Uncomfortable Reading on Race and Education

What was the educational impact of the civil rights movement? “No Easy Answers: Untangling race and education,” a book review essay by Gareth Davies published in this fall’s issue of Education Next (unabridged essay here, shorter version here), looks at two books that try to answer this question. “In different ways,” Davies writes, “these books make for uncomfortable reading.”

The first book, Steady Gains and Stalled Progress, edited by Katherine Magnuson and Jane Waldfogel, includes chapters by social scientists who are intent on figuring out why the black-white test score gap narrowed sharply during the 1970s and 1980s, but then stayed constant, or even widened.

Davies writes that the book brings to mind the 1966 Coleman Report, which found that “none of the most obvious aspects of educational inequality (class size, teacher experience and pay, age of buildings, library and laboratory facilities) seemed to explain the black-white gap in schooling outcomes.” Davies continues:

Four decades on, one senses the determination of Magnuson, Waldfogel, and their colleagues to avoid a similar finding and to generate findings that will assist policymakers in promoting equality of educational opportunity. Time and again, however, they conclude that the particular factor that they have been invited to examine can only be shown to have a relatively small impact, if that.  During the course of the volume, NAEP and Current Population Survey data are used to probe a broad range of variables, including teacher qualifications, hours spent watching television, levels of socioeconomic inequality, degrees of racial segregation, particular school-reform policies, family structure, and race-specific cultural attitudes. In almost every case, these scrupulous, expert, and judicious researchers are forced to conclude that the evidence is mixed or unclear.

The second book reviewed by Davies, Race and Education, 1954-2007, by Raymond Wolters, “is discomfiting for a very different reason: he does not believe that racial integration is a good thing.” Wolters argues that wherever integration was attempted, the results were harmful to the education system, to black and white children, and to race relations. But, Davies writes,

If desegregation was such an educational failure, why did the test-score gap diminish so markedly during the 1970s and early 1980s? Whether or not desegregation contributed to that outcome (the evidence is inconclusive), it does not seem to have done any harm. Thinking more broadly, if desegregation and integration were really such a disaster in terms of American race relations, how is one to explain the plethora of statistical and anecdotal evidence suggesting a dramatic liberalization in racial attitudes during the past four decades?

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