Personal Grit Won’t Do It; We Must Address Structural Inequality

It’s becoming clear that the American Dream is increasingly a myth, that America is not really a meritocracy, and that it’s become virtually impossible to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” these days if you are very poor.  The Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz describes today’s America: “The simple story of America is this: the rich are getting richer, the richest of the rich are getting still richer, the poor are becoming poorer and more numerous, and the middle class is being hollowed out… Disparities in household income are related to disparities in wages and in wealth and income from capital—and inequality in both is increasing.” (The Price of Inequality, 2012, p. 7)

Among poor children, income inequality is reinforced by unequal access to education and our society’s fragmented and uneven attempts to do anything about it.  Sociologist Karl Alexander and colleagues at Johns Hopkins University explain the results of a longitudinal study that has tracked the lifetime trajectory of students who were first graders in Baltimore in 1982.  Alexander and his colleagues remind us that for students they call “the urban disadvantaged,” social mobility has always been lacking and our attempts to assist children sporadic and inadequate: “There is no simple or single solution to children’s academic challenges.  Rather, small influences accumulate to produce large and lasting consequences… We believe that help at strategic points could boost prospects for more of the urban disadvantaged to get ahead through school.  For disadvantaged children, however, the school improvement agenda typically is served a la carte or piecemeal.  Many reforms have been tried and some of them hold great promise, but as a society we have yet to implement those reforms systematically in concert and with a sustained commitment.” Alexander and his colleagues suggest that if we did all of the following and did them systemically, it might make a significant difference: provide high quality preschool; address the residential segregation that defines hypersegregated, hyperpoverty neighborhoods; reduce class size; provide engaging summer and after-school programs; ensure well-qualified, well-prepared and well-compensated teachers in the poorest communities; ensure challenging standards and curricula with instructional scaffolding to ensure that children can achieve what is expected; integrate schools economically; and make classrooms respectful of all cultures and the needs of all kinds of parents. (The Long Shadow, 2014, pp. 178-179).

Sociologist Patrick Sharkey explains that economic inequality too often tracks race: “(B)eing raised in a high-poverty neighborhood is extremely rare for whites… but is the norm for African Americans.  Among children born from 1955 through 1970, only 4 percent of whites were raised in neighborhoods with at least 20 percent poverty, compared to 62 percent of African Americans.  Three out of four white children were raised in neighborhoods with less than 10 percent poverty, compared to just 9 percent of African Americans.  Essentially no white children were raised in neighborhoods with at least 30 percent poverty, but three in ten African Americans were.  These figures reveal that African American children born from the mid-1950s to 1970 were surrounded by poverty to a degree that was virtually nonexistent for whites.”  (Stuck in Place, 2013, pp. 26-27)

Focusing on families in the white middle class during the decades Alexander and Sharkey describe, Robert Putnam explains: “Though it might seem natural to label them ‘self-made,’ in many unnoticed ways they benefited from family and community supports that are nowadays less readily available to kids from such modest  backgrounds.  They grew up in an era when public education and community support for kids from all backgrounds managed to boost a significant number of people up the ladder…. Those supportive institutions, public and private, no longer serve poorer kids so well.”  Putnam notes that today’s inequality makes it difficult for those who are not poor to see and understand how poverty is experienced: “Because of growing class segregation in America, fewer and fewer successful people (and even fewer of our children) have much idea how the other half lives.  So we are less empathetic than we should be to the plight of less privileged kids.” (Our Kids, 2015, pp 229-230)

Maybe it is because our society is so segregated by economics as well as race, and maybe it is partly partly because older Americans remember the post WWII years when white families at least experienced more social mobility, many seem drawn to books like Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed, the 2012 best seller about saving poor black children through character education.  If overcoming structural poverty seems too difficult and too expensive for our society to undertake,  maybe we can help poor children overcome their disadvantages by teaching grit and determination.  Tough quotes the academic research of Angela Duckworth, who developed a grit scale to measure  students’ determination.  The students with more grit did better at the National Spelling Bee and were less likely to drop out of West Point. How Children Succeed is a feel-good book and its theory has served as the justification for a lot of behaviorist charter schools that focus on toughening children up, but it contains no ideas for ameliorating structural poverty and growing inequality.

