unconstitutional, the Supreme Court in its Brown v Board of Education decision signaled to Americans that equal educational opportunities could not exist for all public school students if their schools remained segregated. Although the decision was met with great resistance in some quarters, schools began to desegregate significantly across the nation. This was due in part to the portion of the ruling, sometimes known as Brown II, that allowed federal judges across the country to issue court orders setting specific timeliness for school districts to desegregate. Many districts remained under these orders for decades. Some remain under them still.
However, since 1991, many school districts formerly under these court orders have been granted unitary status, meaning courts ruled that these jurisdictions have demonstrably eliminated the effects of past segregation “to the extent practicable.” Studies have shown that once released from court order, racial segregation in these districts gradually increases. Today, black children are more racially and socioeconomically isolated than they were in 1971.
Granting of unitary status is just one factor contributing to the increase in levels of school segregation since the late 1980s. Many point the finger at patterns of residential segregation by race. Most school districts – at least in the elementary years – assign students to schools based on their neighborhood of residence. Segregated neighborhoods translate into segregated schools. There are also a host of school choice policies that make it possible for schools, even within desegregated neighborhoods, to be composed of a student body that totally belies the demographic makeup of the community it supposedly serves. So even though it is now unconstitutional for our government to mandate racial segregation in our schools, that same government often supports such segregation under the guise of school choice.
What does this all suggest? I think it suggests that while Brown may have increased white Americans’ commitment to desegregating public schools in theory, their actions illustrate a profound ambivalence towards making this a reality.
What is it about “us” that is so scary? What is it about our children that makes it so that their mere presence in a given school above some token percentage causes adults of all races to doubt the academic rigor, the safety, the intellectual richness of that learning environment?
Existing rationales run the gamut from biological – black children are inherently intellectually inferior – to cultural –blacks are culturally and morally deficient – to social – black children don’t present the most desirable peers and future spouses for our children. But these reasons are often unspoken. The stated reason for keeping your children away from ours is never race. Regardless, if white parents are not willing to enroll their children in public schools that reflect the demographics of a given community, how can we create and sustain desegregated schools? And I do not mean to suggest that this is only a black-white issue. Far from it. However, I do believe that the black-white divide is one of our most intractable.
Brown made it possible for schools to desegregate by ensuring that the state no longer mandated segregated schools. But dismantling de jure segregation hasn’t desegregated our schools. And without desegregation, we cannot have integration. And isn’t the latter the purpose, the end, of the former?
Not only has research shown that America’s public schools remain segregated, it also shows that in many of the schools that appear to be desegregated, students are separated into different classrooms. Academic tracking within schools serves as a fairly effective mechanism for segregating students by race and class. That the stated rationale for doing so is the purported differences in academic ability between students is what makes this practice of tracking such an insidious one.
What is 21st century integration? What should it be? And why is it that greater levels of integration have positive effects on the academic achievement of black students? In order to answer this, I needed to find a different kind of unicorn, a school system that was truly desegregated both across and within schools. Desegregation, after all, is a necessary precondition for integration to occur.
I found that unicorn in the waiting room of a dentist’s office in the pages of a magazine. A small item announced that the Department of Defense Educational Activity, or DoDEA, had done it again, that the students in these schools had on average outperformed public school students in every U.S. state except for Connecticut on the reading and math components of the NAEP, and that racial gaps in test score performance were smaller there than in any state – and were on track to disappear.
This made intuitive sense to me! In 1948, President Truman signed Executive Order 9981 officially desegregating the armed forces. Since the 1950s, the U.S. military has been seen as the premier institution for facilitating racial equality, paving the way for integration and addressing discrimination head on in such realms as recruitment, promotion, and housing.
And while the military could not mandate schools near bases desegregate pre-Brown, it offered desegregated schools on base for the children of military personnel. Today, the DoD maintains base schools in the U.S. and overseas primarily where there are no viable local public school options and serve almost exclusively the dependents of military personnel.
When I looked at the test score performance of DoDEA students, I confirmed what I’d read in my dentist’s office. The black-white gap was smaller in reading and math and across all age groups tested for DoDEA students. Focusing on the reading test scores of eighth-grade students, I found that the gap was only one-third the size of that in civilian public schools. Did integration explain this? I decided to ask former DoDEA students, teachers, and parents about their experiences with DoDEA schools and why they thought I had this finding.
