Saturday, April 23, 2011

On Racially Integrating American Schools

Bob Herbert/NYT/March 21, 2o11

One of the most powerful tools for improving the educational achievement of poor black and Hispanic public school students is, regrettably, seldom even considered. It has become a political no-no.

Educators know that it is very difficult to get consistently good results in schools characterized by high concentrations of poverty. The best teachers tend to avoid such schools. Expectations regarding student achievement are frequently much lower, and there are lower levels of parental involvement.

These, of course, are the very schools in which so many black and Hispanic children are enrolled.

Breaking up these toxic concentrations of poverty would seem to be a logical and worthy goal. Long years of evidence show that poor kids of all ethnic backgrounds do better academically when they go to school with their more affluent — that is, middle class — peers. But when the poor kids are black or Hispanic, that means racial and ethnic integration in the schools. Despite all the babble about a postracial America, that has been off the table for a long time.

More than a half-century after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation ruling, we are still trying as a country to validate and justify the discredited concept of separate but equal schools — the very idea supposedly overturned by Brown v. Board when it declared, “Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

Schools are no longer legally segregated, but because of residential patterns, housing discrimination, economic disparities and long-held custom, they most emphatically are in reality.

“Ninety-five percent of education reform is about trying to make separate schools for rich and poor work, but there is very little evidence that you can have success when you pack all the low-income students into one particular school,” said Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation who specializes in education issues.

The current obsession with firing teachers, attacking unions and creating ever more charter schools has done very little to improve the academic outcomes of poor black and Latino students. Nothing has brought about gains on the scale that is needed.

If you really want to improve the education of poor children, you have to get them away from learning environments that are smothered by poverty. This is being done in some places, with impressive results. An important study conducted by the Century Foundation in Montgomery County, Md., showed that low-income students who happened to be enrolled in affluent elementary schools did much better than similarly low-income students in higher-poverty schools in the county.

The study, released last October, found that “over a period of five to seven years, children in public housing who attended the school district’s most advantaged schools (as measured by either subsidized lunch status or the district’s own criteria) far outperformed in math and reading those children in public housing who attended the district’s least-advantaged public schools.”

Studies have shown that it is not the race of the students that is significant, but rather the improved all-around environment of schools with better teachers, fewer classroom disruptions, pupils who are more engaged academically, parents who are more involved, and so on. The poorer students benefit from the more affluent environment. “It’s a much more effective way of closing the achievement gap,” said Mr. Kahlenberg.

About 80 school districts across the country are taking steps to reduce the concentrations of poverty in their schools. But there is no getting away from the fact that if you try to bring about economic integration, you’re also talking about racial and ethnic integration, and that provokes bitter resistance. The election of Barack Obama has not made true integration any more palatable to millions of Americans.

I favor integration for integration’s sake. This society should be far more integrated in almost every way than it is now. But to get around the political obstacles to school integration, districts have tried a number of strategies. Some have established specialized, high-achieving magnet schools in high-poverty neighborhoods, which have had some success in attracting middle class students. Some middle-class schools have been willing to accept transfers of low-income students when those transfers are accompanied by additional resources that benefit all of the students in the schools.

It’s difficult, but there are ways to sidestep the politics. What I think is a shame is that we have to do all of this humiliating dancing around the perennially uncomfortable issue of race.

We pretend that no one’s a racist anymore, but it’s easier to talk about pornography in polite company than racial integration. Everybody’s in favor of helping poor black kids do better in school, but the consensus is that those efforts are best confined to the kids’ own poor black neighborhoods.

Separate but equal. The Supreme Court understood in 1954 that it would never work. But our perpetual bad faith on matters of race keeps us trying. 

John McWhorter/TNR/April 22, 2011

I favor integration for integration’s sake,” Bob Herbert wrote in one of his last columns for The New York Times, on what we supposedly need to make poor black students learn more in school.

What poisonous words those actually were, in their way, despite the adulatory flood of letters the column predictably attracted from readers taught something too rarely dismissed as the soft bigotry that it is: that when human beings are black American and poor, we cannot expect them to learn in the same room.

The idea is that what poor black kids need in school is for the kids next to them to be middle class, by which Herbert effectively means white. Herbert, like so many, had it that “years of evidence” show the truth in this idea that when black kids from The Wire meet white kids from Malcolm in the Middle, that takes care of the black-white testing gap.

Herbert’s demonstration piece was a study by the Century Foundation showing that poor black kids from housing projects in Montgomery County, Maryland performed better after spending their elementary school years in better-funded school districts.

But the study itself puts into question Herbert’s implication that the problem is merely one of a heartless America refusing to consider a solution that has become “a political no-no” (i.e. touching a third rail of NIMBY-infused racism). These students came out of sixth grade having made a mere one-third’s difference in the black-white reading gap.

