Bob Herbert / Syndicated columnist
Public education: still separate and unequal
Long years of evidence show that poor kids of all ethnic backgrounds do better academically when they go to school with their more affluent peers, writes Bob Herbert. 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.
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 in 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 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.
Bob Herbert is a regular columnist for The New York Times.