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February 02, 2011

School segregation: Worse than ever?

Two weeks ago, on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, a blog post by Spencer Education Journalism Fellow Dana Goldstein highlighted a harrowing report showing schools today may be more segregated than they were on the day of MLK's death — a defining moment now more than forty years in the past. The report comes from UCLA's Civil Rights Project, and the findings are stark — and bleak, too, if you agree, as most of us I think probably would, that segregation is not something we should be proud of.

What the study shows is that the average white child attends schools with a student body that's 77 percent white, with "only" 32 percent of students living in poverty. Meanwhile, black children attend schools with a much higher poverty rate of 59 percent and a student body that is 29 percent white. (For Latino kids, the numbers are about the same.) Finally, about a third of black and Latino kids go to schools with almost all black or Latino students.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan weighed in, too, and Goldstein also links to a letter to the editor Duncan sent to the Washington Post, which criticized a newly-elected school board in Wake County, N.C. for ending a long-standing and much-lauded school diversity policy.

As Duncan wrote in his letter:

In an increasingly diverse society like ours, racial isolation is not a positive outcome for children of any color or background. School is where children learn to appreciate, respect and collaborate with people different from themselves. I respectfully urge school boards across America to fully consider the consequences before taking such action.

I'd agree with the sentiments expressed in the letter, and it's an issue I've been thinking about a lot lately, especially after having just read "Notes From No Man's Land", a prize-winning essay collection about race and America that explores the topic from the literary perspective of its writer-teacher author.

It's a very good book — poetic and personal, and it's been stuck in my head for a while. Though only in part about education, when Biss is writing about schools, as in the essay "Land Mines," a reflection on a period of time spent teaching in Harlem, the tone that strikes you as a reader, almost more than anything, is a sort of throwing-your-hands-in-the-air. "I lost, in those buildings, all the easy answers I had ever heard put to the problems of schools," she writes, "but I still persisted in believing that there had to be better ways to educate children. What that way might be eluded me more fully the longer I stayed, and the possibilities ceased very quickly to seem as endless as they had during my training, when I had studied educational theory."

Probably it's too easy to look at integration as a panacea, but school segregation is an issue I think we should all be paying more attention to, even while it sinks in its claws and makes a nest of doubt.


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But exactly what is the solution? Forced bussing failed. Parents want their kids in the best schools, so voluntary programs only work when the schools offered are better than their neighborhood option--and what does that do for the kids left behind at the neighborhood school?

schools should be beacons in their neighborhoods. They should ALL be beautiful and wonderful, a place that is cherished by all attendees and neighborhoods. Resources and dedication is the answer. Our strongest leaders need to be installed and celebrated in the most challenged neighborhoods, the campuses must be awe-inspiring with the security and maintenance to keep them that way as the bar rises for those who don't know yet the power of education. We all know dedicated teachers with proper resources change lives.

When that happens ethnic stratification becomes much less an indicator of low performance and maybe someday become a divider as silly as hair color. Hard to imagine dividing students by blond or brunette.

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