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Integration Is a Noble Goal, But Obsessing Over It Shouldn’t Distract Us From Improving Teaching and Learning

How Are The Children?

Another week, another headline about the urgency of jettisoning efforts to improve teaching and learning for all kids and instead laser-focusing on ending segregation in public schools. This time it’s a new Stanford study, and the Hechinger Report headline saying “poverty is the biggest hurdle” in education. 

A careful reading of the study finds something slightly different than that. 

After analyzing test scores of third through eighth graders in every public school for the years between 2008 and 2015, researcher Sean Reardon’s team concluded: “Our analyses provide evidence that racial school segregation is closely linked to racial inequality in academic performance.” The more accurate headline is “it’s the poverty of the schools, not the race of the students that stokes the achievement gap.”

Given that diagnosis—segregation is the problem, the only cure must be integration. I’m not convinced.

I wish the good people at Stanford and Hechinger would offer a trigger warning when sending these messages to the public. Seeing it on Twitter I reflexively tweeted:

People didn’t like that, but my patience with integration fundamentalists—who, as far as I can tell, are mostly White progressives and the upwardly mobile people of color who to my eyes look like they desperately want to be White progressives—is short. 

We know too much about the importance of in-school interventions to stand still while integration-or-bust zealots weaponize sociological research to distract us from the mission to improve teacher quality, pedagogy, curriculum, behavior management, science-based practices. Integration, nowhere on the horizon, lets education leaders off the hook for fixing their systems now.

Who is unaware of the conspiracy of broken systems that fail to prepare talented teachers for the classroom; fail to support those teachers to do their best work; fail to fairly distribute resources so that children with the most needs can have a first-world opportunity to learn; fail to produce principals worthy of leading teaching staff; fail to prepare school boards worthy of overseeing multi-million dollar budgets and hiring and holding accountable chief executives who have a shelf life of longer than three years?

HOW WILL A MASSIVE EFFORT TO SHUFFLE ALL OF AMERICA’S SCHOOLCHILDREN, SO THAT NO SCHOOLS ARE MAJORITY BLACK OR NON-WHITE, FIX ALL OF THOSE ENDEMIC PROBLEMS IN PUBLIC EDUCATION? I think the more pertinent question is, how will a massive effort to shuffle all of America’s schoolchildren, so that no schools are majority Black or non-White, fix all of those endemic problems in public education?

Despite the staggering improbability of such a solution, the good people at Stanford want us to know there is no breaking the correlation between poverty and achievement without closing poor schools and shipping students to schools with better peers. They say:

…while there are examples of highly effective high-poverty schools, it is not clear we know how to do so systematically in the context of high levels of segregation … we have no example of a school district where minority students disproportionately attend high poverty schools that does not have a large racial achievement gap. If it were possible to create equal educational opportunity under conditions of segregation and economic inequality, some community—among the thousands of districts in the country—would have done so. None have. Separate is still unequal.

There is so much to unpack here. 

First, the study admits there are “examples of highly effective high-poverty schools.” Doesn’t that indicate it is possible to break the poverty-achievement correlation?

Second, why the vague language saying “it’s not clear we know” how to teach children who are not in integrated schools? Who is this “we” that doesn’t know? Is it charter schools—that are missing from Reardon’s research—like Success Academy in New York that routinely wipes the floor with more affluent schools or the KIPP network that does the same? And, what about the traditional district schools that seem to be invisible to the naked eye, but in fact, are both high poverty and doing well?

Finally, on this dizzy rhetorical rejoinder about “separate is still unequal,” can we admit that after 65 years of integration fever, at best we have achieved pockets of “together and still unequal”? In most of our “integrated” schools, students of color and the poor are still sequestered away from adequate courseworkAdvanced Placement, and gifted and talented programs, even when they qualify.

If the question before us is, how are the children when it comes to school integration, I have to admit the research is right: After a 400-year struggle for racial equality, our babies and youth are reared in racially, economically and socially separate environments. As with the adults around them, they live divided. 

We can do better. I never want to be counted as opposed to building a beloved community where all God’s children find fellowship. 

Research is clear about the benefits of our learning, working and living together. Yet, closing the most damaging education gaps that put our children on different trajectories requires tough-minded dedication to educational interventions that improve teaching and learning wherever they live. 

There is no evidence that our public schools will be integrated anytime soon, so, while we wait, we’re smart to stick with the tried and true milestones of education reform. Parents and educators should be doing everything possible so that children start kindergarten ready for school. Students should be reading to learn by third grade and starting at least algebra in eighth grade. And no youth should spend 12 years in a school system only to graduate high school without the tools needed to earn a spot in college or the economic mainstream.

This weekly “How Are the Children” series always posts here and at Education Post.

What Do You Think?
Chris Stewart
Chris Stewart is the Chief Executive Officer of Education Post, a media project of the Results in Education Foundation. He is a lifelong activist and 20-year supporter of nonprofit and education-related causes. Stewart has served as the director of outreach and external affairs for Education Post, the executive director of the African American Leadership Forum (AALF), and an elected member of the Minneapolis Public Schools Board of Education.

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