Reviving desegregation from the dead

I’ve attended a couple of conferences on school desegregation in the past two years, where I’ve encountered the same small group of civil rights activists and sociologists worrying about the demise of desegregation policies around the country and the resurgence of racially segregated schools. So it’s interesting to see Education Next, a journal edited by school-choice proponents Chester Finn Jr. and Mike Petrilli, take up the question of whether desegregation is dead in the forthcoming Fall 2010 issue. (Just the fact that Education Next is writing about desegregation makes me think the answer is, “Not quite yet.”)

Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X (photo courtesy of U.S. News and World Report)

The article is a back-and-forth between Susan Eaton and Steven Rivkin, and one interesting discussion point revolves around what desegregation was meant to accomplish. Rivkin, a professor of economics at Amherst College, says desegregation “failed to be the panacea that some believed it would be” because it didn’t “dramatically reduce or eliminate achievement gaps.”

Eaton, who heads an institute devoted to the study of race and justice at Harvard Law School, brings in some evidence to the contrary — but she also makes the point that desegregation was “never meant to be a remedy for low test scores.” Rather, she argues, it was meant to expand opportunities for black students, improve race relations and foster “in the long run, a more democratic, more equal society.”

So what was the point of desegregation? Developing higher achievers or better citizens?

Both Rivkin and Eaton say desegregation helped reduce the number of schools with concentrated minority populations, which are often correlated with the concentrated poverty that can overwhelm a school and drive away good teachers. So they agree that desegregating schools can help in the larger goal of improving minority achievement.

But Eaton’s point is that desegregation was about more than that. It was about pursuing a more diverse, harmonious society by bringing children of different ethnic backgrounds together at a young age.

In an era when the focus is getting kids to be college- and career-ready, pursuing policies that elevate academic achievement is key. But isn’t knowing how to navigate an increasingly diverse society also related to that goal? Perhaps if we’re serious about developing young people who are ready for college and career in a society that will soon be majority minority, we need policies that are focused on both increasing achievement and encouraging integration.

Sarah Garland

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Mike Sacken

You say, “if we’re serious…” – the predicate question to whether WE are serious = who is WE?? Reading about the dispute in Raleigh NC over deseg policy, I was reminded that many who profess non-discriminatory motives still embrace or promote policies that segregate, for reasons, persuasive to them, that avoid any explicit racial motive.

This is not new. The sacredness of neighborhood schools emerged about the time efforts to deseg became serious (ie, became focused on integration). Many folks are perfectly content if the actual/de jure barriers to segregation are removed, so long as other, “race-neutral” policies protect their children’s schools from integration. The value of integrating schools, especially if social classes are involved or tipping-level numbers, is remote and long term at best. The responses from those whose schools/kids are impacted are the familiar NIMBY arguments.

I don’t see that many middle class and up folks who are very concerned about developing Other People’s Children if they believe there is a cost to their own – and for so many people, social class/race mixing in schools is either a barrier to their children’s education or an unfair burden to their kids that other similarly-situated kids don’t have to bear (eg, kids in private schools). Thus, they believe that deseg makes the contest among the middle and up kids unfair to those who must bear the extra weight.

It is also a belief of many in majority-minority communities that the costs to their children of compelled integration are simply too high, and their kids are best served in context, especially if minority dominant schools can be mostly middle class as well. The mix of class and race issues is utterly complex, seemingly intractable. After decades of viewing these efforts, I think the major shift in beliefs occurring in my life time is that educated/affluent white folks see minority children from similar families are safe, even desirable to have in the local schools – within limits (and I guess the limits have stretched some as well). Same as in housing. Thus semi-integrated suburbs are relatively acceptable so long as whites still clearly dominate in numbers in homes & schools, again much as in private schools.

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Leonie Haimson

While I don’t necessarily buy that desegregation doesn’t also help raise achievement, it’s really rather sad and a sign of the times that all that seems to matter to many so-called experts is test scores. What kind of a society have we become?

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john thompson

Measuring the benefits of desegragion through test scores? What kind of society have we become?

Leonie is right. The fact that someone wrote that sentence should be a wakeup call.

On the other hand, I followed the link this morniing to an article about the change away from teaching as a middle class career. I expected another “reform” article of why that’s good. But guess what? The article did NOT praise the destruction of good teaching jobs.

[...] to expect high-quality schools in their neighborhoods. More importantly, what is the point of a harmonious society when half of the population is poorly educated, likely to end up in prison, and will fall onto the [...]

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