"Is Racial Integration Essential to Achieving Quality Education for Low-Income Minority Students, In The Short Term? In the Long Term?"July/August 1996 issue of Poverty & Race
Elaine Gantz Berman
Is racial integration essential to achieving quality education for low-income minority students? No. Let me describe the experience of one Denver high school to explain why.
Manual High School, which has been racially "integrated" for the past 25 years, is located on the outskirts of downtown Denver in a neighborhood that is 95% Hispanic and African American. Historically, the neighborhoods surrounding the school have high rates of poverty, single-parent families, and crime and gang activity. Because Denver has been under court-ordered busing for the past 25 years, Anglos now account for approximately 50% of Manual's student population. During this time the teaching staff has been predominantly Anglo. And, while Anglo parents have to travel greater distances to the school, they are more involved with a wide range of school activities than parents of children of color.
In September 1995, Denver was released from court-ordered busing. School boundaries are being redrawn to coincide with those of the neighborhood. If Manual becomes a neighborhood school, the student body will reflect the neighborhood and be comprised of 95% students of color. As Manual charts its future course, it needs to consider the success of its current education program. Has "integration" improved student achievement for its low-income students? Should "integration" be a goal for the future?
Academically, there are two schools at Manual—one for Anglos and one for students of color. For example, Manual has a highly regarded college preparatory program and has graduated students who on a regular basis go on to attend the country's most elite colleges. However, the vast majority of these students are Anglo. Most of the students who assume leadership positions in the school—student council representatives, yearbook staff, class presidents—also are Anglos. On the other hand, only a handful of students of color are in the accelerated and advanced placement college preparatory classes. And while 35% of Manual High School's 1000 students are African American, on average ten African American males have graduated each of the past three years. In examining standardized test scores, there are large gaps in performance between the middle-income Anglo students and the lower-income students of color. It is clear from looking at numerous educational indicators that an integrated student body has not improved outcomes for low-income students of color at Manual High School. And it is equally clear that Manual is not racially "integrated." Rather, it is desegregated.
As the community ponders Manual's future, Denver citizens reflect on its past reputation and express fears about its future. Over the past 25 years, the teachers, parents and alumni have taken great pride in the school, its educational program, the quality of its teaching staff and its racial diversity. Many Manual parents and teachers are worried that if the school becomes racially segregated, discipline problems and gang-related violence will increase. There also is concern that many of Manual's excellent teachers will leave, both for perceived safety reasons and
because the majority of highly motivated students will no longer attend the school. And there is genuine concern for the social considerations of having a diverse student body. Parent activists argue that students need to get to know youth from other backgrounds, to break down stereotypes and become more tolerant of racial and cultural differences.
While it is unsettling to imagine a Manual that is not desegregated and without a superb college-bound program, it is even more disturbing to admit the school has not successfully educated almost haff of its students. The reasons are complex and have more to do with income than race. But, all this considered, as the Denver school community ponders the future of Manual, they would be wise to focus on the attributes of a great school, such as a clear educational mission, a strong visionary principal, motivated, competent teachers with high morale, and strong parent and neighborhood involvement, rather than on the goal of attracting an integrated student body. One of the challenges now facing Manual is who should be involved in determining its fate: the current group of predominantly Anglo active parents and teachers; the parents from the surrounding neighborhoods whose children will soon be attending Manual; or the school board and administration? I would entrust the future of Manual to the parents from the neighborhood; they have the most to gain and the most to lose.
Phyllis Hart and Joyce Germaine Watts
"Integrated" or "segregated" public schools? Given the evidence, a case could be made on either side. After almost 30 years in urban public education, we have to respond to this question by spotlighting what has shown to be as critical as material resources: teacher beliefs and expectations about student ability.
We live in a society with deeply held beliefs about ability and intelligence, and an educational system that is organized to sort and separate those who are perceived as talented and smart from those who are perceived as lacking those qualities. Institutional belief systems play out both in "segregated" and "integrated" school settings.
What is it that happens in a "segregated" school setting where students attend school in their home communities? At the risk of stereotyping, our experience shows that these schools have higher numbers of inexperienced teachers, many of whom are underprepared in pedagogy and content knowledge in their subject field. In these "segregated" school settings there is a culture of low expectations and remediation. From primary grades on, students are labeled and tracked. At the secondary level, very few college preparatory classes are offered and few students have access to information about opportunities for higher education. These schools remain separate and unequal.
The obvious alternative would seem to be an "integrated" school, where ample resources are available and the test scores are higher, right? Well, not likely.
What are students finding at the end of the bus ride? Something that the plaintiffs in Brown vs. Board of Education could never have foreseen. Because these students come from less desirable schools and are presumed to be less capable, regardless of their real potential, they often are "re-segregated"into the same kinds of remedial curriculum that characterize their home schools. In elementary school, they are placed in groups for "slow learners." When they reach high school, they are automatically programmed into the low-level track. Their courses are usually taught by the least prepared teachers. Obviously, they are still not viewed as "college material" and don't get access to college prep courses or information about higher education. Educators defend the placement of these students in slow tracks according to what they consider "objective criteria." However, actual practice is to the contrary.
Since math is the gatekeeper subject, we asked teachers and counselors in many "integrated" schools why there were so few students of color in algebra, the first stepping stone toward college. They explained that students are placed through a fair system of using standardized math test scores, and those who scored above the 60th percentile were enrolled in algebra. However, when disaggregated by race, the data revealed that even when African American and Latino students score in the top 25th percentile, only 51% and 42%, respectively, are programmed into algebra, compared to 100% Asians and 87.5% of Whites.
