Forced bus­ing didn’t fail. School in­te­gra­tion works.

Ed­u­ca­tion scholar Ge­orge Theo­haris on how to close the achieve­ment gap

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - gth­eo­har@syr.edu Ge­orge Theo­haris is a pro­fes­sor and a chair in the School of Ed­u­ca­tion at Syra­cuse Univer­sity.

Two miles from my of­fice in Syra­cuse, N.Y., West­side Academy Mid­dle School has been in need of re­pairs for decades. Lo­cated in one of the na­tion’s poor­est cen­sus tracts, 85 per­cent of its stu­dents are black or Latino, and 86 per­cent are poor enough to qual­ify for free or re­duced-price lunches. The 400 stu­dents have lim­ited cre­ative out­lets, with no orches­tra or band and just two mu­sic teach­ers.

Ten miles away, Well­wood Mid­dle School, in a sub­ur­ban dis­trict, of­fers stu­dents a stately au­di­to­rium and well-equipped tech­nol­ogy rooms. There, 88 per­cent of the stu­dents are white, and only 10 per­cent qual­ify for free or re­duced-price lunch. The 600 stu­dents have five mu­sic teach­ers, band, orches­tra, choir, mu­si­cal theater and dozens of other clubs and ac­tiv­i­ties. The dis­parate stu­dent out­comes are no sur­prise: 50 per­cent of Well­wood’s eighth-graders passed the state math as­sess­ment. At West­side, none did.

Since the Rea­gan ad­min­is­tra­tion’s “A Na­tion at Risk” re­port pro­nounced that schools across the coun­try were fail­ing, ev­ery pres­i­dent has touted a new plan to close the racial aca­demic achieve­ment gap. Pres­i­dent Obama in­stalled Race to the Top, Ge­orge W. Bush had No Child Left Be­hind and Bill

Clin­ton pushed Goals 2000. The na­tion has com­mis­sioned stud­ies, held con­fer­ences and en­gaged in end­less pub­lic lamen­ta­tion over how to get poor stu­dents and chil­dren of color to achieve at the level of wealthy, white stu­dents — as if how to close this op­por­tu­nity gap were a mys­tery. But we for­get that we’ve done it be­fore. Racial achieve­ment gaps were nar­row­est at the height of school in­te­gra­tion.

U.S. schools have be­come more seg­re­gated since 1990, and stu­dents in ma­jor metropoli­tan ar­eas have been most se­verely di­vided by race and in­come, ac­cord­ing to the Civil Rights Project at UCLA. Racially ho­moge­nous neigh­bor­hoods that re­sulted from his­tor­i­cal hous­ing prac­tices such as red-lin­ing have driven school seg­re­ga­tion. The prob­lem is worst in the North­east, where stu­dents face some of the largest aca­demic achieve­ment gaps: in Con­necti­cut, Mary­land, Mas­sachusetts and the Dis­trict. More than 60 years af­ter Brown v. Board of

Ed­u­ca­tion, fed­eral ed­u­ca­tion poli­cies still im­plic­itly ac­cept the myth of “sep­a­rate but equal” by at­tempt­ing to im­prove stu­dent out­comes with­out in­te­grat­ing schools. Pol­i­cy­mak­ers have tried cre­at­ing na­tional stan­dards, en­cour­ag­ing char­ter schools, im­ple­ment­ing high-stakes teacher eval­u­a­tions and ty­ing test­ing to school sanc­tions and fund­ing. Th­ese ef­forts have sought to make sep­a­rate schools bet­ter but not less seg­re­gated. End­ing achieve­ment and op­por­tu­nity gaps re­quires im­ple­ment­ing a va­ri­ety of de­seg­re­ga­tion meth­ods — bus­ing, mag­net schools or merg­ing school dis­tricts, for in­stance — to cre­ate a more just pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem that ed­u­cates all chil­dren.

Pub­lic ra­dio’s “This Amer­i­can Life” re­minded us of this re­al­ity in a two-part re­port this sum­mer called “The Prob­lem We All Live With.” The pro­gram noted that, de­spite dec­la­ra­tions that bus­ing to de­seg­re­gate schools failed in the 1970s and 1980s, that era ac­tu­ally saw sig­nif­i­cant im­prove­ment in ed­u­ca­tional eq­uity. When the Na­tional As­sess­ment of Ed­u­ca­tional Progress be­gan in the early 1970s, there was a 53-point gap in read­ing scores be­tween black and white 17-year-olds. The chasm had nar­rowed to 20 points by 1988. Dur­ing that time, ev­ery re­gion of the coun­try ex­cept the North­east saw steady gains in school in­te­gra­tion. In the South in 1968, for ex­am­ple, 78 per­cent of black chil­dren at­tended schools with al­most ex­clu­sively mi­nor­ity stu­dents; by 1988, only 24 per­cent did. In the West dur­ing that pe­riod, the fig­ure de­clined from 51 per­cent to 29 per­cent.

