Why desegregate?


I need to thank Jon Becker for his invaluable help in doing this post. I had a big hole that lack research between my last post (based on personal experience), and the next one I’ll  do which is about how things stand now. This is about why things should not be as they are.

With the demise of forced busing to resolve de facto segregation that was not legally created, desegregation went off the national radar, and there seemed to be a questioning of the “benefits” of desegregation policies. In the “color-blind” era at the end of the last century, these things weren’t supposed to matter.  Then came the national dis-aggregating of test scores by race, and the growth of the gap between African American and white test scores on tests like the NAEP, where they had been shrinking over time.  Segregation in housing seemed/seems to either be intractable, or a social problem that well exceeds our national will to address it. So, we are offered better segregated schools for African American kids as the answer. I think it’s worth looking back on the time when desegregation policies were at their height, and that test gap was narrowing.

First, from Amy Wells, How Desegregation Changed Us: The Effects of Racially Mixed Schools on Students and Society, which makes the argument outside of test scores, about how it changed attitudes, especially majority group whites, towards African Americans. But what about African Americans? What benefit do they get beyond getting to hang out with whites? The story is more mixed but SES (social economic status) and segregation of schools on that basis seems to defiantly be a problem.  Since non-whites are over-represented (have higher numbers) of poor, this means they end up on the short end of that stick.  This is from Does Segregation Still Matter_ The Impact of Student Composition on Academic Achievement in High School-Rumberger, Palardy

The graduates of color stressed that they were prepared to function in predominately white environments because they had learned how to cope with the prejudice they were likely to encounter in such situations. In addition, many graduates of color said they were more at ease in a white-dominated society because they had learned that not all whites were racist.

The final issue concerns whether social composition affects all students or whether it has stronger effects on some student groups than others. Coleman found that Blacks and ethnic minorities were more sensitive to school environments than Whites, leading him to conclude that desegregation would benefit Blacks more than Whites (Coleman et al., 1966).5 However, a reanalysis of Coleman’s data found that the racial composition of schools impacted the test scores of Whites as much as Blacks, but it also found that the mean socioeconomic status (SES) of schools had a greater impact on the test scores of Blacks than of Whites (Jencks & Mayer, 1990). Both studies suggest that desegregation would help Blacks more than it would hurt Whites. Yet, ironically enough, such issues are rarely discussed in this era of standards and accountability. Indeed, the critical question of who gains and who loses from segregated schools is no longer broached.

Whew, I know that was a long passage, and but the bottom-line is that desegregation helps African American students. It would help their test scores, and it’s never discussed as a solution to the problem of the achievement gap because we can’t do anything about it as things currently stand.  So, we’ll spin our wheels, we’ll go through the motions of solutions that will only nibble at the edge of this problem, but we will not face the problem square on, which is that white parents still don’t want their kids going to school with African American students and will use whatever means are at hand to get their child out of a school perceived of as “black”.

by posted under politics/policy | 5 Comments »    
5 Comments to

“Why desegregate?”

  1. October 8th, 2009 at 5:19 am      Reply Bill Ferriter Says:

    Hey Alice,

    This is an incredibly timely post for me because our school district—the Wake County Public Schools—-just had a momentum swinging vote for control of the local school board.

    For probably the past 10 years, our district has had a policy designed to balance the numbers of poor students in any given school. The stated policy demands that students be redistricted anytime a building gets to over 45% free and reduced lunch students in their population. The practice is more sophisticated, however, in that schools with more than 45% free and reduced lunch students that are succeeding are not a part of the redistricting.

    The results have been wildly successful academically. Despite spending less than 77 other counties in North Carolina on a per pupil basis, our district places in the top 20 large urban districts in the nation on measures of student achievement.

    They’ve also been wildly successful economically. Because there are healthy schools in every corner of our rapidly growing county, businesses who consider moving to the area are unafraid of setting up shop anywhere within our county lines. That’s led to continued growth and new economic opportunities in our county even as the rest of the nation struggles to grow.

    But the results have also been resisted and opposed at almost every turn by wealthy, influential parents who (in some cases, rightfully so) get tired of seeing their students redistricted from a building in their local communities to one that may be 20-30 minutes away in the interest of “maintaining healthy schools.”

