"For me, the most important lesson
[of the Freedom Movement] is that by respecting the fact that fellow activists could passionately disagree over strategy and tactics—yet remain allies—they strengthened SNCC and the Movement as a whole."
From Bruce Hartford's article in the current issue of Urban Habitat.
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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A Discussion on Separate and Unequal

I was reading this article in the New York Times by Bob Herbert yesterday and it echoed some of my thoughts on the effect of poverty on education. I thought it would be a good article to start a discussion. What are your thoughts?

Op-Ed Columnist
Separate and Unequal
Published: March 21, 2011

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. 

Roger Cohen is off today.


Kathy Emery said...

Thanks Kathryn for posting this. My first reaction is remembering what some of the vets who have spoken at SFFS have said -- they were fighting against desegregation, not integration.

My second reaction is that poverty kills and racism is a pathological disease that white people need treatment for.

My third reaction is that as long as you are measuring "academic achievement" with a standardized test score, you will ALWAYS have an "achievement gap" -- the tests have been DESIGNED to create the achievement gap....if one person or school goes up, another person or school has to go down -- the law of norm-referenced standardized tests (tests designed with 19th century assumptions of what is intelligent and what knowledge is worthy)

Kahlenberg is writing from the same deficit model that has been used throughout US history to justify unequal distribution of resources. The norm is white middle class culture -- other cultures, however rich and wonderful -- are in deficit because they don't share the same values, knowledge, style, ways of being in the world as middle (white collar professional) class society. People of color, working class people must abandon who they are if they want the OPPORTUNITY (not the reality) of increased economic remuneration.

If everyone had a living would make "academic achievement" and competition for elite colleges moot.

Ed Whitfield said...

I realize that I am about a year late on this, but I am just now seeing it. Thanks Kathy for saying some of the things I would have said here.

I am troubled by the mindset of folks who are comfortable with an analysis that some kids can learn only when they are in the presence of others of a different type -- either racial or economic. It violates my understanding of children's agency and of how learning takes place.

I am also troubled with the idea that closing the existing achievement gap should be the goal of educational reform. As an African American parent (whose children are grown now, but I'm still concerned) I can say that is not good enough. The education of middle class white children in this country is not something I want to emulate. We need much loftier goals for education.

The key problem is not simply the concentration of poverty. Our problems are much more complex and tied up with broader systemic issues that if properly understood would implicate the dominant culture's alienation and objective depravity rather than just the so called culture of poverty. Much more needs to be said. But the self-satisfied analysis of those who simply want to make sure low-income black kids have access to their middle-class counterparts along with all the resources and concerns that white middle class parents bring, is just not sufficient.

Ed Whitfield

Kathy Emery said...

thanks Ed....your comments are ALWAYS worth waiting for.