Mike Rose, the education writer and professor at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education, just posted a new piece on his own blog (and also as a guest post in Valerie Strauss’s column) decrying “grit” as a solution to educational inequality: “One of the many frustrating things about education policy and practice in our country is the continual search for the magic bullet…. One such bullet is the latest incarnation of character education, particularly the enthrallment with ‘grit,’ a buzz word for perseverance and determination… I worry about the limited success of past attempts at character education and the danger in our pendulum-swing society that we will shift our attention from improving subject matter instruction… And I fear that we will sacrifice policies aimed at reducing poverty for interventions to change the way poor people see the world.”

Rose has also read Angela Duckworth’s research, and he gives Duckworth and her colleagues credit for honesty about the qualifications and limitations of their study; they did not oversell their theory:  “The studies are correlational, so do not demonstrate causality… But Duckworth and her colleagues did something that in retrospect was a brilliant marketing strategy, a master stroke of branding—or re-branding.  Rather than calling their construct ‘perseverance’ or ‘persistence,’ they chose to call it ‘grit.’  Can you think of a name that has more resonance in American culture?  The fighter who is all heart.  The hardscrabble survivor.  True Grit.  The Little Train that Could.  Grit exploded.  New York Times commentators, best-selling journalists, the producers of This American Life, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, educational policy makers and administrators all saw the development of grit as away to improve American education, and more pointedly, to improve the achievement of poor children, who, everyone seemed to assume, lacked grit.”

Rose is certainly not opposed to character traits of discipline and perseverance: “Let me repeat here what I’ve written in every other commentary on grit.   Of course, perseverance is an important characteristic.” He points out, however, that the victims of our latest “grit” fad are the very children who, it is assumed, will be the beneficiaries of programs in character education:  “Regardless of disclaimers, the primary audience for our era’s character education is poor kids.  As I and a host of others have written, a focus on individual characteristics of low-income children can take our attention away from the structural inequalities they face… I realize that what grit advocates want is to help young people better cope with such hardship… But if as a society we are not also working to improve the educational and economic realities these young people face, then we are engaging in a cruel hoax, building aspiration and determination for a world that will not fulfill either.”

Rose concludes: “It is hard to finish what you begin when food and housing are unstable, or when you have three or four teachers in a given year, or when there are few people around who are able to guide and direct you.  It is equally hard to pursue a career with consistency when jobs available to you are low-wage, short-term and vulnerable, and have few if any benefits or protections… Personality psychology by its disciplinary norms concentrates on the individual, but individual traits and qualities, regardless of how they originate and develop, manifest themselves in social and institutional contexts.”  Justice must be systemic; it cannot be achieved one child at a time by schools that emphasize the development of grit.


We’ll Have to Do Something About Poverty to Improve School Achievement

In the New Yorker essay she just published on the Atlanta test-cheating scandal, Rachel Aviv quotes education researcher David Berliner: “The people who say poverty is no excuse for low performance are now using teacher accountability as an excuse for doing nothing about poverty.”  While research demonstrates a strong correlation between extreme family poverty and children’s struggles to achieve at school, many us living in middle and upper income communities struggle to discern how family poverty affects children and how the poverty of a neighborhood affects the public schools. We don’t spend much time in poor neighborhoods and we rarely go into a public school once our own children are grown. Today this blog will review some of the evidence, particularly about the impact of concentrated poverty, a phenomenon especially evident in places like Philadelphia, Detroit, Newark, Memphis, Cleveland, and Gary.