    These parents have pushed for a return to neighborhood schools, and their candidates essentially swept our elections this week, giving them a majority on the school board. In their post-election speeches, all were promising a “new focus on teaching instead of busing” and increased opportunities for parent participation in schools—including those that serve high percentages of families living in poverty—because children would go to the school closest to their homes.

    For me, this is a complete heart-breaker simply because I know that a return to neighborhood schools means buildings that will rocket to 90% poverty levels in some corners of our county. These schools will struggle to attract accomplished teachers, who recognize exactly how challenging work in a high needs school really is.

    They will also struggle to provide the kinds of social supports that students living in poverty need in order to succeed. Guidance counselors, school social workers and nurses will be overwhelmed in buildings where hundreds—instead of handfuls—of the students need support.

    We’ll essentially return to a system where we are willing to overlook the academic growth and health of the children who need the most help, and I think that’s a social injustice enabled by a political system that favors residents who have juice.

    Poor families didn’t organize rallies in favor of healthy schools. They didn’t put alternative options forward in elections where candidates spent thousands of dollars—many raised by political action committees—in order to get their message heard. Essentially, their voice has been muted by circumstances.

    Turning the vote out—which is the responsibility of every segment of a population—is a lot harder when the voters you’re trying to turn out are unaware of the political process, struggling to work to feed and care for their families, disconnected from media, and/or fluent in a language other than English.

    What message, then, are we really sending to our community when we fail to realize that every child deserves our best?

    One that says, “We want neighborhood schools and we don’t want YOUR children in them.”

    (Can you tell that I’m a bit wound up this morning!)

    • October 8th, 2009 at 7:16 am      Reply alicemercer Says:

      That, is just so sad. I wish I could promise things’ll be great. Sounds a lot like the issues in NYC, where rich parents are mad they can’t have kids in neighborhood schools due a mandatory choice plan.

  2. October 8th, 2009 at 9:41 pm      Reply Renee / TeachMoore Says:

    The subject of school desegregation is a very sensitive one around my house. I live and teach in the MS Delta. My husband, a native Mississippian, is a product of the old segregated school system. Our children are products of the new one. My husband (along with many of our older friends), is particularly adamant about what desegregation “cost” the Black community and our children.

    I like the way he explains it: “We [the Black community] came to desegregation table from a position of powerlessness. The decisions of how it was going to be done, and who would get what, were not made by us, but to us.” For example, it’s a well documented fact that thousands of Black educators, many of them highly respected with advanced degrees, were eliminated under desegregation across the South. In many places, the former segregated school buildings were kept and never were upgraded to the level of the formerly all white schools. More important, some of the important cultural features of education within Black schools were stripped away after desegregation (the explanation of how that happened is too long to go into here). Where once education was highly valued and consistently promoted throughout poor Black communities, it is now a point of division or disillusion.

    The process reminds me of some aspects of NCLB: the collateral damage from a well-intentioned reform implemented badly can create even more intractable problems. We would be wise to study these effects before we repeat those mistakes.

  3. October 9th, 2009 at 12:54 pm      Reply alicemercer Says:

    Thank you very much for this comment. Believe me, I share your concerns about taking schools out of neighborhoods. I was agnostic on the issue of desegregation because of the concerns you articulate so well. However, the findings here, and in the next post really scare me as a teacher who works in a high poverty school, where there are only a handful of white students.

    I was on the periphery of school busing in Los Angeles (very contentious) which means I experienced the “white” side of the equation. I can now with time see those events in a much larger context. Can I tell you, I really appreciate you and your husband’s perspective in understanding the downside of desegregation as it happened, but knowing that might not have been the only way to do it. I thought the same thing about stories out of Chicago about the schools reform movement, and reassignment plan exacerbating gang violence because they are now mixing students from rival gangs in the same schools, and having them cross lines to get to school. My first thought was not, hey they shouldn’t have done that, but , they really should have planned things a lot more.

    • October 9th, 2009 at 8:08 pm      Reply Renee/TeachMoore Says:

      Planning—that does seem to be the the common ingredient lacking in so many ed reforms and other great ideas at the ground level…along with really listening to those involved. Thank you for opening up this much needed discussion.

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