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Living in Dialogue: Evidence Shows Brutal Impact of Racial and Economic Segregation

Most of the chapters in Learning from the Federal Market-based Reforms: Lessons for the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)edited by William Mathis and Tina Trujillo, place the last 15 years of test-driven, competition-driven reforms in the context of the previous decade and a half.  For instance, Ben Kirshner, Erica Van Steenis, Kristen Pozzoboni, and Matthew Gaertner, in “The Costs and Benefits of School Closure for Students,” astutely discusses school closures within the context of population shifts in cities that have created “a dynamic, ever-shifting school landscape where school closures have become normal.” The ethos of corporate school reform and a broader social and political culture where “dynamism and disruption are watchwords of a capitalist system that celebrates innovation and change,” have combined to create a mess. “For consumers wanting to get cheaper mobile phones or other consumer goods, new disruptive technologies may be desirable,” Kirchsner et. al conclude, “But when it comes to public goods, particularly in communities hard hit by disinvestment in infrastructure, jobs, or social welfare, the disruptions caused by school closures take on a dystopian quality more suited to Season Four of popular television series, The Wire…”

Personally, I learned the most from Learning from the Federal Market-based Reforms when it analyzed the impoverished, contemporary reform vision within the context of the last 50 years. “Educationalizing the Welfare State and Privatizing Education,” by Harvey Kantor and Robert Lowe, explain that until the 1960’s, the New Deal/Fair Deal quest for justice (which had its downsides, especially in terms of racial discrimination) had moved towards economic equity consistent with social democracy in Europe.  The Great Society, for understandable political reasons, backed off from a social science-driven approach to the War on Poverty, starting to give into the dubious claim that education can drive economic equity, not visa versa.

The War on Poverty trade-off would have been one thing if we could have kept up the pressure for racial justice in schools and society. Desegregation produced real gains in public schools but, by the time of Reaganism, integration was seen as too much of a challenge. Since 1983, “many lawmakers have developed an unswerving faith in the power of sanctions to deter what they perceive to be unproductive behaviors by teachers and principals.”  Not only have the accountability-driven, market-driven school reforms failed to close the Achievement Gap, they distracted educators and society from civil rights, even contributing to the resegregation of society. Sixty years after Brown v Topeka, our schools are even more segregated than before the landmark ruling.

Richard Rothstein’s “The Racial Achievement Gap, Segregated Schools, and Segregated Neighborhoods” helps explain why the policy tradeoffs backfired.  Since NCLB, concentrations of poverty have grown more destructive. Rothstein cites the work of Paul Jargowsky who found:

In 2011, 7% of poor Whites lived in high poverty neighborhoods, where more than 40% of the residents are poor, up from 4% in 2000; 15% of poor Hispanics lived in such high poverty neighborhoods in 2011, up from 14% in 2000; and a breathtaking 23% of poor Blacks lived in high poverty neighborhoods in 2011, up from 19% in 2000.

Rothstein then draws upon Patrick Sharkey who defined a poor neighborhood as one where 20%, not 40%, of the residents are in poverty. Certainly, 20%-poor neighborhoods can be “severely disadvantaged.”  Sharkey found that young African Americans are ten times as likely to live in these poor neighborhoods. Moreover, Black families are seven times as likely to have lived in poor neighborhoods over at least two generations.  This is crucial because Sharkey concludes that “‘living in poor neighborhoods over two consecutive generations reduces children’s cognitive skills by roughly eight or nine points . . . roughly equivalent to missing two to four years of schooling.” 

Although many sincere advocates for children have given up on integration, as well as drawing on the courts to advance civil rights, Mark Rebell makes the case for cautious optimism that litigation can improve schools. He cites the New Jersey Abbott case, and its greatest victory, in Union City, a 92% Latino district that is among the poorest in the state.  This district, which David Kirp describes as a system that documents the great benefits of high-quality early education, “has effectively closed the achievement gap between its students and non-urban students, and it may be the first urban district in the United States to sustain academic achievement into the middle grades.” Rebell acknowledges, “Although achievement gains do not always follow from judicial intervention, especially when courts do not steadfastly enforce their remedies, over-all, the results of judicial interventions in this area have been impressive.” A major 2015 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER):

Discussed the effects of court-ordered funding reforms on students’ long-term success. The researchers found that a 20% increase in annual per-pupil spending for K–12 low income students leads to almost one more year of completed education. In adulthood, these students experienced 25% higher earnings, and a 20 percentage-point decrease in adult poverty. The authors posit that these results could reduce at least two-thirds of the achievement gap of adults who were raised in low- and high-income families. 

Prospects for fighting resegregation, within or outside the courts, are more daunting, but Gary Orfield provides some reasons for optimism. Orfield explains how regional cooperative efforts, across district lines and in terms of housing, have become “urgent priorities.” He observes, 

Many suburban communities that fought strongly against any solutions to racial inequities that crossed district lines now need such regional remedies and collaboration. One example of emerging, voluntary opportunities is the potential for ‘dual immersion’ magnet schools.  

It is fitting that Orfield would have the last, realistic word in a discussion of our half century retreat from integration, and comprehensive school improvement policies. He writes:

In a multiracial society we must redefine segregation and inequality in multiracial terms and devise multiracial remedies. Today, it is much more accurate to speak of segregation of the Black plus the Latino students in schools of intense poverty, isolated from real opportunities.  Policy cannot be only about access to White institutions and it cannot be about assimilation. It must be about expanding opportunities in schools that are White, Asian and privileged for students who are often in Latino and Black schools of high poverty.   

A first post on Learning from the Federal Market-based Reforms can be found here.

What do you think? Will society finally face up to the need for a new integration effort? Will school reformers give up on their quest to use resegregation by charter schools in order to fight the legacies of segregation?

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John Thompson

John Thompson was an award-winning historian, lobbyist, and guerilla-gardener who became an award-winning inner city teacher after crack and gangs hit his neighbo...