To Dream Again: The Revival of School Integration


During the 40th annual Martin Luther King oratorical festival at our Oakland neighborhood public school earlier this year, the mosaic of children's faces revealed the full spectrum of our country’s most diverse state. On this day, we adults experienced the world anew through the bright eyes of children. White and Black children alike advocated for justice and equality for their brown neighbors. Boys raised their fists for female empowerment; and all demanded bridges, not walls, where learning alongside one another was the norm. For an hour we grown folks sat amazed and enlivened by the powerful messages the young people proclaimed. Hope. Resistance. Compassion. Freedom. Inclusion. Acceptance. Their collective conviction was not bred by the color of their skin or their personal biographies. Their empathy came from intentional parental and curricular exposure to the experiences and perspectives of minorities and the marginalized.

Is this not a prototype of the integration we want?

Today, however, 65 years after the Supreme Court ruled separate but equal public schools unconstitutional in the historic 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case, why are truly integrated schools seemingly extinct? Do we not dare to imagine integration anymore? Are we afraid to dream that integration can be something far more than the cosmetic diversity we are left with now — a sprinkle of color here, a dash of ethnocentric pedagogy there, a day devoted to gender and class equality?

True integration celebrates individuality collectively, it is embedded in every aspect of a culturally informed curriculum, nurtured in the classroom seating chart, modeled in the quality and composition of teacher diversity, facilitated by mixed-income housing and affordable housing policies, and sustained by equitable access to school resources regardless of neighborhood or Zip code.

Yes, that integration is a lofty aspiration. But, all of the boldest, most ambitious movements that successfully advanced equity and justice were first described as pipe dreams, unrealistic, romanticized imaginations of visionaries like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Our children, and indeed our country's future, deserve such audacious hope. But hope is a seasoning, not a policy.

As Thurgood Marshall argued for the families and districts from five different states represented in Brown v. Board of Education, the legal strategy of the NAACP brimmed with hope for true integration.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 helped ignite what would become a 20-year process of integration. In this period, we witnessed unprecedented racial convergence of an array of education, health and economic outcomes. But as soon as integration gained significant traction, we lost hope and patience and the possibility of being stronger together. Now middle-class secession from school districts has left schools and communities as segregated as they were before busing began.

"Middle-class secession from school districts has left schools and communities as segregated as they were before busing began."

The collateral consequences are that poor and minority children are often relegated to underfunded schools with overcrowded classrooms, less experienced and effective teachers, and inferior access to mentoring, arts, music, and after-school enrichment programs. The ability and economic incentives for middle-class families to move to affluent areas to avoid such school conditions for their children gave rise to the illusion that we are not inextricably affected by these deficits of opportunity, inflicting harm on us all in the long-run. It is a failure of imagination and collective will as a nation that has shackled us with persistent achievement gaps and segregated institutional structures that reproduce inequality. Recent surges of polarized political attitudes, racial intolerance and economic inequality are not a coincidence.

Today we have a prime opportunity to reverse engineer integration — to deconstruct the policies related to school desegregation — and discover what 21st-century America needs to rebuild policy that yields not just cosmetic results, but true, wholistic integration. In my new book, Children of the Dream: Why School Integration Works, I note that the best way to realize the elusive promise of equal opportunity is to design an architecture of school reform policies that aim to achieve integration in schools. But to understand how to achieve true integration, we must first understand the forces that have long opposed it as well as other obstacles to real, enduring change.

Current policy designs are as divided as our segregated classrooms. But let’s be clear, you can’t address education woes while ignoring health, poverty and socioeconomic disadvantages experienced early in life. These early opportunity gaps compound and result in greater disparities as children age. Analyses of nationally representative data of children followed from birth to adulthood help us see that the best policy prescription includes the foundation of a high-quality preschool, bolstered spending through funding-reform formulas, and, throughout, the powerful brace that is the integrated classroom. Our research shows that these, in fact, are the necessary components of a high-quality, equitable education system. Altogether, these complementary policies can synergistically form the framework for students of all backgrounds to learn and grow together for lifelong success in the global, multicultural world they will inherit.

The laws of social gravitation tend to pull us toward those who are “most like us” in color, culture and socioeconomic background. This tendency has been exponentially intensified by decades of policy explicitly designed to maintain a system of have and have-nots. A powerful example is the government-sanctioned segregation in housing that included redlining, restrictive covenants, and secession as well as the most recent incarnations that led to the home foreclosure crisis and gentrification.

