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Merge Integration With Accountability -- Or Let It Go

Kudos to Emily Bazelon for her Sunday NYT magazine piece The Next Kind of Integration, which gives a clear update on the recent changes in the law and how districts are responding.  (As an editor at Slate, Bazelon is also kind enough to look at and occasionally greenlight my story ideas.)

That being said, I don't think that the strategies outlined in the piece stand much chance of working.

20integration600In essence, Bazelon seems to be suggesting that, as in Louisville, carefully-created systems that use economic class as well as race can meet the law's requirements and, by grandfathering in some students, remain practically and politically viable. 

While I have no real objection, I think it's extremely optimistic to think that this could happen on a national scale.  Racial or economic integration is no longer really an option for many urban districts without a radical shift to larger (city-suburban) districts or the massive return of white families to city schools[, a point Bazelon makes].  Neither of those things seems to be on the horizon. Ditto for any type of pro-integration mandate from the courts.

Even in places where it might still be numerically possible, I'd remind us all that if we've learned anything from NCLB at all it's that "receiving" schools don't like to take in new kids -- especially if they're minority, low-income, low-achieving, or all of the above.  This we already know. 

To make academic or class-based integration viable, lawmakers would need to create a special provision or reward for schools that increase their proportion of low-income or minority kids -- protecting them from getting slapped down by short term performance but still holding them accountable after the first year.  Without something along those lines, it feels to me that talking about integration is increasingly nostalgic and quite possibly a waste of time. 


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Thank you for your comments. My children have gone to school in the school system that I teach in and they have done very well. Their test scores have always been on the high end. However, we are a system that is rapidly changing from a middle class white suburban community to a lower-middle class community with a high rate of minority students who are low achieving and are considered to be from low-income families. My school system is a victim of transiency. We have many students entering and leaving in a single year. We truly feel that if these students would begin with us and stay with us, they would become fine educated students just like my own children. I agree with what you said about school sytems should be provided with provisions or rewards for taking on high proportions of low-income or minority students. The white, middle class family is not coming back and his/her new school is not recruiting for low-achieving, nor low-income families to register. Every year we have to administer our state test and we work very hard to prepare the students, but once again feel punished by our performance.


I was more hopeful when I finished Bazelon's article. As she explained, geography is key to socio-economic integration. It works best in single district counties, where extreme white flight hasn't happened. It would make no sense to attempt an socio-economic integretation campaign in big cit'ies that are 91% or 79% or 88% Black, or in my county which has 18 school systems and all of the magnet schools anyone could desire.

But no good litigator would seek socio-economic integretion in a district where a hard-earned victory would have no effect. In contrast with NCLB-type accountability, it is the good judgment of people that can determine whether a plan succeeds. The same SHOULD apply with in-school desegregation. As with social promotion and tracking, some experts will make up their minds in advance, but most people of goodwill will see shades of grade in wrestling with the issue.

I always wonder whether my poor Black students who go to the suburbs will benefit. Its an unanswerable question. Often, one child will prosper in the order of more functional schools, while the brother or sister will do better in the urban classroom. Often a child will be too immature to meet the behavioral standards of a suburban middle school, but once he matures, the poor student flourishes in the classes with higher standards.

Which gets me back to the problem with over-reliance on accountability. Even your post seems to imply that improvements require a national benchmark (with only a year to catch up?) On the other hand, you acknowledge the same points that Bazelon and I make. So we are back to a subjective appraisal of what political strategy works best.

Somehow or other (and I don't know the answer) we need a reform that let's a thousand flowers bloom. In places where geography and history allow it, socio-economic integration strikes me as the best single approach. Just because we don't know how to fix neighborhood secondary schools with a critical mass of at-risk kids, made worse by creaming the most motivated to magnets, doesn't mean that we don't know anything about impoving education for poor kids.

Although we're now phasing it out, my suburban district has had about 10% of its student body come from the city as part of a deseg program for years and years. Some kids flourish, but most don't. In general, the city kids are very expensive for us because they tend to use up administrator time for discipline issues and require special ed and remedial services. As the program has phased out (we no longer take new kids -- we only have the students who have either been in our system or have siblings who have attended our district), our discipline issues (especially fights) have ebbed noticeably. The kids have been better off with us, I think, but it takes a LOT of tolerance for middle-class parents who are paying big money to live in our district (property values and taxes are quite high) to accept the disruption to their own kids' educations. I think if the program hadn't been dismantled by the courts, it would be dying an NCLB death anyway due to AYP issues.*

On the other hand, our district does serve a lower socio-economic area, and learning to deal with the city kids has given us a number of strategies for helping that population as well. We've made huge strides in parent involvement and making it a simple expectation that they are to be involved at the high school level. Bazelton might want to come and see how it actually works to have very high and very low s-e families in the same district.

Students do not catch up in only one year. Just stating something like this discredits the author's opinions because it screams how little she knows about how children learn (although I usually enjoy her writing in Slate). In fact, usually the first year is lost to social issues in my experience, as they try to adjust to a different environment, lay down their cred, etc.

*Of course, I have had dynamic, driven students who have come through my AP program, etc. as well, but I think they would have done equally well in the magnet schools -- their parents would not have allowed them to go to the big comprehensive high schools in any case.

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