Are Shaker Heights Schools a Success? A Reply to Kahlenberg

The journalistic commentary on my recently released book, Saving Schools: From Horace Mann to Virtual Learning, has been better than expected.   The Associated Press calls the narrative “compelling and enlightening,” a Washington Post columnist finds the book “intriguing” and “a delight to read,” while a Washington Times columnist declares it “excellent,” “thoughtful,” and “informative.”  Even Richard Kahlenberg, writing for the New Republic, finds the writing to be “spry,” providing a “sweeping narrative [that] takes on all the great controversial issues in American education.”

But Kahlenberg offers one line of criticism so misleading it requires a response.  In Saving Schools, I bring together insights from the work of a number of talented black scholars, who have tried to figure out why the black-white education gap was not closed by the well-integrated schools of Shaker Heights, Ohio, an upper-middle-class suburb close to Cleveland.  Kahlenberg tries to deny that any problem exists, because he has elsewhere argued that racial and socio-economic integration is the panacea for the country’s educational problems.  To bolster his case, he questions my account by saying that “Shaker Heights blacks outperformed blacks statewide by 13 percentage points in math and nine percentage points in reading.”  But Shaker Heights students are the sons and daughters of home-owning, middle-class parents, a background entirely different from that of the disadvantaged African-American students living in the inner cities of Cleveland, Akron, Toledo and Dayton.  To learn that black students in Shaker Heights outperform other African-Americans in Ohio tells us nothing about the quality of Shaker Heights schools.  As I show in Saving Schools, African-American students who attend public schools in Shaker Heights fall further behind their white peers with every passing year they attend its fully integrated schools.  That growing gap is the key fact, not the gap between black students in Shaker Heights and black students statewide cited by Kahlenberg.

I certainly applaud the desegregation that occurred during the years immediately following the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and I quite explicitly say, on p. 75, that “careful studies show that school desegregation has had positive impacts on student learning, especially in the South,” a passage which must have escaped Kahlenberg’s attention when he claims I “neglect” to point out a possible connection between desegregation and southern gains.  But neither do I ignore, as Kahlenberg does, the reality that whites have successfully resisted further desegregation since 1972.  To wait for Kahlenberg’s utopia before beginning to educate black children is to consign generations of minority students to poverty for decades to come.

I was also sorry that Kahlenberg cannot distinguish twilight from dawn, the only available excuse for his illiberal comment about the seniority of the scholar whose book he reviewed.  No, Richard, your reports of my twilight are greatly exaggerated.

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