Paul Jargowsky, Director of the Center for Urban Research and Education at Rutgers, defines concentrated poverty as a neighborhood where 40 percent or more of the people are poor.  In such neighborhoods, he writes, fewer than half the men are likely to be employed and fewer than half the children are likely to be living in a two-parent family.  This kind of poverty doubled between 1970 and 1990, writes Jargowsky, then diminished in the strong economy of the 1990s, and has risen quickly since 2000.

In his recent book, Stuck in Place, New York University sociologist Patrick Sharkey explains whose lives are shaped by living in such circumstances: “Being raised in a high-poverty neighborhood is extremely rare for whites…  but is the norm for African Americans.  Among children born from 1955 through 1970, only 4 percent of whites were raised in neighborhoods with at least 20 percent poverty, compared to 62 percent of African Americans.  Three out of four white children were raised in neighborhoods with less than 10 percent poverty, compared to just 9 percent of African Americans.  Essentially no white children were raised in neighborhoods with at least 30 percent poverty, but three in ten African Americans were…  This degree of racial inequality is not a remnant of the past….  If there is any difference between children in the previous generation and in the current one, the degree of neighborhood disadvantage experienced by African American children has worsened in the current generation…  Even today, 31 percent of African American children live in neighborhoods where the poverty rate is 30 percent or greater, a level of poverty that is unknown among white children.” (pp. 27-29)

Cities where African American concentrated poverty is greatest, according to Jargowsky, are Detroit, Milwaukee, Rochester, Tallahassee, Dayton, Cleveland, Gary, Louisville, Buffalo, and Memphis.  Hispanic families also experience concentrated poverty, with the highest rates in Texas—Laredo, McAllen, Brownsville; in California—Fresno and Visalia; and in Las Cruces, New Mexico; and also in several cities in the East and Upper Midwest: Philadelphia; Springfield, Massachusetts; Milwaukee; and Hartford.

Another variable that makes an enormous difference for the children, according to Sharkey’s research, is embedded in the poverty data: “In essence, when white families live in a poor neighborhood, they typically do so for only a single generation; when they live in a rich neighborhood, they usually stay there for multiple generations.  The opposite is true for African American famlies: Neighborhood affluence is fleeting, and neighborhood poverty is most commonly multigenerational.” (p. 39, emphasis in the original)

Jargowsky contends that, “Concentration of poverty is the direct result of policy choices.  Political fragmentation means that hundreds of suburbs develop.”  “Suburbs grow much faster than is needed to accommodate metropolitan population growth.”  “By policy and tradition, we create a durable architecture of segregation that ensures the concentration of poverty.” In the long term, Jargowsky prescribes reversing the trajectory of suburbanization.

Is there a way to address today at least some of the issues for the children attending schools where segregation by economic level has become entrenched?  First, the demographic data demonstrate that today’s wave of  “portfolio school reform” that closes public schools and opens privately managed charter schools is not designed to address the primary issues in Philadelphia and Detroit and Cleveland; neither are voucher programs in Cleveland and Milwaukee. If we choose to support children living in the circumstances these researchers describe, it will be necessary to develop the political will to invest publicly in the schools in communities where poverty seems intractable.  We’ll need to provide incentives to attract the best teachers and support teachers instead of blaming them when they cannot overcome such issues on their own.  We’ll need to reduce class sizes.  We’ll need to provide the kind of wrap-around health and social services embedded in Community Schools.  We’ll need to create quality pre-Kindergarten programs to catch children up before the achievement gap gets established prior to their even beginning school. The federal government will need to increase investment in improving the public schools in our poorest communities and  find ways to create incentives to ensure that states also increase their investment in quality education for children living in poverty.

In short we’ll have to take David Berliner seriously: “The people who say poverty is no excuse for low performance are now using teacher accountability as an excuse for doing nothing about poverty.”  There is no excuse for the kind of punitive public education policy our nation is currently practicing.

