The re­turn of school in­te­gra­tion


Let’s try one of those word-as­so­ci­a­tion games you used to play as a kid. If I say “racial in­te­gra­tion of schools,” who comes to mind? If you’re like most of us, you con­jured fig­ures from the past. Per­haps you thought of the heroic young African Amer­i­cans who de­seg­re­gated all­white schools in places such as Lit­tle Rock and New Or­leans in the 1950s and 1960s. Or maybe Earl War­ren, au­thor of the 1954 Brown v. Board of

Ed­u­ca­tion de­ci­sion bar­ring schools from sep­a­rat­ing stu­dents on the ba­sis of race.

I doubt you chose any­one from con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can life. Our schools are more seg­re­gated than at any time since the late 1960s, but you prob­a­bly can’t name a na­tional po­lit­i­cal fig­ure to­day who has in­sisted — loudly, clearly and con­sis­tently — that kids of dif­fer­ent races should be in the same class­rooms.

That’s about to change. The in­com­ing sec­re­tary of ed­u­ca­tion, John B. King Jr., has been a force­ful ad­vo­cate for in­te­grat­ing Amer­i­can schools. This month, Pres­i­dent Obama tapped King to re­place Arne Dun­can, who fo­cused less on in­te­grat­ing the races than on clos­ing the “achieve­ment gap” be­tween them.

That’s been a dom­i­nant theme of ed­u­ca­tion re­form since the pas­sage of the 2001 No Child Left Be­hind Act, which re­quires schools to re­port test scores by race; if one of its racial groups is not mak­ing progress, an oth­er­wise suc­cess­ful school can face penal­ties un­der the law. But NCLB makes no ref­er­ence to in­te­gra­tion at all. The goal is to bring up the test scores of ev­ery race, not to bring the races to­gether into the same schools.

Mean­while, the Supreme Court has re­stricted the abil­ity of school dis­tricts to pro­mote racial in­te­gra­tion. Strik­ing down de­seg­re­ga­tion plans in Louisville and Seat­tle in 2007, the court ques­tioned whether in­te­gra­tion would en­hance mi­nor­ity achieve­ment. “It is far from ap­par­ent that co­erced racial mix­ing has any ed­u­ca­tion ben­e­fits,” wrote Jus­tice Clarence Thomas, the lone African Amer­i­can on the court, “much less that in­te­gra­tion is nec­es­sary to black achieve­ment.”

Do black chil­dren have to at­tend an in­te­grated school to suc­ceed? Of course not. But we do have strong ev­i­dence that they are more likely to suc­ceed if they go to school with other races.

Just last month, an Ed­u­ca­tion Depart­ment study showed that African Amer­i­can eighth­graders who at­tended schools that were more than 60 per­cent black scored sig­nif­i­cantly lower on stan­dard­ized math tests than African Amer­i­cans of sim­i­lar back­grounds who at­tended in­te­grated schools.

Other re­search has shown that black kids in in­te­grated schools en­joy higher earn­ings and rates of em­ploy­ment later in life; they’re also less likely to bear chil­dren as teenagers, or to be in­car­cer­ated as adults. But you don’t hear many peo­ple — of any race — talk­ing about that.

Whites fear that racial in­te­gra­tion will hold back their chil­dren aca­dem­i­cally, even though stud­ies have re­peat­edly shown oth­er­wise. And blacks worry that cam­paigns to in­te­grate schools de­mean African Amer­i­cans, as Thomas com­plained in an ear­lier opin­ion. “It never ceases to amazeme that the courts are so will­ing to as­sume that any­thing that is pre­dom­i­nantly black must be in­fe­rior,” Thomas wrote in 1995, void­ing a court-or­dered Kansas City, Mo., pro­gram that sought to draw white chil­dren back into the public schools.

En­ter King. As ed­u­ca­tion com­mis­sioner in New York state, he earned a good deal of neg­a­tive press — and the en­mity of the teach­ers union — for his em­brace of the Com­mon Core stan­dards and of a new teacher eval­u­a­tion sys­tem based partly on stu­dent test scores. Fewer peo­ple no­ticed King’s “so­cioe­co­nomic in­te­gra­tion” pro­ject, which pro­vided grants to in­crease di­ver­sity in high-poverty school dis­tricts.

Sig­nif­i­cantly, King cast the pro­ject as a way to im­prove mi­nor­ity aca­demic achieve­ment. “Di­verse schools cre­ate im­por­tant ed­u­ca­tional op­por­tu­ni­ties,” King said, an­nounc­ing the pro­gram last year. “Our stu­dents shouldn’t be iso­lated be­cause they come from strug­gling neigh­bor­hoods.”

He’s right. Un­der No Child Left Be­hind, we have pre­tended that we can close the racial achieve­ment gap with­out in­te­grat­ing the races. But that’s a fool’s er­rand, born of a sep­a­rate-bute­qual fan­tasy that Brown v. Board of Ed­u­ca­tion never fully dis­pelled.

So ku­dos to Obama — him­self the prod­uct of richly in­te­grated schools — for ap­point­ing King. And con­grat­u­la­tions to King for speak­ing some hard truths that too many Amer­i­cans — of ev­ery race — would pre­fer not to hear. No mat­ter what you think of King’s other re­form pri­or­i­ties, his com­mit­ment to in­te­gra­tion is right on tar­get. Any­thing less will be wrong for the United States, es­pe­cially for the least for­tu­nate among us.

The writer teaches history and ed­u­ca­tion at New York Univer­sity.


John B. King Jr.

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