This is the kind of “years of evidence” that makes the argument for integration such a supposedly open-and-shut case?

Meanwhile, what about the “years of evidence” of what these Montgomery County kids were in for on their way to further “integration”? The classic formulation is Claude Steele’s idea that black students surrounded by white ones suffer from “stereotype threat,” haunted by the idea that black kids are less bright and subconsciously hindered in their scholarly performance (this idea is now encapsulated in Steele’s newish book).

As Matthew McKnight warned us recently in these pages, a new variation on this is Gregory Walton and Jeffrey Cohen’s 2007 study of “belonging uncertainty,” according to which:

...In academic and professional settings, members of socially stigmatized groups are more uncertain of the quality of their social bonds, and thus more sensitive to issues of social belonging. We call this state belonging uncertainty, and suggest that it contributes to racial disparities in achievement...

And what about findings such as in this article by Karolyn Tyson, Domini Castellino and William Darity, which despite media reports implying that it “disproved” the idea that black teens often deride nerdy peers as “acting white,” showed that the “acting white” accusation was not only alive and well but most common in integrated schools?

I certainly observed this in middle school. In fifth grade, the black kids in my private school class, reinforced by a few who were of lower-income families, began socializing mostly together as racial identity started to develop. Alone, that was fine, but it came along with a starkly diminished valuation of schoolwork—this was now, although never put in so many words, what it was to be really “black.” I watched two kids’ grades go down as a price for social inclusion in that group.

Work by scholars like Steele and Walton & Cohen is warmly received with vague notions as to how black students ought be made to feel “more comfortable.” However, just what that means is unclear and few seem to genuinely care. The driving impulse would seem to be for good people to show that they “acknowledge” the discomfort in question, out of a general unfocused dismay that America isn’t post-racial.

But what about entertaining the possibility that these studies suggest we reexamine our dutiful recoil at, well, lots of black kids in the same room with books?

It is a moral stain on this nation’s thinking class that a piece like Herbert’s is considered noble wisdom while one such as the article in The Atlantic last year on what Teach for America has learned from twenty years of teaching data goes by like scenery watched from a train.

Teaching poor (black) kids is, we learn in a book based on the findings, “neither mysterious nor magical. It is neither a function of dynamic personality nor dramatic performance.” Rather, what has worked year after year are accessible, sensible and teachable things like routine, constant checking for understanding (and really checking, not just saying “Get it?”), constant revision of lesson plans with a concrete goal in mind, and perseverance. Notably, a master’s degree in education shows no benefit.

There are plenty of inspiring examples of techniques that have improved learning outcomes, none of which have anything to do with integration. As I have written, we know how to teach poor black kids to read, and have for decades. Siegfried Engelmann’s Project Follow Through, and specifically its Direct Instruction technique—a clever phonics-based method of learning sounds, syllables, and rhyming—had slam-dunk results over all other programs tested with it back in the 1970s, on 75,000 children from kindergarten through third grade.

It has continued to, where occasionally allowed to show its mettle. Yet a perusal of Engelmann’s Teaching Needy Kids in Our Backward System shows a callous dismissal of his findings by the Ford Foundation, National Institute of Education and Department of Health, Education and Welfare, on premises so shoddy they recall the endless submission of Rearden Metal to “further tests” in Atlas Shrugged.

For example, Direct Instruction happened to far outscore various other components of Project Follow Through—but because the aggregate score of Direct Instruction and these other components did not surpass good old-fashioned disastrous Title I-funded teaching methods, the National Institute of Education ignored Direct Instruction, refusing to incorporate it into nationally recommended curricula.

By Englemann’s account, “the drowning was a complete success.” The drowning, we must understand, included that of the now sadly defunct idea that being poor and black does not mean that you can’t learn among other people like you. The current impression otherwise would have baffled black community leaders before roughly 1965.

We cheer to hear someone say poor black kids need white classmates to learn, and then cheer again when we read about the same kids suffering from stereotype threat when among exactly those white kids—and then stick a finger down our throats when someone suggests that we work on ways for poor black students to learn together. It won’t do, especially when none of us would be caught dead calling a humble all-black college “segregated.”

We have gone from opposing segregation in the proper meaning of the term to calling it “segregation” when a schoolroom has only black kids in it, and pretending that our ethical response must be the same as it would be to a crumbling all-black one-room schoolhouse in a Mississippi hamlet in 1923 whose leaders refuse to allot it any funds or resources and distrust “colored” kids even learning to read at all.

It is laudable that many of us want to show that we understand what institutional racism is. Yet, doing that does not always help the people undergoing the effects of institutional racism. Sometimes, what actually does is a little bit of, yes, segregation.