The Language of School “Reform” Distracts Us from the Needs of Children and Their Schools

Despite its name, if you drive along Lakeview Road between St. Clair and Superior  in Cleveland, Ohio, you cannot see Lake Erie.  Today your view will be of boarded up houses.  About a third of the two-family  houses that line Lakeview and the sidestreets that cross it are boarded up. If you go to Zillow’s real estate map, you’ll find that most of these houses are listed as “foreclosed–auction.”   There are lots covered with weeds or grass where there used to be houses before the foreclosure crisis.  Sometimes enterprising neighbors have planted a garden in an empty lot next door.  There is a four block interval between the recently bulldozed lots that were once the sites of two different public elementary schools—boarded up for years before they were demolished.  The most viable institution is St. Aloysius Catholic Church at the corner of St. Clair Avenue, but the only other two institutions left on this mile-long stretch of Lakeview itself are a convenience store surrounded by cracked asphalt and gravel, and the Virtual School House, a charter school that advertises on the back of Regional Transit Authority buses.  The Virtual School House occupies an ancient, decrepit nursing home that was toured several years ago by a not-for-profit group considering it for rehab as permanent supportive housing for the homeless, but the building wasn’t really considered suitable.

I have driven along Lakeview Road twice in the past month.  Both times I have thought about the children living in this neighborhood.  I know that their standardized test scores are likely lower than we would wish at the public school that is much farther away than before Lakeview Road’s schools were demolished.  I am certain their school is considered a “failing” school.  Low-performing.  In need of turnaround.  Perhaps closure.  I have thought about the irony, on my trips down Lakeview Road, that these days we are likely to define the “education problem” in such neighborhoods as the teachers.  Our policies blame those who would choose to teach here.  Schools in our cities fail these days because of teachers’ seniority rights and the cost of any raises they have been able to negotiate. It is all set up to benefit the adults at the school and to meet their needs, but we need to fix things so that these schools put students first. Right?

I have lived in greater Cleveland for almost 40 years, and certainly I am not surprised by what I can see in any particular neighborhood.  But my drive down Lakeview Road a month ago made me come home and pull some books off my shelf.  I looked at Organizing Schools for Improvement: Lessons from Chicago, a study by Anthony Bryk and the Consortium on Chicago School Research that examined essential supports that will be necessary in 46 “truly disadvantaged” schools in Chicago. In a school district where many schools are troubled with poverty, the researchers identified these 46 schools that are poorer than the rest. The families they serve are 96 percent low income: 64 percent of adult males in these families are unemployed; the median family income is $9,480; and the percentage of families living below the poverty line is 70 percent. Bryk and his colleagues prescribe strategies for improving the schools that serve children in such neighborhoods, but they point out that realistically,  “At both the classroom and the school level, the good efforts of even the best educators are likely to be seriously taxed when confronted with a high density of students who are in foster care, homeless, neglected, abused, and so on.  Classroom activity can understandably get diverted toward responding to these manifest personal needs.  Similarly, it can be difficult at the school level to maintain collective attention on instructional improvement when the social needs of children continue to cry out for adult attention.”

I sat down and read the whole of Thomas Sugrue’s history of post-WWII Detroit: The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit.  I learned that after the Great Migration, African Americans struggled to get good jobs in the auto plants except during the labor shortage of the war years.  Even a list of chapter titles connects the dots: “‘Detroit’s Time Bomb’: Race and Housing in the 1940s — ‘The Coffin of Peace’: The Containment of Public Housing — ‘The Meanest and the Dirtiest Jobs’: The Structures of Employment Discrimination — ‘The Damning Mark of False Prosperities’: The Deindustrialization of Detroit — ‘Forget about Your Inalienable Right to Work’: Responses to Industrial Decline and Discrimination — Class, Status, and Residence: The Changing Geography of Black Detroit — ‘Homeowners’ Rights’: White Resistance and the Rise of Antiliberalism — ‘United Communities are Impregnable’: Violence and the Color Line — and Crisis: Detroit and the Fate of Postindustrial America.”

