Education Law Prof Blog: What Do the War on Teachers, Charter Schools, Vouchers, School Accountability, and Standardized Testing All Have in Common?

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What do the war on teachers, charter schools, vouchers, school accountability, and standardized testing all have in common?  They ignore school segregation.  At worst, they each harbor the assumption that their given policy prescription is the magic bullet to educational opportunity—that if we could just solve this one policy problem, educational opportunity would become equal.  At best, they assume that their respective issues are more important to student achievement than other factors.  In other words, poor teaching, a lack of school choice, or unaccountable schools are the primary cause of low student achievement and inequality.

Take teacher tenure.  Education reformers are convinced that eliminating teacher tenure is the necessary first step to any meaningful reform because tenure locks in the status quo. Their argument is simple. If teachers could not hide behind tenure, schools could easily remove the worst teachers and the rest would be motivated to improve. Given what we know about the effects of quality teaching, this, they say, would dramatically improve student outcomes and shrink achievement gaps.

But as I explain in the Constitutional Challenge to Teacher Tenure,

[the] only allusion to the relevance of demographic factors is their allegation that racial minorities are disproportionately exposed to ineffective teachers.  This allegation is certainly consistent with social science literature on differential exposure to ineffective teaching, but this allegation does not disaggregate the potential causes of that exposure or its effects. To statistically assess the impact that a teacher’s instruction has on students and whether it rises to the level of ineffective, the demographics of that teacher’s students, as well as the demographics of the students to whom teacher’s students are to be compared, must be known.

The second set of factors for which plaintiffs do not account are those relating to teacher hiring. For teacher tenure to cause ineffective teaching, plaintiffs need to establish, for instance, that there are other qualified teachers in the market to replace those whom districts would fire, and that those qualified teachers would accept positions in the disadvantaged schools.  [S]tudies suggest neither is the case.  One of the most intractable problems in our current education system is [that] . . . [t]here simply are not enough good teachers to go around.  Until an oversupply of qualified teachers occurs, disadvantaged schools will have to compete to hire them, and they will often lose out to other schools.

Money and race play significant roles in this competition. First, disadvantaged schools have fewer resources to hire teachers.  Second, research shows that, independent of money, teachers with choices—those that are highly qualified—choose to teach in schools with fewer poor and minority students.  These findings are entirely consistent with plaintiffs’ claims that “grossly ineffective teachers are disproportionately situated in schools that serve predominantly low-income and minority students.”  But plaintiffs ignore the precedent causes of these inequalities: race and money. Instead, plaintiffs assume that the antecedent occurrence of tenure is a causal factor. In short, school funding and segregation play a significant role in access to quality teachers, with which tenure may have absolutely nothing to do.

In Middle Income Peers as Educational Resources, I go more directly to the point an explain why segregation matters.  Students learn not only from their teachers, but also from their peers. Middle-income peers, in particular, bring a host of experiences, outside learning, and high expectations to schools that can be more important to the educational achievement of all students in that school than any other factor. Students, regardless of their individual socioeconomic status or race, achieve at higher levels in predominantly middle-class schools and at lower levels in predominantly poor schools.  And all of those tangible educational opportunities that current reformers seemingly worry so much about are the byproducts of segregation.

In at least six major academic categories, predominantly poor and minority schools cause harm or deliver inferior educational opportunities to students. First, students in predominantly poor and minority schools tend to receive a generally low-quality curriculum and have unequal access to high-level curricular offerings. Second, even though research shows teacher quality is closely linked to student achievement, students in predominantly poor and minority schools tend to have limited access to highly qualified teachers. As a general matter, these schools find it extremely difficult to attract to teachers. They also experience high levels of teacher turnover, which carries its own negative consequences. 

Money alone cannot easily fix these problems because the racial and socioeconomic characteristics of schools, not simply the salaries they offer, significantly influence where teachers decide to teach.  This unequal access to teachers and curriculum as the natural result of negatively impacting student achievement.

Third, the depressed achievement of students in predominantly poor and minority schools has compounding long-term effects as well. The graduation rates in these schools are alarmingly low. On average, only four out of ten students graduate on time in the nation’s predominantly poor and minority high schools. Moreover, lower graduation rates hold true regardless of a student’s individual race or wealth. These low graduation rates are partly attributable to students in predominantly poor and minority schools having lower success on graduation exams, but many students in these schools drop out before they even take the graduation exam. Simply attending a predominantly poor and minority school makes a student significantly more likely to drop out of high school.

Fourth, attending a predominantly poor and minority school tends to limit students’ access to later opportunities in higher education and employment. Students from predominantly minority schools are less likely to matriculate to college and four-year universities. Likewise, those who do not pursue higher education also have less access to social networks that are crucial to securing jobs.

As a general matter, racially integrated middle-income schools have the inverse effect of predominantly poor and minority schools on graduation and matriculation rates. In sum, high-poverty, predominantly minority schools expose students of all races and socioeconomic classes to serious educational harms that make it far more likely than not that they will receive a constitutionally deficient education. Where these high-poverty schools result from student assignment policies within the district, rather than the overall poverty of the district itself, the constitutional allocation principles discussed above are directly implicated.

This Morning Andre Perry brought much of this thinking together in a direct rejoinder of school choice reformers.  He responded bluntly to the issues the flummoxes integrationists so often: how can you be against school choice programs that create new opportunities for minority communities?  The title of his essay offers its own response: Any Educational Reform That Ignores Segregation Is Doomed to Failure.   

In response to the National Alliance for Public Charters’ statement that “In the end, parents’ and students’ opinions are the only ones that matter,” Perry wrote:

That was the moment many charters school leaders relinquished any claim of being reformers. It was white parents choosing segregation that helped get us to this state. Education reform must be in the business of educating our youth in non-discriminatory environments. Making people upwardly mobile requires providing great schools and dismantling systems that keep students from receiving what they need to be successful. I’ve argued in earlier columns that because charter schools aren’t bound to geographic zones, they should be strategically placed to integrate areas where racial and economic segregation is reinforced by district lines.

In addition, more schooling isn’t going to close the racial wealth gap. Let’s stop promoting the idea that affluent people became wealthy from their dedication to education. Slavery, job discrimination and redlining, which took away the ability of black people to establish equity in a home, had much more to do with creating affluence for white people and giving them the ability to choose. Charter schools that accept segregation as a default don’t help rescue black children, contrary to what the letter to the NAACP argued. Students aren’t trapped in failing schools as much as they are trapped in poverty fueled by segregation.

. . .

Reformers keep trying to work around segregation, discrimination and structural racism. Yet as those nine teenagers [who integrated Central High in Little Rock following Brown v. Board] showed us, change requires us to break down these barriers. And in order to do that, we need to fight segregated schools.

In other words, those who understand the importance of segregation are not against school choice per se.  They are against policies that they know won't work in the long run. They are appropriately skeptical of reforms that distract from the problem. The last two decades of school reform have brought us everything but policy agendas to deal with school segregation.  That have brought us so many that we sometimes forget that segregation is the real problem, not ineffective teachers, a shortage of school choice, wayward school leaders, or a failure to teach the right material in class.

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Derek Black

Derek W. Black is a Professor of Law at the University of South Carolina School of Law. His areas of expertise include education law and policy, constitutional law, civil rights, evidence, and torts. The focus of his current scholarship is the intersection of constitutional law and public education, particularly as...