Jeff Bryant and Amy Stuart Wells Show How Test-and-Punish Contributes to School Segregation

In an important and insightful piece yesterday for the Education Opportunity Network, How ‘Education Reform’ Perpetuates Racial Disparity, Jeff Bryant examines a new report (released late last week by the U.S. Department of Education) about racial disparities in public schools.

Bryant writes:  “America was shocked, shocked, by new data from the U.S. Department of Education last week showing that a child’s education destiny in the nation’s public schools is strongly determined by race.  As the report in the New York Times put it, the new data revealed that, ‘racial minorities are more likely than white students to be suspended from school….’  But racial disparities in the nation’s schools aren’t just about the discipline.  As both the Times report mentioned… and Education Week reported, when students of color aren’t getting disproportionally kicked out of school, they are getting an inferior education.”

Bryant would like to see the Department of Education focus not so much on the presence of educational inequality as on its causes.  He is also looking for some leadership to show us how these problems can be addressed:  “Shocking data for sure… But surely one would think this data would prompt explanation.  Not so much.  In reporting the data, the Department itself found no fault and placed no blame.  As a report in The Huffington Post stated, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan could only say, ‘this data collection shines a clear, unbiased light on places’ but not on any policies, people, or other causational factors.”

For more challenging and useful analysis, Bryant points us to a new report published by the National Education Policy Center, Seeing Past the Colorblind” Myth of Education Policy, a report authored by Teachers College professor Amy Stuart Wells who is an expert on the history of efforts to desegregate public schools.  Wells blames the current “corporate school reform” movement itself for exacerbating injustice for children of color who live in urban areas of concentrated poverty—the very children who are claimed by school “deformers” to be the beneficiaries of these policies.  According to Bryant, Wells identifies decades-old civil rights policies such as school desegregation and affirmative action as correlated with higher achievement by children of color, but condemns today’s brand of so-called school “reform” for intensifying disparities by race in school achievement.

Bryant points to Wells’ conclusion: a system of  “reform” that rewards schools and districts consistently able to post high test scores will by its very nature stigmatize schools and school districts where the children are living in poverty.  After all, five decades of research demonstrate that test scores correlate more closely with family income than any other variable.  Test-score-based systems like ours in America today create a competition among school districts—stigmatizing racially and economically diverse districts and creating incentives for parents with means to seek out the homogeneous, wealthier, high-scoring school districts in the outer suburbs.  Today’s  brand of “school reform” promotes segregation by race and economics.

Here is how Wells herself describes the problem in Seeing Past the Colorblind” Myth of Education Policy:

“When the entire educational system is not only separate and unequal along racial/ethnic lines, but also measured, evaluated and then ‘valued’ almost exclusively according to test scores, the correlation between race and schools deemed to be ‘bad’ based only on these narrow measures is high, exacerbating the race-based inequalities that already exist…. First, neighborhood and school district boundaries are divided by race.  Second, the policy drift away from desegregation and toward market-based school choice policies has led to more racially segregated schools.  And finally, the narrow, test-driven accountability system has fostered negative perceptions of racially diverse schools in comparison with privileged and homogeneous schools.”

I urge you to read and think about Bryant’s accessible article.  If you are able to spend more time, delve into Well’s longer report.  Also check out this blog’s post last Monday, Obama & Duncan Merely Pretend to Address School Inequity.  The post explores problems with the same data report Bryant criticizes from the U.S. Department of Education, some of the causal factors Duncan’s report ignores, and what some experts have proposed as ways to address these disparities.