I commend the Times for at least acknowledging the anniversary of Brown v. Board this week, but I take some issue with the conclusions opinion writer David L. Kirp makes. A quick conversation with the essay:
AMID the ceaseless and cacophonous debates about how to close the achievement gap, we’ve turned away from one tool that has been shown to work: school desegregation. That strategy, ushered in by the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, has been unceremoniously ushered out, an artifact in the museum of failed social experiments. The Supreme Court’s ruling that racially segregated schools were “inherently unequal” shook up the nation like no other decision of the 20th century. Civil rights advocates, who for years had been patiently laying the constitutional groundwork, cheered to the rafters, while segregationists mourned “Black Monday” and vowed “massive resistance.” But as the anniversary was observed this past week on May 17, it was hard not to notice that desegregation is effectively dead. In fact, we have been giving up on desegregation for a long time. In 1974, the Supreme Court rejected a metropolitan integration plan, leaving the increasingly black cities to fend for themselves.
A generation later, public schools that had been ordered to integrate in the 1960s and 1970s became segregated once again, this time with the blessing of a new generation of justices. And five years ago, a splintered court delivered the coup de grâce when it decreed that a school district couldn’t voluntarily opt for the most modest kind of integration — giving parents a choice of which school their children would attend and treating race as a tiebreaker in deciding which children would go to the most popular schools. In the perverse logic of Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., this amounted to “discriminating among individual students based on race.” That’s bad history, which, as Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote in an impassioned dissent, “threaten[s] the promise of Brown.”
I take few issues with the summary of history. I did want to point out that we never really had an effective, longitudinal integration policy. Look at the years. A 1954 decision was effectively overturned by 1974. That’s 20 years. And it’s only part of the story. There were many state cases lost along the way that effectively gutted integration policies as the cases made their way to the Supreme Court. That means all this hullabaloo about Brown v Board is only ever talking about a good 10-15 years of actual policy. For context, we’ve spent more time debating what should replace the Twin Towers at Ground Zero after September 11th than we ever spent on true school integration in this country.
To the current reformers, integration is at best an irrelevance and at worst an excuse to shift attention away from shoddy teaching. But a spate of research says otherwise. The experience of an integrated education made all the difference in the lives of black children — and in the lives of their children as well. These economists’ studies consistently conclude that African-American students who attended integrated schools fared better academically than those left behind in segregated schools. They were more likely to graduate from high school and attend and graduate from college; and, the longer they spent attending integrated schools, the better they did. What’s more, the fear that white children would suffer, voiced by opponents of integration, proved groundless. Between 1970 and 1990, the black-white gap in educational attainment shrank — not because white youngsters did worse but because black youngsters did better.
Not only were they more successful in school, they were more successful in life as well. A 2011 study by the Berkeley public policy professor Rucker C. Johnson concludes that black youths who spent five years in desegregated schools have earned 25 percent more than those who never had that opportunity. Now in their 30s and 40s, they’re also healthier — the equivalent of being seven years younger.
Why? For these youngsters, the advent of integration transformed the experience of going to school. By itself, racial mixing didn’t do the trick, but it did mean that the fate of black and white students became intertwined. School systems that had spent a pittance on all-black schools were now obliged to invest considerably more on African-American students’ education after the schools became integrated. Their classes were smaller and better equipped. They included children from better-off families, a factor that the landmark 1966 Equality of Educational Opportunity study had shown to make a significant difference in academic success. What’s more, their teachers and parents held them to higher expectations. That’s what shifted the arc of their lives.
I understand Kirp’s rhetorical position here: he’s talking to “today’s reformers” and maybe not me so much. I get that.
However, it is dangerous for any of us to package integration as a solution to education disparities if only because the reading comprehension of most readers is, well, reflective of our education disparities.
To be clear: adding white kids to schools and stirring to blend is NOT A SOLUTION.
The effects of integration on black/brown student outcomes is primarily a result of white people caring about a school once THEIR kids attend. The result is better funding, better teaching, better curriculum, better services that black/brown kids tangentially benefit from. Basically the effects of poverty on schooling are mediated by better investment once white kids show up.
It’s not integration that we need so much as we need anti-poverty solutions. And anti-poverty solutions are too often tied up in racial politics to be uniformly applied to schools so we also end up needing anti-racism solutions. All of that is absolutely possible to achieve without adding white kids. It’s that we’ve not found another way for white lawmakers and parents to CARE about poor black and brown kids except to have them sit next to their white kids that is the problem, not the solution.
I have said that fixing schools really isn’t all that hard. We know what works, for the most part: more resources, more time, more investment, equity, and access.
What’s hard is fixing the people that make decisions about schools.
And integration ain’t gonna solve that.