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Virginia Journal of Education


Race and Our Schools

Soon, there will be no majority race in our public schools. We need a new agenda.


by Gary Orfield

We have become a nation that accepts separate and unequal schools as if nothing can be done about segregation. As a nation, we expect our schools to create equal outcomes for students who leave their homes severely disadvantaged by family and community poverty, who arrive at their schools to find sometimes unqualified or inexperienced teachers, and who leave those schools as soon as they can. This double and triple segregation has become far worse since the U.S. Supreme Court began dissolving desegregation plans 16 years ago—a dissolution that continues to deepen and intensify segregation. Across 21st-century America, segregation has reached levels for millions of students once found only in the Old South. It has produced schools that require massive resources to offer the kinds of opportunities and instruction routinely available to students in privileged schools and communities.

In our cities we now have many schools with black and Latino students who are almost entirely poor and teachers who have little or no help in addressing the consequences of deep tensions that often exist in neighborhoods heavily affected by immigration, gangs and other issues. We are currently in the midst of a vast migration of the black and Latino middle class to suburban school districts, districts that have very little diversity in their staffs and little or no preparation to avoid the polarization, inequality and resegregation so many urban neighborhoods and schools experienced in years past. We have to work on issues of race in a nation that will soon have no majority race and where the most dramatic growth is among the population with the lowest educational levels.
 
Time to Get Serious
In a nation with 44 percent non-white students and extreme inequality in educational attainment, it’s time we address these issues as seriously as we did during the Civil Rights era. If we don’t have a plan for racial equity everywhere, and for integration where possible, we are all too likely to replicate the failures of the past. Although education policy has basically ignored the issues of racial change and integration since the Civil Rights era, no one has figured out how to make school systems separate but equal and no one has figured out how white, suburban, middle class teachers are to work effectively with students of color and linguistic minority students in complex, changing, interracial settings without good professional training. Doing educational reform while ignoring the fundamental cleavages in society is profoundly counterproductive. We need a new civil rights agenda for our schools.

A first step is for educators to recognize and demand changes in the racial conditions outside the schools that make their work so much harder. Housing policy, wages policy, health care and day care are among the most urgent issues. A second is to demand that there be a civil rights agenda for our schools. A third is to develop and implement training and support plans to give the nation’s teachers the skills they need to better work with students of all backgrounds.

Educators are well aware of two things. First is that President George W. Bush was fundamentally right when he highlighted massive inequalities in education for minority students. Second was that he was fundamentally wrong in thinking it can be solved by high-stakes testing of children and sanctioning of schools. The NCLB law is a classic example of this latter problem.

Punishing schools serving students with the least preparation and the most negative outside influences for not having accomplished rates of gain never achieved on any scale anywhere punishes the victims of multiple segregation and encourages their staff members to leave even faster than they might normally do. But even ending or drastically modifying NCLB won’t make our schools’ racial inequality go away or create positive race relations in schools and communities. In fact, many causal state policies would remain in place. We need different, positive policies that address our racial issues, policies that respect and employ the talents of our teachers. But such policies can’t be simply about more money, nor should they lose NCLB’s good parts—such as, for example, collecting much needed data on all groups within all schools.

There is far too much evidence that simply increasing funds without using the money very carefully doesn’t change outcomes much, though money is certainly necessary to do what needs to be done. The three things that most powerfully influence educational outcomes are families, teachers and other students who create a climate and level of competition. Curriculum, materials and many other things can, of course, make a difference, but families, teachers and other students are at the core.

Teachers Segregated, Too
A recent survey of a national sample of NEA teachers, done in collaboration with the Southern Poverty Law Center, shows that teachers are segregated, that a great many are in racially changing schools (particularly in the suburbs), that teachers believe they can and should treat all students the same, and that those in geographic areas that still have significant white populations are least prepared for the changes that are coming. Teachers sincerely want to serve all students well, but they have little support and are constantly blamed. We now know that, while more than half of Latino children in large metropolitan areas and nearly half of blacks already live outside central cities, serious segregation and inequality follow migrations of the non-white middle class. We also know that many suburban schools are ill-prepared for the changes currently in motion.

Treating all children the same sounds good, but it’s very problematic. Consider your own children. How effective would you think a school is where all the teachers had cultural and racial backgrounds different from you? Where classmates who understood your children’s background and heritage were few? Where your children faced incidents of harassment, prejudice, misunderstanding and hostility? Where no teaching took place about the positive contributions of your race or culture to the common society? Where the school passively accepted various forms of in-school segregation? Where your children ended up in dead-end classes or special education? What if your children’s school only taught classes in a language they couldn’t understand and they had no teachers to talk to in their own tongue? I think that almost any parent facing such a situation would think that positive ways to address these issues were urgently important. And so they are, no matter whose children are involved.