But since 1988, when ed­u­ca­tion pol­icy shifted away from de­seg­re­ga­tion, the read­ing test-score gap has grown — to 26 points in 2012 — with seg­re­gated school­ing in­creas­ing in ev­ery re­gion of the coun­try.

Re­search has shown that in­te­gra­tion is a

A white stu­dent rides the bus with her black school­mates to South Bos­ton High School in Septem­ber 1975. Bus­ing in Bos­ton set off vi­o­lent protests by white fam­i­lies.

crit­i­cal fac­tor in nar­row­ing the achieve­ment gap. In a 2010 re­search re­view, Har­vard Univer­sity’s Su­san Ea­ton noted that racial seg­re­ga­tion in schools has such a se­vere im­pact on the test-score gap that it out­weighs the pos­i­tive ef­fects of a higher fam­ily in­come for mi­nor­ity stu­dents. Fur­ther, a 2010 study of stu­dents’ im­prove­ments in math found that the level of in­te­gra­tion was the only school char­ac­ter­is­tic (ver­sus safety and com­mu­nity com­mit­ment to math) that sig­nif­i­cantly af­fected stu­dents’ learn­ing.

In an anal­y­sis of the land­mark 1966 Cole­man Re­port, which ad­vo­cated school in­te­gra­tion, re­searchers Ge­of­frey Bor­man and Mar­itza Dowl­ing de­ter­mined that both the racial and so­cioe­co­nomic make­ups of a school are 13/4 times more im­por­tant in de­ter­min­ing a stu­dent’s ed­u­ca­tional out­comes than the stu­dent’s race, eth­nic­ity or so­cial class.

But we con­tinue to think about seg­re­ga­tion as a prob­lem of the past, ig­nor­ing its grow­ing pres­ence in schools to­day. De­seg­re­gat­ing schools has be­come a po­lit­i­cal third rail, even though it is an es­sen­tial so­lu­tion to one of our na­tion’s most per­sis­tent prob­lems.

This month, Ed­u­ca­tion Sec­re­tary Arne Dun­can an­nounced that he would step down in De­cem­ber and that his deputy, John King, would re­place him. King, dur­ing his ten­ure as New York state’s ed­u­ca­tion com­mis­sioner, vis­ited both the Syra­cuse-area school dis­tricts men­tioned above to ad­vance the na­tional Race to the Top agenda, but he never ac­knowl­edged the in­creas­ing seg­re­ga­tion in the re­gion. In 1989, Syra­cuse city schools were about 60 per­cent white, and just 20 per­cent of black and Latino stu­dents at­tended pre­dom­i­nately mi­nor­ity schools. To­day, the dis­trict is 28 per­cent white, and 55 per­cent of Latino stu­dents and 75 per­cent of black stu­dents at­tend pre­dom­i­nately mi­nor­ity schools.

Racial and eco­nomic seg­re­ga­tion af­fects schools in var­i­ous ways. Fed­eral and state poli­cies that im­pose sanc­tions on poor-per­form­ing schools — state takeovers and forced re­place­ment of school lead­ers, for ex­am­ple — of­ten make mat­ters worse. For ex­am­ple, West­side Academy, the Syra­cuse mid­dle school where no stu­dents passed the state eighth-grade math as­sess­ment has had mul­ti­ple prin­ci­pals and saw 44 per­cent teacher turnover in the 2012-2013 school year.

About a decade ago, the ele­men­tary schools that feed into West­side Academy and Well­wood Mid­dle School adopted the same math cur­ricu­lum, touted as one of the best stan­dards-based ele­men­tary pro­grams avail­able. As is typ­i­cal, both dis­tricts strug­gled to im­ple­ment the new cur­ricu­lum ini­tially. But a decade later, the schools in Well­wood’s dis­trict are still us­ing it, with teach­ers be­com­ing more skilled and com­fort­able with the new way to teach math. The schools in West­side’s dis­trict, how­ever, changed their math pro­gram at least two more times, leav­ing teach­ers, stu­dents and fam­i­lies in a con­stant state of churn and un­doubt­edly af­fect­ing stu­dent learn­ing and test scores. In this era of ac­count­abil­ity, this in­sta­bil­ity is not forced upon white, up­per-mid­dle-class fam­i­lies.