Then I re-read sociologist Patrick Sharkey’s relatively new book, Stuck in Place: Urban Neighborhoods and the End of Progress toward Racial Equality.  Sharkey locates public schools as merely one part of a complex urban ecology: “Inequality does not exist exclusively at the level of the individual or the family; rather, various forms of inequality are organized or clustered in social settings like neighborhoods, schools and political districts, and these social settings represent crucial sites at which American inequality is generated, maintained, and reinforced.  Perhaps the most powerful evidence… is that a wide range of social phenomena such as violence, joblessness, and physical and mental health outcomes tend to be clustered together in space… Our nation’s educational system is just one of many institutions that link individuals’ residential locations with their life chances.”

Today, however, we prefer to adopt the rhetoric of the marketplace as we think about urban schools.  Blame teachers.  Blame their unions.  Bring in charters.  We have adopted a narrative that posits that if we offer school choice, parents will become their own entrepreneurs who will propel their children out of the neighborhood on a wave of opportunity.  It is appealing rhetoric and the story itself embodies a happy ending that is unlikely to happen very often on Lakeview Road.

Finally I went back to one of my very favorite books on public education and opportunity, Mike Rose’s Why School?.  Rose cautions us to be precise in the language and metaphors we use to frame our educational challenges: “Citizens in a democracy must continually assess the performance of their public institutions.  But the quality and language of that evaluation matter.  Before we can evaluate, we need to be clear about what it is we’re evaluating, what the nature of the thing is: its components and intricacies, its goals and purpose.  We should also ask why why we’re evaluating.  To what end?  Neither the sweeping rhetoric of public school failure nor the narrow focus on test scores helps us here.  Both exclude the important, challenging work done daily in schools across the country, thereby limiting the educational vocabulary and imagery available to us.”

Rose quotes historian Michael Katz who writes about the arrogance and distance of policy strategists who pose market solutions like the Virtual Schoolhouse on Lakeview Road: “Market models seem appropriate to us when we deal with strangers—with the alien collectivity rather than the familiar individual.”

Instead Rose suggests we adopt the language of school investment and improvement—the same kind of basic support that Anthony Bryk and his colleagues in Chicago imagined for their 46 “truly disadvantaged schools.”  Here are Rose’s words:  “Poor schools need stability and shoring up of the resources they do have.  They need long-term development of teachers and principals who are familiar with their struggles and committed to the students in their communities.  These schools need to be tightly connected to social and health services—for many of their students carry big burdens—having some of those services on the school site, if possible.  The schools should become focal institutions in their communities, involving parents and networking with existing community groups and agencies working for educational and economic improvement, becoming a neighborhood meeting place and a center for civic activity.”

The right language helps, doesn’t it.  Let’s use it to demand leadership for change.

60 Years after Brown v. Board: School “Reform” Ignores Injustices of Urban America

On May 17, we’ll mark the 60th anniversary of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education.  Richard Rothstein, research associate at the Economic Policy Institute and senior fellow at the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy at the University of California, has prepared a short brief to summarize where we were in 1954, how far we’ve come, and how far we have to go in the area of racial justice in our public schools.  It is a discouraging picture for a lot of reasons.

But first, a bit of the history Rothstein presents. “In fact, black children are more racially and socioeconomically isolated today than at any time since data have been collected.  Of course, Brown did accomplish a great deal….   Although today, typical black students in Southern states attend schools where only 29 percent of their fellow students are white….  in 1954 the percentage was zero… Black student achievement, nationwide, and in every state, has improved at a spectacular rate since Brown… The National Assessment of Educational Progress shows, for example, that black fourth-graders now have average math scores that are better than average white math scores only a generation ago. Yet because average white achievement has also improved, the gap between black and white achievement remains…”

But, as Rothstein explains, Brown was not merely “a principled objection to the idea of ‘separate but equal.'”  It was also an objection to “Southern states’ unrestrained contempt for the ‘equal part of the formula’.”  In Clarendon County, South Carolina, spending for white schools was four times the spending in black schools. The value of school facilities for whites was nine times higher than the schools provided for blacks;  white schools had lavatories while black schools had outhouses.  The student-teacher ratio was 28-1 for whites and 47-1 for blacks. Black students walked long distances to school and they and their teachers cleaned the buildings themselves, while white schools had custodians.  Significant disparities also separated the curriculum, which too often emphasized “manual skills” in home economics and agriculture at black schools.