There have been no significant federal funds to address issues of race in the schools since the Reagan Administration eliminated the popular federal desegregation aid program 27 years ago. That law funded programs that involved training teachers, working on curriculum, helping students address racial divisions within schools, and other related issues. It had demonstrated success in both improving school race relations and raising achievement. Relatively simple techniques such as Student Team Learning had clear, significant, positive effects on both relationships and achievement. The program’s funding helped create many new magnet schools that were both effective and integrated, public schools with autonomy to innovate, and faculties composed of teachers committed to their special mission. These were schools with the obviously necessary civil rights provisions, including extensive outreach and recruitment targeting underrepresented groups, clear desegregation standards, free transportation for all students who wanted to attend, and no rejection of students with disabilities or language issues—much better in these respects than many contemporary charter schools, which typically have no civil rights provisions and are, on average, even more segregated than public schools.

Avoiding Disaster
Yet we have used federal and state funds to expand charters, and the Supreme Court decided in 2007 to undermine key parts of the civil rights policies of hundreds of magnet schools. Teacher organizations need to encourage school districts to carefully examine legal ways to pursue integrated schools, and they need to ask Congress to restore support urgently needed for managing the vast racial transition our country is currently undergoing. If we don’t figure out how to increase the graduation rates and college success of black and Latino students, major portions of America will soon experience declines in average educational levels—an economic disaster.

The U.S. Supreme Court decided in the l990s to end most desegregation orders, but many communities wanted to voluntarily maintain successful elements like magnet schools. Some, such as Louisville-Jefferson County, Kentucky, fought long court battles to maintain successful, district-wide plans. Unfortunately, in a 5–4 decision in summer 2007, the Supreme Court undermined most of those plans. This forces hundreds of communities to either give up their efforts and accept much greater segregation or find the best available alternative to keeping diversity in their schools. The decision permits some limited direct use of race and it leaves other criteria for assignment—poverty, test scores, geographic diversity, linguistic diversity, and many others—perfectly legal. It is important for education organizations to encourage local school boards to do the necessary work to maintain as much as possible of their successful plans.

There are also provisions in federal law that could serve as a basis for positive action, such as the now empty promise of a right to transfer from a school being sanctioned under NCLB. Although this right is defined poorly and unfairly in NCLB, and good schools are often sanctioned, the idea that a student in a persistently weak public school should be given a chance to transfer to another, stronger public school could be part of a good plan. The problem is that there are very few opportunities to transfer to better schools because the right is limited by school district lines and spaces. Many existing transfers are from one weak school to another weak school, sometimes to a weaker school from one that failed on one of NCLB’s many technicalities. This needs to be changed to stop transfers that produce no real gain and to open up transfers to definitely stronger schools, often across district lines. Similarly, charter schools, which are often independent of district lines, should be required to adopt some of the key civil rights provisions of magnet schools.
 
The resurgence and expansion of segregation haven’t happened because we’ve learned how to make separate schools equal. With rare exceptions, we haven’t. Nor has it happened because we’ve learned that desegregation and integration don’t work. In fact, we’ve never had more solid evidence about their benefits. Five hundred fifty three researchers from 201 universities and research centers presented the U.S. Supreme Court with a summary of a half century of research on these issues, showing that the Court was right in Brown and that going backward deepens educational inequality. Segregation’s resurgence and expansion have happened because a very powerful and insistent legal and political cam¬paign to attack and reverse desegregation is succeeding, primarily through transforming the federal courts, the Justice Department, and the White House. This transformation is so deep that policies once considered severely inadequate to protect the rights of minority students in the Civil Rights era are now prohibited by the United States Supreme Court, and practices producing segregation once held to be constitutional violations are now approved. The coming election will be very important in the next stage of the battle over the courts and over American justice.

A Different Nation
Four decades after Martin Luther King Jr.’s death, we are a very different nation. We are a nation where the white population will become the minority in the nation’s schools in just a few years, and where nearly a fifth of public school students come from linguistic minority families. Even though there is no significant effort to desegregate our schools now, thousands of American schools, mostly in the suburbs, are going through racial and ethnic change as black and Latino families move away from central urban areas and many city schools experience displacement of one minority by another. Since teaching is the one profession that must interact effectively and in great depth with nine-tenths of the nation’s young people, lack of training and support means, at best, lost opportunities for deeper and more effective relationships. At worst, it means being helpless in the face of serious divisions coming into our schools from the outside community. American parents, by very large majorities, want their children to grow up understanding how to relate successfully with all groups in a diverse society. For this to happen, and for our society to avoid projecting into ever larger sectors of suburbia the kinds of poor race relations and resegregation that damaged so many urban neighborhoods, teachers must have the tools to understand and relate to students and parents from all backgrounds and to help children understand the very diverse and changing society they will live in.

Addressing these issues isn’t a luxury or an optional part of education. It goes to the core of what makes our schools and communities work. We need new dedication to addressing these issues. Younger teachers are well aware of this necessity, but often find too little support and too many pressures. There are positive models and experiences we can draw upon. They don’t take a great deal of school time or cost a lot of money, and they tend to produce real academic gains. Addressing these issues is part of the groundwork for successful education reform and community stability. It’s time we insist that these issues find a place high on the agenda of all education and community leaders.

Orfield is co-director of The Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles and an education professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. His central interest is the development and implementation of social policy, with a focus on the impact of policy on equal opportunity for success in American society. This article is drawn from a presentation he made at NEA headquarters in Washington, D.C. as part of NEA’s Visiting Scholars program.

 


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