The patterns of resegregation that have accelerated since the early 1990s have been aided and abetted by Supreme Court decisions that sap opportunities for integration: gerrymandering district boundaries; state statutes that green light subsidized segregation via charter schools; student segregation at the classroom level that has fed the school-to-prison pipeline.

The disillusionment about integration felt among many minorities has been the product of scars incurred by White resistance, teacher biases that systematically underestimate minority potential, disciplinary practices instead of restorative justice approaches, and minority families being forced to bear the burden of integration. All too often the process of integration stopped at the first step: desegregation. These are very real challenges that must be overcome.

The persistent notion that integration failed, that school spending doesn’t matter and that increases in spending mostly lead to waste; that early childhood education programs, such as Head Start, have no lasting effects is not borne out by our empirical evidence. This has, nonetheless, fueled a view that school choice is the only viable option with charter schools often elevated as the way to spur innovation.

"All too often the process of integration stopped at the first step: desegregation."

However, in an environment of vast differences in school quality (often in the same metro area), school choice always privileges those whose resources are not limited by affordable housing choices and who have better access to information networks on quality options. This reality acts to exacerbate segregation by race and income. Choice advocates must honestly contend with the question: What is the nature of the choice facing low-income minority families?

This is not to say that there is not a viable place for an all-boys school, an all-girls school, a Catholic school, an Afro-centric school, etc. It is simply to remind us that we must design, build and sustain investments in school-system models that hold the potential to bridge differences with the shared principles of respect, community and mutual intellectual growth. A lottery-based system with a limited number of slots that mortgages a child’s future trajectory on the outcome of that random process is not a scalable solution for what ails our education system. But instead our aspiration should be to instill an orientation toward learning in students of all backgrounds that becomes a habit of the mind that looks for the value of diversity.

The gift of being in diverse environments is the proximity to difference, wherein the goal is not to eliminate differences but to ensure differences enhance and do not divide us. Our children are the biggest examples of this. When they have full opportunity to learn and play together, their social attitudes remain unsullied by adult biases. We appear to have stopped valuing the critical role integration plays in every aspect of society. We are wary of its real value because much of its impact cannot be captured in a singular test score but is tangible in social attitudes and interactions. Children like the ones I observed at the MLK festival in Oakland, however, relentlessly believe that raising their voice and passionately pursuing change will yield actionable results.

As an empirical economist, I too have faith in actionable results; yet, I intimately understand the importance of measurement and the old adage that, without data systems that hold the capacity to measure, it’s hard to improve education outcomes. But I also understand the limits of quantitative measurement. Some of the qualities we ultimately want a school system to impart to produce well-rounded students simply cannot be quantified in orthodox ways.

"The gift of being in diverse environments is the proximity to difference, wherein the goal is not to eliminate differences but to ensure differences enhance and do not divide us."

So, how do we measure the unmeasurable? The importance of doing so is underscored in the recent findings that student behavior is a much stronger predictor of future success than test scores. Teachers who helped students improve their behavior (including cultivation of leadership skills) were 10 times as effective at improving their students’ graduation rates and grade point averages as teachers who focused on test scores. The role of teachers — specifically diverse teachers — is often left out of school reform debates. Recent research shows having access to Black teachers during K-12 years had a significant impact on college attendance and graduation rates for Black students. Those findings are a powerful reminder of just how difficult it is to become what you never see. But exposure to diverse teachers should not be prescribed only for Blacks. All students benefit from engaging with diverse role models. We need to invest in better strategies to recruit, retain and develop a more diverse teaching workforce.

As a public policy professor, I emphasize to my students that as policy analysts we must be not only reporters of facts and reality seekers, but we must be dreamers who seek to bring the imagined possibilities of social justice to reality through the powerful instruments of public policies.

So, it is urgent that we individually find where we have put down King's collective dream and pick up hope again. For, we are limited only by what our minds can imagine about the possibilities of the world our children will inherit. Our children are watching us, and often taking on the same culture and contradiction of bias we proliferate in our private and public lives. Too many of us travel abroad but have not first traveled to the other side of the railroad tracks in our own city. We all must arise and pass the "matriculation exam for entrance into the University of Integration," as King so aptly called it.

Rucker C. Johnson is the Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of Children of the Dream: Why School Integration Works.

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The Crisis magazine is a quarterly journal of politics, culture, civil rights and history that seeks to educate and challenge its readers about issues facing African-Americans and other communities of color.

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