To understand racial injustice at school sixty years after Brown, however, one must look more broadly at the history of economic and racial injustice in urban America, for much of racial injustice in education has now become an urban phenomenon.  Reading Rothstein’s article, or sociologist Patrick Sharkey’s extraordinary 2013 book, Stuck in Place: Urban Neighborhoods and the End of Progress toward Racial Equality,  or Thomas Sugrue’s classic 1996 history, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, one is quickly overwhelmed by the realization that the history of public school inequality since the Brown decision is not merely the story of public schools.  These writers describe the complex and troubling social ecology of the twenty-first century American urban landscape, with Sugrue the historian examining the seeds of American industrial decline back into the 1940s.

Sharkey explains that, “inequality does not exist exclusively at the level of the individual or the family; rather, various forms of inequality are organized or clustered in social settings like neighborhoods, schools and political districts, and these social settings represent crucial sites at which American inequality is generated, maintained, and reinforced.  Perhaps the most powerful evidence… is that a wide range of social phenomena such as violence, joblessness, and physical and mental health outcomes tend to be clustered together in space… Our nation’s educational system is just one of many institutions that link individuals’ residential locations with their life chances.” (p. 14)

Sharkey and Sugrue describe public policies since World War II—policies derived from political tradeoffs at the local, state, and federal level along with industrial decline and relocation—that  have perpetuated and enhanced inequality and segregation.  The condition of urban public schools across America on this 6oth anniversary of Brown is only one part of a much larger and little discussed urban crisis.  Sharkey notes: “Prior to the civil rights era, racial inequality had been tacitly or explicitly supported by law.  In the post civil right period racial inequality has been maintained by a combination of informal actions of individuals, organized collective action,and political efforts and public policies designed to maintain and reinforce racial and class inequality in urban neighborhoods,”  that have included “massive subsidization of white outmigration from central cities, combined with a concerted effort to consolidate black urban populations with centralized public housing.” (pp. 58-59) This began with redlining by the Home Owners Loan Corporation in the 1930s which “then extended to subsequent home mortgage programs… run through the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and Veterans Administration (VA).”  To promote neighborhood stability, according to Sharkey, “The official FHA guidelines discouraged loans to racial minorities and prohibited loans that would lead to racially or economically integrated neighborhoods.” (p. 60)  Other policies included local zoning laws and minimum lot sizes in the suburbs.  Federally subsidized “urban renewal” beginning in 1950 cleared massive tracts of slum housing but merely displaced poor communities as the land was often left empty or used for other purposes but not redeveloped for housing. Highway building policies made suburbia possible, and as Rothstein details in his piece, enforcement of fair housing laws has been lax.

Through the lens of Detroit’s history, Sugrue traces the other primary contributor to today’s crisis: the last half-century’s de-industrialization of the American city. While employment in the auto industry had opened for African Americans during WWII, by 1967, “somewhere between 25 and 30 percent of young blacks (between ages eighteen and twenty-four) were out of work.  The combination of persistent discrimination in hiring, technological change, decentralized manufacturing, and urban economic decline had dramatic effects on the employment prospects of blacks in metropolitan Detroit.  What was even more striking was the steady increase of adults who were wholly unattached to the urban labor market.  Nearly one in five of all Detroit adults did not work at all or worked in the informal economy in 1950.  The number grew steadily in the 1960s… By 1980, nearly half of the adult male population had only tenuous connections to the city’s formal labor market.” (pp. 261-262)

