Two miles from my office in Syracuse, N.Y., Westside Academy Middle School has been in need of repairs for decades. Located in one of the nation’s poorest census tracts, 85 percent of its students are black or Latino, and 86 percent are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. The 400 students have limited creative outlets, with no orchestra or band and just two music teachers.
Ten miles away, Wellwood Middle School, in a suburban district, offers students a stately auditorium and well-equipped technology rooms. There, 88 percent of the students are white and only 10 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. The 700 students have at least five music teachers, band, orchestra, choir, musical theater and dozens of other clubs and activities.
Fifty percent of Wellwood’s eighth graders passed the state math assessment. At Westwood, none did. The disparate student outcomes are no surprise.
Since the Reagan administration’s “A Nation at Risk” report pronounced that schools across the country were failing, every president has touted a new plan to close the racial academic achievement gap: President Obama installed Race to the Top; George W. Bush had No Child Left Behind; and Clinton pushed Goals 2000. The nation has commissioned studies, held conferences and engaged in endless public lamentation over how to get poor students and children of color to achieve at the level of wealthy white students — as if how to close this opportunity gap was a mystery. But we forget that we’ve done it before. Racial achievement gaps were narrowest at the height of school integration.
U.S. schools have become more segregated since 1990, and students in major metropolitan areas have been most severely divided by race and income, according to the University of California at Los Angeles’s Civil Rights Project. Racially homogenous neighborhoods that resulted from historic housing practices such as red-lining have driven school segregation. The problem is worst in the Northeast — the region that, in many ways, never desegregated — where students face some of the largest academic achievement gaps: in Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts and the District of Columbia.
More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, federal education policies still implicitly accept the myth of “separate but equal,” by attempting to improve student outcomes without integrating schools. Policymakers have tried creating national standards, encouraging charter schools, implementing high-stakes teacher evaluations and tying testing to school sanctions and funding. These efforts sought to make separate schools better but not less segregated. Ending achievement and opportunity gaps requires implementing a variety of desegregation methods – busing, magnet schools, or merging school districts, for instance – to create a more just public education system that successfully educates all children.
Public radio’s “This American Life” reminded us of this reality in a two-part report this summer, called “The Problem We All Live With.” The program noted that, despite declarations that busing to desegregate schools failed in the 1970s and 1980s, that era actually saw significant improvement in educational equity. When the National Assessment of Educational Progress began in the early 1970s, there was a 53-point gap in reading scores between black and white 17-year-olds. That chasm narrowed to 20 points by 1988. During that time, every region of the country except the Northeast saw steady gains in school integration. In the South in 1968, 78 percent of black children attended schools with almost exclusively minority students; by 1988, only 24 percent did. In the West during that period, the figure declined from 51 percent to 29 percent.
But since 1988, when education policy shifted away from desegregation efforts, the reading test score gap has grown — to 26 points in 2012 — with segregated schooling increasing in every region of the country.
Research has shown that integration is a critical factor in narrowing the achievement gap. In a 2010 research review, Harvard University’s Susan Eaton noted that racial segregation in schools has such a severe impact on the test score-gap that it outweighs the positive effects of a higher family income for minority students. Further, a 2010 study of students’ improvements in math found that the level of integration was the only school characteristic (vs. safety and community commitment to math) that significantly affected students’ learning growth.
In an analysis of the landmark 1966 “Coleman Report,” researchers Geoffrey Borman and Maritza Dowling determined that both the racial and socioeconomic makeups of a school are 1¾-times more important in determining a student’s educational outcomes than the student’s own race, ethnicity or social class.
But we continue to think about segregation as a problem of the past, ignoring its growing presence in schools today. Desegregating schools has become a political third rail, even though it is an essential solution to one of our nation’s most persistent problems.
This month, Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced he would step down in December and his deputy, John King, would replace him. King, during his tenure as New York state’s education commissioner, visited both school districts mentioned above to advance the national Race to the Top agenda, but he never acknowledged the increasing school segregation apparent in the region. In 1989, Syracuse city schools were about 60 percent white, and just 20 percent of black and Latino students attended predominately minority schools. Today, the district is 28 percent white, while 55 percent of Latino students and 75 percent of black students attend predominately minority schools.
Racial and economic segregation affects schools in various ways. Federal and state policies that impose sanctions on poor-performing schools — state takeovers and forced replacement of school leaders, for example — often make matters worse. For example, Westside Academy , the Syracuse middle school where no students passed the state eighth-grade math assessment, has has had multiple principals and saw 44-percent teacher turnover in the 2012-2013 school year.
About a decade ago, the elementary schools that feed into Westside Academy and Wellwood Middle School adopted the same math curriculum program, touted as one of the best standards-based elementary programs available. As is typical, both districts struggled to implement the new curriculum initially. But a decade later, the schools in Wellwood’s district are still using it, with teachers becoming more skilled and comfortable with the new way to teach math. The schools in Westside’s district, however, changed their math program at least two more times, leaving teachers, students, and families in a constant state of churn and undoubtedly affecting student learning and test scores. In this era of accountability, this instability is not forced upon white, upper-middle class families.
While much has been said about the failure of busing, it’s time to move beyond this myth. In one of the most famous examples of court-ordered desegregation, Boston began busing students between white and black neighborhoods in 1974, sparking violent white protests and boycotts by white students. White families fled to the suburbs. Supporting neighborhood schools and opposing school bus rides became rhetoric to fight desegregation without overtly racist language. But as black activists in Boston noted at the time, “It’s not the bus, it’s us.” Before the court order, nearly 90 percent of high school students rode a bus to school without protest. Today, most children get on a school bus to attend a segregated school. Busing ended because of a combination of white protest, media that overemphasized resistance, and the lack of systematic collection to judge the impact of desegregation. So we need to be sober about our history: Busing didn’t fail; the nation’s resolve and commitment to equal and excellent desegregated schools did.
Busing is not the only way to desegregate our schools. We can unify school districts so they encompass racially and economically diverse neighborhoods. The countywide district centered in Raleigh, for instance, has been successful in integrating schools and achieving academic success, in contrast to the 18 schools districts across the metropolitan Syracuse area. Shaping districts like pie pieces, so they cut across urban, suburban and even rural spaces, could have the same effect.
Creating more open-enrollment magnet schools would also bring families of various races and incomes into well-funded and themed schools. For existing public schools, we could merge two neighborhood campuses in segregated communities, so they attend one neighborhood school together from kindergarten through second grade and the other from third through fifth grades. Or we can incentivize school districts to take action, imposing segregation and providing financial resources to districts with aggressive desegregation plans.
Certainly, none of these approaches is easy or perfect, and desegregation alone is not a magic bullet to end the achievement and opportunity gaps. Even integrated schools face racial gaps. Many black and Latino kids end up in lower academic tracks and white parents protect exclusive opportunities for their kids. Still, knowing the benefits of integrated learning environments, we can’t continue to ignore the growing hold segregation has on our schools.
We’ve heard soaring words from Duncan and Obama touting education as the route to a better life, saying it is a moral imperative that we work tirelessly to improve the education of our most vulnerable children. But rhetoric is no match for our failure of will to change the disparate realities of our separate educational systems. It is no match for our failure of courage to call out the persistent segregation of our schools.
Some scholars have argued that King will be good for school integration. Time will tell if we are entering a moment that moves beyond rhetoric toward substantial desegregation.
In this time of transition for the Education Department — in the last year of the Obama administration — are we going to continue ignoring the moral implications of separate schools? Our history shows that policy cannot focus on improving “failing” schools; it needs to also emphasize desegregating them. No matter how much we seek to improve the back of the education bus, it will always be the back.
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