Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Racial Balance As Window Dressing

Although it may be impolitic of me to suggest it, in looking at some of the school integration policies affected by the Supreme Court's dramatic narrowing of Brown, I can't help but wonder if the policies were not primarily about keeping up appearances. Juan Williams has listed some of the serious problems which continued despite school integration, as well as the limited effect of the decision:
Desegregation does not speak to dropout rates that hover near 50 percent for black and Hispanic high school students. It does not equip society to address the so-called achievement gap between black and white students that mocks Brown’s promise of equal educational opportunity.

And the fact is, during the last 20 years, with Brown in full force, America’s public schools have been growing more segregated — even as the nation has become more racially diverse. In 2001, the National Center for Education Statistics reported that the average white student attends a school that is 80 percent white, while 70 percent of black students attend schools where nearly two-thirds of students are black and Hispanic
Inner city school districts with very high minority enrollment are unlikely to appear integrated absent an inter-district integration plan. Meanwhile, in school districts which can engage in the balancing of minority populations through school busing, it seems that the central issue is not about equalizing school performance. Instead the primary goal seems to be to achieve ethnic balance when allocating space in the district's most desirable schools. Quality differences between schools don't appear to be much affected by this type of balancing.

Even accepting that having people from a variety of backgrounds and who hold divergent world views can enrich an academic environment, once you also accept race as the best measure of "diversity" you run into additional issues. If you ask random parents whether they believe integrated schools offer a better experience than segregated schools, many (perhaps most) will answer yes. If you then ask them which school they wish their own child to attend,
  • An average quality integrated school across town, requiring at least thirty minutes of transportation each way;
  • An average quality school which is poorly integrated, and in which their child will be in the ethnic majority, a two minute walk from home; or
  • A superlative school which is poorly integrated, and in which their child will be in the ethnic minority, fifteen minutes from home,
how many parents would choose the first option? If the answer were any significant number, Seattle wouldn't have had to impose its affirmative action program on its students.

In respect to the argument that education is improved through ethnic diversity, consider a school district with three schools, with highly simplified demographics:
  • School 1: 90% White; 9% African American; 1% Hispanic
  • School 2: 85% White; 11% African American; 4% Hispanic
  • School 3: 8% White; 85% African American; 7% Hispanic
Are we to assume that the first school is somehow more attractive than the third, simply by virtue of which race is in the overwhelming majority? If so, at least in the modern era, perhaps the problem is not that we can bus kids around such that the races are balanced in each school at 61:35:4, but that equality of funding does not automatically translate into either equality of opportunity or equality of outcome. Integration that does not elevate the quality of the bottom schools is a fig leaf - the population of students in bad schools may be more ethnically balanced, but their total number is not reduced.

Given equality of funding, there are not any easy answers to the question of how to improve lower quality schools. Some proposals, such as forcing the best teachers into the worst schools, are silly. Proponents of such measures often complain that teachers unions prevent this from happening. It would be more accurate to say that teachers' individual preference prevents it from happening, and that union contracts require school boards to give considerable weight to that preference. There is little which would prevent a school board from offering an incentive program to try to encourage teachers to accept positions at struggling schools, save perhaps for a lack of money to fund such measures.

Even if we were to assume that the parents whose children attend the best schools in town, and who are statistically most likely to both vote and to attend school board meetings, would tolerate their children's teachers being dispatched to other schools, such tolerance would likely end if, as this argument inevitably requires, those teachers were replaced with average quality and substandard teachers from other schools. This argument is also insulting to good teachers who have already chosen to work in troubled schools. The assumption that all student bodies are created equal is not correct. An excellent teacher may be able to achieve outstanding results in an academic magnet school, but excellent teaching skills are not of themselves sufficient to guarantee that outcome.

That argument also assumes that a skill set which makes a teacher outstanding within a high performing school will automatically translate into success within a failing school. Wrong. In a failing school, classroom management skills may prove to be more important to maintaining an appropriate learning environment than a teacher's ability to teach once the classroom is orderly. A few years ago I gave "law day" lectures at several middle schools. The students in the high SES school were reasonably well behaved. The students in the low socio-economic status (SES) school were significantly less well-behaved. The easiest environment by far, however, was a Catholic middle school in which the worst behavior I encountered was a boy who wore his winter gloves in class. (What's so bad about that behavior, you ask? Nothing, really.) I had similar experience substitute teaching - in some classrooms most of my time was spent maintaining order, while in others it was never even an issue. I can't draw racial inferences from that experience, as the school district was overwhelmingly white. SES was a highly significant factor.

I am not going to cheerlead "teach to the test" measures like "No Child Left Behind", and I find "mandatory homework" rules to be silly. While legislators don't pay attention to this, or perhaps don't care, such measures can also make it much less enjoyable to teach. But giving the devil its due, NCLB requires some amount of focus on the performance of individual students. I suspect that extra help and tutoring directed at struggling students will, on the whole, have a measurable positive effect on their performance. Forgive my skepticism of the American taxpayer, but I don't think school boards would get much voter support for proposals which overtly fund failing schools at a substantially higher level than average or quality schools, even if that funding is for programs and resources which are absolutely necessary to remedying the imbalance of performance. By moving the focus from the school to the student, you can avoid some of the issues which would emerge if you were to propose, for example, greater per student funding of failing schools. This would make the funding similar to special education, shifting the funding to a different budget such that additional resources could be applied to individual students without making it appear that other schools in the district are underfunded, even if the effect is the same.

You might argue that much of this is window dressing, and that the core of the problem is our society's misconception that public schools should cure all that ails our nation's youth. You might argue that a huge factor in student performance is parental attitudes toward education, parental support for their child's education, and the parents' own level of educational achievement. It would be hard to argue with that, save for observing that those factors are vastly harder to remedy than the problems of the public schools, and the hope is that by making schools better for the current generation you will improve those outside factors for future generations. We'll get better results, though, if we focus on curing the actual problems which underly failing schools.


  1. I read the essay quickly so maybe I missed it, but what is your proposed solution?

    I don't mean to be a jerk (or at least not a bigger one than usual); and I agree with you about what isn't the solution . . . and I'd really like to argue that all we needed was more discipline like they had in the Catholic School in your essay. However, we both know a lot of the reason they had the discipline in the Catholic school is because the students' parents cared enough to put them in a Catholic school . . .

    I realize that a fair amount can be done about inefficient school systems (and corrupt ones like Detroit) but aside from audits and possibly "breaking-up" overly large districts, I'm not sure what you can do that doesn't involve somehow "changing the mindset" of the parents . . . and I don't know how to do that.


  2. There are no easy solutions. Or, perhaps more accurately, there are no cheap solutions - and probably all of the obvious solutions which could affect home environment and support would be regarded as socially intrusive.

  3. . . . so military style academies in remote areas are no longer a preferred option for dealing with "at risk" students? : )

  4. They may be, for certain parents who can afford private school tuition.


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