In today’s ghettos, Sharkey describes the paired phenomena of high unemployment and over-policing: “These communities are … the product of the punitive response to widespread economic dislocation, in which increasingly harsh punishment has led to levels of imprisonment that are unmatched in the world and that are targeted toward the by-products of deindustrialization: young, less educated minority men.” (p. 79)

In the conclusion of his profound history of Detroit, Sugrue adds one more serious concern: about a sort of policy disdain that has come to describe America’s response to its urban crisis: “The most enduring legacy of the postwar racial struggles in Detroit has been the growing marginalization of the city in local, state, and national politics.  Elected officials in Lansing and Washington, beholden to a vocal, well-organized, and defensive white suburban constituency, have reduced funding for urban education, antipoverty, and development programs.  At the same time, Detroit—like its counterparts around the country—grapples with a declining tax base and increasingly expensive social, economic, and infrastructural problems.” (p. 268)

In the two decades since Sugrue published this book that portended the collapse of Detroit today into bankruptcy and its school district into state-controlled emergency management, we see government policies across the country at federal and state levels that fail to name, let alone address the real problems in urban America.  In public school policy, legislatures dominated by representatives of the suburbs pass laws to reduce state taxes and urban investment.  Federal policy thrusts Detroit, Philadelphia, Newark and a host of other public school districts into “portfolio school reform” that mandates public school closure or privatization of so-called “failing” schools.  Today we blame and scapegoat the teachers in urban schools when they are unable to deliver high test scores by children.  And when they are unable to deliver us from our urban crisis.

I wonder when we’ll admit that the current wave of school “reform”—like urban renewal in the 1950s—is only making things worse? Today’s policies are deepening injustice for the children hyper-segregated by race and poverty in a very unequal America sixty years after  Brown v. Board of Education.

Economic and Racial Inequality Obliterate Opportunity in America: Do We Care?

The 50th anniversary this month of the passage of the Civil Rights Act has produced some soul-searching journalism.  How is it our society has made so little progress?

In an early April interview at, Stanford University professor and education writer Linda Darling-Hammond describes the injustices in public education in the United States: “First of all, we have a dramatically unequal allocation of wealth in the society, which is getting worse…. Then we need schools that are equitably funded, with more money going to the students who have the greatest needs…And then beyond that, I think we have to be sure that the state builds a high-quality teaching force, well-prepared for all candidates… It’s a fundamental problem of the red-lining… around those schools that allowed them to become such poor places for teaching and learning.  That is the real problem that has to be addressed.”

During the same week, Valerie Strauss printed in the Washington Post a column by Economic Policy Institute advocate Elaine Weiss and New York University sociologist Patrick Sharkey in which they declared: “Stuck in place. That seems the most accurate description for the circumstances in which many African-American children and their families find themselves today… When it comes to neighborhood and school inequality, the federal government has always had a short attention span.  Small-scale, short-term initiatives to address urban disadvantage have come and gone, but our nation has never made a commitment to durable policies with the capacity to transform communities, schools, and the lives of families within them.  As a result, neighborhood inequality has been passed down to the current generation.  About two out of three African Americans who were raised in poor neighborhoods grow up and raise their own children in similarly poor neighborhoods compared to just two out of five whites… These disturbing statistics indicate that racial inequality is multi-generational.  The challenges facing black children today are a continuation of the disadvantages experienced by generations of their family members. And the cumulative experience of life in the nation’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods is most severe.”

Then  last Saturday’s NY Times published a disturbing and moving reflection on racial segregation by columnist Charles M. Blow:  “The landmark act brought an end to legal racial segregation in public places.  But now we are facing another, worsening kind of segregation, one not codified but cultural: We are self-sorting, not only along racial lines but also along educational and income ones, particularly in our big cities.  Our cities are increasingly becoming vast outposts of homogeneity and advantage, arcing ever upward, interspersed by deserts of despair, all of which produces in them some of the highest levels of income inequality ever seen in this country.”  Blow quotes the research from sociologists Sean Reardon and Kendra Bischoff that the proportion of American families living in extremely affluent communities has grown from 7 to 15 percent between 1970 and 2009, while in the same period the percentage of families segregated in extremely poor neighborhoods has grown from 8 to 18 percent.  And Blow reports on new research from the Civil Rights Project that, “New York has the most segregated schools in the country.”  He reports that, according to Reuters, “About 40 percent of white Americans and about 25 percent of nonwhite Americans are surrounded exclusively by friends of their own race.”

