The Quixotic Quest for Good Education through Integration

An interesting story in the New York Times on Friday tells the rather sad tale of one man’s battle to deliver a decent education to Tucson’s minorities. Rubin Salter, Jr., a black lawyer, began working on a Tucson school integration case in 1976 and, as the Times reporter Fernanda Santos writes, “After almost four decades in court and nearly $1 billion in public spending, little has changed for the black children whose right to a good education he had labored to defend.”

Indeed, this is a poignant example of the hell of good intentions – and needs to be studied closely by education policymakers. Mr. Salter seems to have been barking up the wrong school improvement tree for all these years and admits, according to the Times, that “he no longer harbors hope for integration.”

Like its kissin’ cousin – the belief that solving poverty will improve our schools — the argument that racial integration will make African American and Hispanic children smarter is a misapprehension of reality that should be discarded. Even Gary Orfield, co-director of UCLA’s Civil Rights Project, tells the Times that the Tucson tale should “force people to take a new look at what can be done in cities that face profound challenges.”

Those challenges, as this story makes clear, are certainly not those of integration.

In her post the other day, in response to another Times story about integration and education, Elissa Brown, director of Hunter college’s Center for Gifted Studies, noted that “placing students in gifted schools or programs to reach a perceived demographic dividend for the sake of formal equity will [not] solve the gifted problem.”  Chester Finn of the Thomas Fordham Institute made the same point in his “.”  Focusing on race when discussing academic programs for the gifted, he argued, was “the wrong perspective.”  What we should be shouting about, Finn shouted, is “the under-identification challenge and the dearth of suitable classrooms, teachers, programs, and outreach efforts” for all children.

And this should be the lesson of Tucson’s expensive failure to improve the education of its poor and minority students; instead of focusing on the quality of education being provided, the city (prodded, of course, by the courts) worried more about mixing the color of students’ skins.  What happened?  The whites fled and blacks and Hispanics were left with the same inferior education.

Though equal opportunity is – and should be – a bedrock principle of American life, it should not be conflated with racial and demographic outcomes, much less connected, at least causally, to education outcomes. (See Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.)

In a Martin Luther King essay I wrote last year, I quote the great civil rights leader, in 1959, questioning the value of Brown v. Board of Education, the historic 1954 Supreme Court decision integrating public schools, on that very question:

I favor integration on buses and in all areas of public accommodation and travel….  I am for equality. However, I think integration in our public schools is different. In that setting, you are dealing with one of the most important assets of an individual — the mind. White people view black people as inferior. A large percentage of them have a very low opinion of our race. People with such a low view of the black race cannot be given free rein and put in charge of the intellectual care and development of our boys and girls.

As Elissa Brown and Checker Finn noted above, education policymakers should not confuse the imperatives of integration with those of education excellence.  As Dr. King knew more than 50 years ago, “the intellectual care and development” of minority children is not magically accomplished by integration; in fact, King warned that integration of our schools, as then (and now) constituted, was more than likely an impediment to black children.

King understood that educational achievement was about knowledge, not zip code or skin color; we have more than 50 years of school integration and flat achievement as proof. The point was made clear in a 2010 study by Will Dobbie and Roland Fryer of Harvard. The two researchers looked at the successful Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ) schools, an initiative by Geoffrey Canada that incorporated “no excuses” charter schools (e.g. longer school days, tutoring, Saturday classes) and a bevy of “wraparound services” (e.g. free medical, dental and mental-health services, support for parents in the form of food baskets, meals, bus fare, tax help).  The effects of the HCZ program, as everyone knew, was a remarkable closing of the racial achievement gap in both mathematics and ELA, but the question Dobbie and Fryer asked was whether  the community programs contributed to the academic gap-closing. “[H]igh-quality schools are enough to significantly increase academic achievement among the poor,” they concluded.  “Community programs appear neither necessary nor sufficient.”

In other words, academic education counts, whether you’re black or white, rich or poor.

In a recent report I did for the Thomas Fordham Institute, “Needles in a Haystack: Lessons from Ohio’s High-Performing Urban High Schools,” I concluded that while there is no secret sauce for creating schools that close the achievement gap in poor urban neighborhoods, there is certainly a great deal that a school can do short of busing in white students.

Though we should appreciate Rubin Salter’s efforts in Tucson, educators owe him a great apology for seeming to insinuate that integration was the key to academic advancement for minorities. As I concluded in my MLK essay, “Unfortunately, too much of the story of school integration for blacks has been what King predicted: a feast of junk food served up by educators who have too little respect for the black race, much less `the mind’ of their children.”

The answer to a better education for minorities would seem to be not in rubbing elbows with white people, but in rubbing elbows with a good education.

-Peter Meyer

This blog entry was first published by the CUNY Institute for Education Policy.

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