The struggle for racial integration of schools meant fighting for access and equity to have quality education nationwide, regardless of setting. In essence, this was an attempt to level the playing field. However, without ad-dressing the beliefs held about African American, Latino, Native American and low-income students, this does .Little to change the educational outcomes. The real question is how do we get all schools, whether "integrated" or "segregated," to hold high expectations for all students? There are success stories in both settings, but only when educators and communities decide that educational equity must be central to a reform agenda and that a system that groups, sorts and tracks students on "perceived" ability serves no one well.
There is no magic bullet of reform. We have to ask ourselves: Do we have the will to see every child in this society educated? If so, then we must invest in making the necessary changes to fundamentally overhaul our schools from a culture of low expectations and remediation to one of high expectations and a belief that all children, especially those who have been underserved historically, need and deserve the highest quality education.
For the past 25 years, racial integration has been used as an essential tool to provide equitable access to facilities, teachers and educational budgets for low-income minority students. Very often, federal judges oversaw implementation of this access by local boards and administration staff. Chief Federal Judge Richard Matsch released the Denver Public Schools District from federal supervision on September 18, 1995. From Denver's experience, low-income minority students have benefitted in terms of access to better facilities, better teachers and a more equitable share of the district budget but have not achieved the goal of a quality education.
As damning as this conclusion may appear, forced racial integration remains an incomplete social policy that after a quarter-century of massive public funding has produced particularly poor results, as demonstrated in high drop‘ out rates, low graduation rates and consistently large gaps in test scores between African American! Hispanic students and Anglo/Asian American students. The results of this failed social policy, coupled with trends towards fiscal and social conservatism, have contributed towards increasing racial separatism. Similarly, Denver's movement towards neighborhood schools is a theme that excites many white families frightened from the District by court-ordered busing, while scaring many minority families too familiar with the inequities that forced the District into the federal lawsuit in the 1960's. The District, committed to returning to neighborhood schools, has reacted convulsively, alternating between passing a resolution against inferior as well as superior school facilities, reopening recently closed schools in low-income minority neighborhoods, relocating popular magnet schools to white middle-class neighborhoods, and simultaneously implementing and postponing attendance boundaries for elementary and secondary schools, respectively.
If a quality education for low-income minority students is the goal, Afro or African-centric charter schools, back-to-basics magnet schools and small .neighborhood schools are simply the school design du jour. Separationist ideals are not new and do not automatically lead to a bad education, any more than racial integration automatically implies a quality education. Examples of extreme separationist school designs currently out of vogue include male military academies and finishing schools for girls. A quality education, particularly for low-income minority students, is a direct result from successful schools, notwithstanding design or operating philosophy.
Successful schools include well-trained staff, engaged communities 3M a focus on learning. The successful schools share with the student the assumption of responsibility in the classroom; share with the parent the value of education; and share with the community the high expectations in a school's role within society. Essential ingredients to a quality education include parents and students engaged in the process of learning; school districts focused on providing basic and clear standards; and staff devoted to the challenge of teaching children.
Racial integration and quality education are not necessarily dependent on each other or mutually exclusive from each other. Forcing one to accomplish the other has not produced the intended results nor has it lessened friction between interested factions or tribes. It is time for those interested in quality education to focus on education, to produce literate children who are ready for school each morning and are prepared to learn the skills necessary to survive and succeed in life, build businesses and strengthen families. When the merit of a quality education rises above the considerations of personal finances and ethnicity, the education of all children will benefit.
Fifteen years ago, I was dead certain that the answer to this question was a resounding "No"! Black kids and brown kids absolutely did not need white kids sitting next to them in order to achieve at high levels. Rather than obsessing about who was sitting next to whom—an increasingly useless preoccupation given the pitifully small numbers of whites left in urban school districts like Oakland, where I lived—it seemed to me that we ought to be concentrating on ensuring that students in predominantly minority schools were educated at the highest levels.
That, in fact, is what I've spent most of the last fifteen years doing: working to upgrade the education provided by schools serving poor and minority children, first in California and then in urban centers across the country. I figured that while Gary Orfield and others like him were worrying about how to get a bitter mix of students, people like me could work on improving schools no matter who they served.
I still believe today what I believed back then: students with lots of pigment do not need students with less pigment in order to achieve at the highest levels. I believe it because I have seen it over and over again. When students are taught to high levels, when they are challenged to use their minds, they absolutely will achieve.
But I am haunted by three as yet unanswered questions:
• Will the American people ever care enough about schools filled with poor black and brown children to invest in them the resources necessary to get these young people to high levels of achievement.., or must such schools also contain more affluent white children?
• Will rank-and-file teachers—minority and white—ever abandon their low expectations and watered-down curriculum for poor minority children.., or must teaching be forced upward by the
presence of more affluent white children?
• Will graduates of racially isolated schools—no matter how well educated—ever be able to come together across racial lines to create a culture where race is no longer a hindrance... or must such a society be seeded in our classrooms?
In my bleaker moments—when I despair in the dark of night about the pace of change or about how difficult it is to secure change not just in a few schools but in a whole system—these doubts crowd their way in and demand equal time. At those moments, I wonder whether Gary hasn't been right all along.
But then there are the good days— the days when our work is going very well; when more poor and minority students in our cities are writing at high levels, passing courses like Algebra and Geometry, and moving on into college; and when we feel like nothing can stop us. On those days—which, fortunately, are in the majority—I don't spend a lot of time agonizing about these questions. I figure Gary can do that.
|Poverty & Race Research Action Council | 740 15th St. NW, Suite 300, Washington, DC 20005|
©Copyright 1992-2018 Poverty & Race Research Action Council