We are left to contemplate the reality that none of these writers confronts head-on: those making our education policy from the U.S. Department of Education (working closely with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and other mega-philanthropies), to the Congress, to the legislators in our statehouses (increasingly working hand-in-glove with the American Legislative Exchange Council) are not honestly talking about any of this.  The education press is filled with discussions of Value Added (econometric) Measures for teacher evaluation and the pros and cons of the Common Core Standards and portfolio school reform theory that emphasizes school closures and privatization.  But we hardly ever read about steps that might be taken to ameliorate poverty.  We almost never talk about creating disincentives for the kind of self-sorting Blow describes—the growing economic segregation overlaid on racial segregation in urban America.  And talk about increasing investment in public education and targeting public investment to schools in our nation’s most desperate communities seems more and more limited to the school finance experts.

All this is the sobering reality this month as America marks the 50th Anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act.




Concentrated Poverty in 2014 Now 50 Percent Higher than in 2000

In her recent book, Reign of Error, Diane Ravitch decries the lack of political leadership during the past quarter century to address what she calls “the toxic mix”: racial segregation, poverty, and inequality:

“In the absence of active leadership by federal officials and the judiciary, the public is apathetic about racial and ethnic segregation, as well as socioeconomic segregation…  Neither of the major federal efforts of the past generation—No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top—has even mentioned segregation….  While these programs directed billions of federal aid, they did not leverage any funding to promote desegregation of schools or communities, and in their demand to expand the charter sector, they may have worsened the problem.  As black and Hispanic students remain segregated in large numbers, their academic achievement remains low.  Then federal law stigmatizes their schools as ‘failing’ and recommends firing their principals and their teachers and closing their schools.” (pp. 294-295).

One advocate who has persistently drawn our attention to the impact of concentrated poverty and inequality overlaid on racial segregation is Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute.  In a new piece posted on the website of the Economic Policy Institute, African American Poverty: Concentrated and Multi-Generational, Rothstein describes his just-published review for the American Prospect of a new book by sociologist, Patrick Sharkey, Stuck in Place, which according to Rothstein explores the multi-generational impact of living in communities where poverty is extreme and children and their families are surrounded by a concentration of families where there is little hope.

Rothstein also directs our attention to Paul Jargowsky’s new report from the Century Foundation and Rutgers Center for Urban Research and Education: Concentration of Poverty in the New Millennium.  According to Jargowsky, “the number of high-poverty census tracts—those with poverty rates of 40 percent or more—fell 26 percent, from 3,417 in 1990 to 2,510 in 2000.”  However, “The sharp reduction in high-poverty neighborhoods observed in the 2000 census… has since been completely reversed.  The count of such tracts increased by 800 (32 percent) between 2000 and the 2005-2009 ACS data to nearly the level of 1990….  In the latest available data, spanning 2007-2011, the count of high poverty tracts rose by an additional 454 (14 percent) to 3,764, eclipsing the 1990 high.  Overall, the number of high-poverty tracts has increased by 50 percent since 2000.”

I agree with Rothstein that we must educate ourselves about our society’s growing inequality as one step toward building the political will to address the tragedy and injustice of ongoing denial of opportunity for generations of children.  Rothstein concludes his recent blog post: “Reading Patrick Sharkey’s Stuck in Place and Paul Jawarsky’s Concentration of Poverty is a sobering way to start 2014  But for deeper insights into the challenges we face in narrowing inequality, I recommend you do so.”