Thanks to Dhurtado's incisive comments, McWhorter's piece took on particular interest for me as did the the linked to op-ed by Herbert.

I think Herbert's focus is racial and ethnic--black and Hispanic--which is inseparable from poverty. I don't think for Herbert race stands as a proxy for underclass economic disadvantage, it is the face and body of it, as in, for his op ed purposes, A is B. After, all the overarching frame of his op ed is integration for the sake of integration. And he starts his op ed with these words:

…One of the most powerful tools for improving the educational achievement of poor black and Hispanic public school students is, regrettably, seldom even considered. It has become a political no-no….

And he says, along the way:

…More than a half-century after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation ruling, we are still trying as a country to validate and justify the discredited concept of separate but equal schools — the very idea supposedly overturned by Brown v. Board when it declared, “Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal…

I’m sure that Herbert has concerns for underclass white kids and their underachievement, but that is simply not the focus of of his op ed—which is black and brown educational underperformance, ranging up to complete failure. (This cuts against against Dhurtado’s iteration of Herbert’s argument.)

Herbert makes some good points and McWhorter is either being obtuse or arguing for its own sake in a kind of playful bad faith way to accuse Herbert of what he accuses him: (about Hebert saying he wants "integration for the sake of integration") “What poisonous words those actually were, in their way,”


…Herbert, like so many, had it that “years of evidence” show the truth in this idea that when black kids from The Wire meet white kids from Malcolm in the Middle, that takes care of the black-white testing gap...

The latter McWhorter statement distorts entirely unfairly Herbert’s point and that distortion, once understood, makes mincemeat of McWhorter’s hyperbole of "poisonous words" and "moral stains."

As D Hurtado, and I think Emily P, make abundantly clear, Hebert’s point is that it will be ameliorative for underclass black and brown kids to go to schools that absorb all the benefits of schools situated in more affluent neighborhoods, ranging from better bricks and mortar, better resources, more motivated kids and their parents to generally an educationally enthusiastic neighborhood culture.

One can make some countervailing points, such as “acting white,” but surely they cannot prevail against the sheer commonsense of Herbert’s ameliorative point. Only by McWhorter’s contorting of Herbert’s argument into a straw man—such integrtaed attendance not as amelioration but as a complete solution—does he manage, wrongly, to choke the straw man’s neck.

The problem for me with Herbert’s op ed, and I think Dhurtado makes this clear in his last post, is that he doesn’t deal concretely with the means of functionally implementing what he prescribes. For, ultimately, the problem is as much legal as it is political.

If by political Herbert means political support for bussing and the like spawned by Brown, well, that is a practical non starter and faces strong principled arguments as well as the practical ones. It is a gap in Herbert’s op ed that he does not spell out what measures he advocates to as I say, implement, his prescription.

At the heart of the problem, as I see it, is the difference between de jure and de facto separation. And that distinction lies at the base of the two SCOTUS decisions, 5-4. They voided local school board plans in Louisville and Seattle that had rules and criteria for local school admission based on race in the interest of diversity, when no de jure separation existed. On this issue Herbert says nothing direct and concrete. His op ed suffers for that.

What I find missing from McWhorter’s piece (and from Herbert’s) is the failure to deal with the problem Amy Wax raises in her book RACE, WRONGS, AND REMEDIES: GROUP JUSTICE IN THE 21ST CENTURY, which McWhorter reviewed mostly positively in these pages. Her thesis is that underclass cultural negation, also at the heart of “acting white,” precedes all and any amelioration, and while unaddressed, renders amelioration as so much tinkering at the margins.

I find a massive and enduring contradiction in McWhorter’s previous extolling of this thesis—such as in his review of Wax's book—and his own misplaced advocacy of marginal tinkering in his piece here.


I'm not sure it is a shortcoming of Herbert's op-ed piece that it does not propose a solution. I think he would be achieving a great deal if he could get the issue of de facto segregation back on the table. He does refer to efforts such as establishing magnate schools in poor neighborhoods, and voluntary transfers of students from poor neighborhoods to schools in middle-class neighborhoods. But he appears to recognize that economic/racial integration is a politically and practically challenging objective. The first step is to recognize that economic disparity among school systems (which disproportionately affects blacks and Hispanics) is a profound problem.

I believe it would go a long way (though certainly not all the way) in addressing this issue if there were not such large disparities in education funding. In other words, I think schools systems should not be funded by local property taxes, but should be funded by state-levied (or even federally-levied) taxes that are then distributed equally among school systems. Unfortunately, in the current climate at least, that would likely meet as much resistance as cross-district busing did decades ago.

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