While much has been said about the fail­ure of bus­ing, it’s time to move be­yond this myth. In one of the most fa­mous ex­am­ples of court-or­dered de­seg­re­ga­tion, Bos­ton be­gan bus­ing stu­dents be­tween white and black neigh­bor­hoods in 1974, spark­ing vi­o­lent white protests and boy­cotts by white stu­dents. White fam­i­lies fled to the sub­urbs. Sup­port­ing neigh­bor­hood schools and op­pos­ing school bus rides be­came rhetoric to fight de­seg­re­ga­tion with­out us­ing overtly racist lan­guage. But as black ac­tivists in Bos­ton noted at the time, “It’s not the bus, it’s us.” To­day, most chil­dren get on buses to at­tend seg­re­gated schools. Bus­ing ended be­cause of a com­bi­na­tion of white protests, me­dia that overem­pha­sized re­sis­tance and the lack of sys­tem­atic data col­lec­tion to judge the im­pact of de­seg­re­ga­tion. So we need to be sober about our his­tory: Bus­ing didn’t fail; the na­tion’s re­solve and com­mit­ment to equal and ex­cel­lent de­seg­re­gated schools did.

Bus­ing is not the only way to de­seg­re­gate our schools. We can unify school dis­tricts so they en­com­pass racially and eco­nom­i­cally di­verse neigh­bor­hoods. The coun­ty­wide dis­trict cen­tered in Raleigh, for in­stance, has been suc­cess­ful in in­te­grat­ing schools and achiev­ing aca­demic suc­cess, in con­trast to the 18 school dis­tricts across the metropoli­tan Syra­cuse area. Shap­ing dis­tricts like pie pieces, so they cut across ur­ban, sub­ur­ban and even ru­ral spa­ces, could have the same ef­fect.

Cre­at­ing more open-en­roll­ment mag­net schools would also bring fam­i­lies of var­i­ous races and in­comes into well-funded and themed schools. For ex­ist­ing pub­lic schools, we could merge two neigh­bor­hood cam­puses in seg­re­gated com­mu­ni­ties, so stu­dents at­tend one school to­gether from kinder­garten through sec­ond grade and the other from third through fifth grade. Or we can in­cen­tivize school dis­tricts to take ac­tion, im­pos­ing sanc­tions for seg­re­ga­tion and pro­vid­ing financial resources to dis­tricts with ag­gres­sive de­seg­re­ga­tion plans.

Cer­tainly, none of th­ese ap­proaches is easy or per­fect, and de­seg­re­ga­tion alone will not close achieve­ment and op­por­tu­nity gaps. Even in­te­grated schools face racial gaps. Many black and Latino kids end up in lower aca­demic tracks, and many white par­ents pro­tect ex­clu­sive op­por­tu­ni­ties for their kids. Still, know­ing the ben­e­fits of in­te­grated learn­ing en­vi­ron­ments, we can’t con­tinue to ig­nore the grow­ing hold that seg­re­ga­tion has on our schools.

We’ve heard soar­ing words from Dun­can and Obama tout­ing ed­u­ca­tion as the route to a bet­ter life, say­ing it is a moral im­per­a­tive that we work tire­lessly as a na­tion to im­prove the ed­u­ca­tion of our most vul­ner­a­ble chil­dren. But rhetoric is no match for our fail­ure of will to change the dis­parate re­al­i­ties of our sep­a­rate ed­u­ca­tional sys­tems. It is no match for our fail­ure of courage to call out the per­sis­tent seg­re­ga­tion of our schools.

In this time of tran­si­tion for the U.S. Depart­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion, in the last year of the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, are we go­ing to con­tinue ig­nor­ing the moral im­pli­ca­tions of sep­a­rate schools? Our his­tory shows that pol­icy can­not fo­cus only on im­prov­ing “fail­ing” schools; it needs to also em­pha­size de­seg­re­gat­ing them. No mat­ter how much we seek to im­prove the back of the ed­u­ca­tion bus, it will al­ways be the back.

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