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.

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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.”

Segregation, Poverty and Inequality: What Ravitch Calls the Toxic Mix At School

In her 2013 book, Reign of Error, education historian Diane Ravitch identifies what she believes are the factors that affect academic achievement: “Segregation is most concentrated in the nation’s cities.  Half of the more than sixteen hundred schools in New York City are more than 90 percent black and Hispanic.  Half of the black students in Chicago and one-third of the black students in New York City attend apartheid schools.  Many black students are doubly segregated, by race and by poverty.”(p. 292)

Several important articles published this week explore the issues of poverty—and the related issue, inequality—and racial segregation, the factors Ravitch calls “the toxic mix.” According to all three writers, we misunderstand our history and hence the issues that plague us today.

In a piece memorializing Nelson Mandela, Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute remembers that in South Africa, Mandela believed that deep confession—getting at the truth of the history that makes us who we are—is necessary as the path to reconciliation.  Rothstein asks Americans to be more honest about the factors that have segregated our neighborhoods, our cities, and our public schools.  “One of the worst examples of our historical blindness is the widespread belief that our continued residential racial segregation, North and South, is ‘de facto,’ not the result of explicit government policy but instead the consequence of private prejudice, economic inequality, and personal choice to self-segregate.”  Explaining the policy choices that caused housing and transportation patterns in the half-century after World War II, Rothstein examines high school history textbooks that make it appear instead as though racial segregation has really always been merely a southern phenomenon, and that today we can’t do anything about it.  Our blindness to the truth of our history is dangerous, writes Rothstein, for,  “If we believe that segregation was an unintended byproduct of private forces, it is too easy to say there is little now that can be done about it.”

Two pieces in the NY Times over the weekend raise the issue of another kind of blindness, the blindness to poverty that may easily come with economic privilege.  Shamus Kahn, a Columbia University sociologist explores how our experience shapes the way we explain the world to ourselves: “We can think of elites as selfish power-hungry monsters, or we can think of them as being like others: products of their particular experience and likely to overgeneralize from it.  Elites understand their own world well enough.  Yes, they underestimate the advantages that helped them along the way and overestimate their own contributions to their status.  But they are not wrong to think that for them there is more mobility and growth today than there was a generation ago.  What they do not see (or care to see) is that for others, stagnation is the new normal.”

Princeton economist Paul Krugman’s recent column, Why Inequality Matters, condemns the impact of the kind of attitudes Kahn describes.  Criticizing Washington’s obsession with closing budget deficits through austerity measures like the sequester, cuts to food stamps,  and threats to pare back Social Security and Medicare, Krugman writes: “Surveys of the very wealthy have… shown that they—unlike the general public—consider budget deficits a crucial issue and favor big cuts in safety-net programs.  And sure enough, those elite priorities took over our policy discourse… Even on what may look like purely technocratic issues, class and inequality end up shaping—and distorting—the debate.”

While it might seem that these more abstract commentaries on our deepest assumptions about race and class don’t touch on achievement at school, Diane Ravitch believes that honestly recognizing the long held attitudes that shape today’s inequality and racial segregation will be essential  if our society is to lift academic achievement. Schools cannot by themselves change the life trajectories of their students: “If we mean to conquer educational inequity, we must recognize that the root causes of poor academic performance are segregation and poverty, along with inequitably resourced schools… We know what good schools look like, we know what great education consists of.  We must bring good schools to every district and neighborhood in our nation.” (p. 9)

Excluding “Over-the-Counter Children” to Protect Elite High Schools

The first time I heard the term “over-the-counter” children, I was with a group visiting New York City, where we were listening to a presentation on school choice in New York from a researcher who used the term in an off-hand way.  We visitors looked at each other and someone asked, “What are over-the-counter children?”  “They are the children who don’t participate in school choice,” we were told.  “Their parents don’t fill out the high school application, or they arrive after the school year begins, or they are homeless.  They just come to the school and try to register.”

My mind jumped immediately back to January of 1960, when my family moved to Havre, Montana on a day that I clearly remember was 35 degrees below zero.  We spent our first night in the Siesta Motel because our furniture had not arrived.  In the morning my mother took me to the Havre Junior High School to register me for the second semester of the seventh grade.  I was sent immediately to class while my mother went off to get us settled.