What I learned came in the form of good news/bad news and I guess I’ll start with the good news because I want to lull you all into a false sense of hope and then abruptly disabuse you of it. So, good news first.
In my interviews, particularly with the former military brats, as they are termed, when I asked why it was they thought the test score gap was smaller in DoDEA schools than in civilian schools, three themes came up over and over again – better resources, involved teachers, and integration – integrated classrooms, integrated playgroups, and integrated housing. I should add that most of my respondents attended DoDEA schools as well as civilian public and/or private schools so their responses were a comparison of DoDEA to civilian schools. Not only are their schools desegregated but classrooms are as well. Not only do students play together in school but out of school as well. They are also neighbors. Their parents are coworkers. They credited smaller gaps at least in part to higher rates of integration. And integration to them meant students learning, playing, and living together without regard to race.
This is good news! Integration not only leads to higher test scores for black students, it also leads to greater harmony, fewer instances of perceived and overt racism, with no negative effect on the test scores of white students. Every single one of the 58 former DoDEA students I interviewed who had attended a civilian school said that DoDEA schools were far more integrated on these measures.
Now comes the bad news, and it is twofold. In order to achieve this type of integration, the American people and our local governments would have to agree to 1) enforced residential desegregation; 2) severely limited choice in where our children attend schools; 3) work harder to address the reality of racism and racial discrimination in American society.
This third point is underscored by one of the other findings in my research – the test scores of black students in overseas DoDEA schools are significantly higher than those of their domestic counterparts. The scores of white students were identical regardless of place. As a result, the B-W gap overseas is about 60 percent smaller in those schools.
What explained this difference? Same curriculum, comparable funding, comparable student bodies. I asked respondents to help me make sense of this difference. Most of them were initially surprised. But as our interviews progressed all but one seemed to agree on two things: 1) overseas bases were islands unto themselves, with a greater sense of community and common identity (American); 2) race exerted a much less significant role in all aspects of their lives. When I asked whether race played a different role for DoD kids overseas versus stateside, one young woman said:
“Overseas, we are all minorities, there is no one dominant group, and we are all one community. Here, in the U.S., there is no difference between base and off base – the same ideas about race off base come onto base. And it can be very hard trying to adjust to being here (U.S.) after being overseas.”
Let me be clear. DoDEA is doing a fantastic job overseas and at home. It is to their credit that the race gaps in their domestic schools are as small as they are despite the problem that we either believe no longer exists, is talked about too much, or we’re too afraid or ashamed to deal with. Racism, it seems, is one of our military’s fiercest domestic opponents.
Given this, what can our schools realistically do? So many of our neighborhoods are racially segregated and as a result so are many of our elementary schools. When our children finally meet in middle or high school for the first time, our approach to turning desegregated spaces into meaningful integration follows the same logic as planning a middle school dance – and with similar outcomes. So much attention is paid to selecting the age-appropriate music, snacks and beverages, and adult chaperons to ensure students don’t dance too closely. Students arrive and the boys are on one end of the gym and the girls on the other. No one thought to figure out a way to bring them together. If a few intrepid individuals approach the dance floor and create a gender integrated dance circle, the planning committee deems the dance a success. And there is that feeling of relief that no one got too close on that dance floor.
Likewise, we deem our schools successfully integrated when we can manage to have a student population that is not more than 80 percent black or Hispanic – of course, we never think that schools that are more than 80 percent white have a problem with segregation.
We deem our schools successfully integrated even when we can identify by name all of the cross-racial friendships in the entire school.
We deem our schools successfully integrated even when they are set up to physically separate students along racial lines.
But we can’t lay the blame on schools. If we are not willing to live together, play together, and educate our children together, how can schools move forward?
Even given their flawed approach to integration, middle and high schools are some of the most desegregated spaces in this nation. If we had the will, we could help schools re-imagine how to achieve true integration. It begins with inhabiting the same spaces, but isn’t accomplished until we can achieve a true sense of community, one in which race doesn’t imply hierarchy or value. Not until we can figure out how to care more about getting all of our children on the same dance floor and dancing together than worrying about them dancing too closely.