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Thompson: This American Life, School Integration, & The Ultimate School Reform Excuse

Former ProPublica writer Nikole Hannah-Jones, in School Segregation, the Continuing Tragedy of Ferguson, recalls of the inescapable truth that educators once acknowledged, and that we now need to remember. Children who attend the most segregated schools, Hannah-Jones reminds us, “are more likely to be poor. They are more likely to go to jail. They are less likely to graduate from high school, to go to college, and to finish if they go. They are more likely to live in segregated neighborhoods as adults.” Moreover, “their children are more likely to also attend segregated schools, repeating the cycle.”

Contributing to a continuing series by ProPublica and the New York Times on segregation, Hannah-Jones reports that “over the past 15 years …. the number of so-called apartheid schools — schools whose white population is 1 percent or less — has shot up. The achievement gap, greatly narrowed during the height of school desegregation, has widened.”

The national market-driven, test-driven school reform movement has downplayed the damage done by segregation. It’s choice-driven policies have actually increased the separation of students by race and class. And, This American Life’s The Problem We All Live With, featuring Hannah-Jones, begins with a mention of the research which explains why NCLB-type reforms have failed to improve schools serving neighborhoods with a critical mass of families from generational poverty. In doing so, it properly articulates the question that must be tackled before school improvement and other policies can promote racial justice and economic equality.

Accountability-driven reformers proclaimed their movement as the civil rights campaign of the 21st century, but they haven’t found a viable path towards school improvement. Competition-driven reformers derided traditional educators, who embrace socio-economic integration, early education, and full-service community schools, for allegedly making “excuses” and shifting attention away from the supposed real issue – bad teaching. But, This American Life has it right; reformers using competition-driven policies to improve instruction within the four walls of the classroom are distracting attention from the true problem.

One of the biggest opportunity costs of the instruction-driven, competition-driven reform movement is that it shifted energy and resources away from desegregation.  Hannah-Jones reminds us that in 1983, St. Louis began “the nation’s most successful metro-wide desegregation program.” The desegregation experiment wasn’t perfect, but “test scores for 8th and 10th grade transfer students rose. The transfer students were more likely to graduate and go onto college. … In surveys, white students overwhelmingly said they’d benefited from the opportunity to be educated alongside black students.”

But, as Amy Stuart Wells documented, the plug was pulled on the program and St. Louis became “the epicenter of where people tried to grapple with race, and failed miserably.” Then, in 2009, the state made matters worse by merging the almost completely black Normandy district where the late Mike Brown graduated with the 100% black Wellston district.

“Merging two impoverished, struggling systems made sense to almost no one,” Hannah-Jones reports, but for a brief period, its unintended result was an opportunity to promote integration. Due to the merger’s negative results, Normandy completely lost its accreditation and that allowed its students the right to transfer to higher-performing schools. In 2013, 1/4th of the students in the now-poorer, even more segregated Normandy schools attend much better schools. Unfortunately, there was pushback and because of the complicated legal and political situation, Normandy students are no longer permitted to attend high-performing suburban schools.

And, that is where This American Life does perhaps its greatest service by properly articulating the issue. Normandy is being reconstituted, meaning that it can expect to be on the receiving end of the same old reforms of that have repeatedly failed.  The Problem We All Live With closes with the state’s claim that it will do right by the Normandy district - a school system it helped devastate - by employing the usual reform tactics. They will reconstitute the system, increase charters and virtual schools, and bring in teacher coaches from affluent districts. So, rather than continue with the desegregation policies that have worked, they will use policies that are doomed to fail. In other words, the pretense that school reform will help the children of Normandy is just a fig leaf employed by persons who have given up.

The Problem We All Live With masterpiece then closes with the words of Hannah-Jones, "this is how far they will go to avoid one thing - the one thing that already seems to be working - integration!" -JT(@drjohnthompson)


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