I was an over-the-counter child.  So were most of the members of the group at our meeting that afternoon in New York City.  We talked about that term, “over-the-counter children,” during dinner that night.  Isn’t that a derogatory term, a term that commodifies children—sort of like aspirin, something you can buy over-the-counter without a prescription? Shouldn’t parents be able to show up to enroll their children in school?  Isn’t that what “the public” in public education is supposed to be about?  For most adults across America, if we moved as children to a new place, our parents took us to school to get us registered.  I had not realized that the term had become an official designation in New York City until I read a report published last week by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform: Over the Counter; Under the Radar.  The report exposes shocking details about how these children fare in the system despite that it ignores my own concerns about the term itself.

“Every year, some 36,000 students who enroll in New York City high schools without participating in the high school choice process are labeled as “over-the-counter” or OTC students and are assigned a school by the New York City Department of Education (DOE).  These young people are among the school system’s highest-needs students—new immigrants, special needs students, previously incarcerated teens, poor or transient or homeless youth, students over age for grade, and students with histories of behavioral incidents in their previous schools.”  The report explains that the challenge of placing such students has grown under the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, as the number of zoned high schools where neighborhood students could enroll by default has been vastly diminished.  Under Mayor Bloomberg school choice at the high school level has become virtually universal.

School choice plans always do the best job of serving the students who understand or whose parents understand the way the application process works and have the emotional, social, financial, and linguistic capacity to learn the options and complete the application process.  In a report several years ago, the New School Center for New York City Affairs documented that a serious problem for eighth graders in New York City is that middle school counselors struggle to master the vast array of high school options, and anyway case loads for middle school counselors are so large that students who can best navigate the high school choice process tend to be those whose parents are able to guide them actively as they learn about high school options and fill out the application.

In the new report, the Annenberg Institute examines whether students classified as “over-the-counter,” who are assigned by the system to available seats, are being sent to high-scoring high schools or to schools with lower test scores and most especially to schools that have already been identified for school closure.  Here is what the Annenberg researchers describe in their findings:

“OTC students are disproportionately assigned to schools with higher percentages of low-performing students, ELLs, and dropouts.” “Large and medium-sized struggling high schools had, on average, a more than 50 percent higher rate of OTC student assignment than the rest of the high schools.”  “Assignments of such massive numbers of OTC students can quickly destabilize schools’ instructional efforts and dismantle long-established, supportive academic cultures.”  And finally, as New York City has begun phasing out large comprehensive high schools, “During each year of the phase-out process, teachers and support staff leave as the closing school’s student population declines… In seven of these thirteen phasing-out schools, the OTC assignment rate was more than 25 percent.”   The scathing report charges that the New York City Public Schools continue to assign students classified as “over-the-counter”—students who bring enormous needs—to schools that are ill-equipped to serve them. The school district has been protecting the test scores of higher-scoring high schools by neglecting to assign high-needs, “over-the-counter” students to the more prestigious high schools.  At the same time the school district continues to phase out and close low-scoring high schools, where ongoing assignment of the most challenging students further diminishes the test scores and virtually ensures these schools will be deemed “failing.”

The Annenberg Institute report is particularly timely this week in the context of the emergence of an intense conversation in the blogosphere about the morality of what has become a national, corporatized school reform strategy premised on providing escapes for the students who are most motivated or whose parents can successfully negotiate school choice to get them into high-scoring magnet or charter schools.  Michael Petrilli spawned the conversation in his recent post at the Education Week blog, Bridging Differences, The Especially Deserving Poor.  Anthony Cody pushed back, also at Education Week, in his Living in Dialogue post, Social Darwinism Resurrected for the New Gilded Age.  Finally Richard Rothstein at the Economic Policy Institute contributed to the conversation with Does “Poverty” Cause Low Achievement”?  I urge you to read carefully all of these pieces along with the new report from the Annenberg Institute.

Together these thoughtful reflections raise the central moral concern about today’s school reform that devalues all the many children who might be broadly described as “over-the-counter”—society’s least precious—the children we can discount because, we might imagine, they aren’t so likely to amount to much. Once educational opportunity depends on competition for choice slots, the most able children win while those who are most vulnerable are likely to be left out and left behind.  For a vision that lifts up opportunity for every child, check out the new Principles that Unite Us, also released just last week, by the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign and nearly one hundred allied organizations.  And consider the very profound words of the Rev. Jesse Jackson: “There are those who would make the case for a race to the top for those who can run.  Instead ‘lift from the bottom’ is the moral imperative because it includes everybody.”