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Thompson: 2nd "This American Life" Report on School Integration Just As Great

In the second This American Life report on segregation, The Problem We All Live With - Part Two, Chana Joffe-Walt reports that the Hartford, CT school system sought to convince white families it’s in their self-interest to go to integrated schools. Joffe-Walt concludes that “the results have been impressive. It used to be that 11% of Hartford students were in integrated schools. Now it’s nearly half.”

As is the norm with This American Life, the report is nuanced in explaining how tricky the issue is, and every twist of the plot was enlightening. Hartford demonstrates great marketing skills and savvy and persuades enough white parents to participate. It is unclear whether it will be able to continue to increase white participation rates enough to meet the policy’s metrics and thus survive. (This weird numbers game is worthy of Catch 22, but Hartford is not alone; Sarah Garland [whose work was cited by This American Life] documented a similarly bizarre situation that hindered a successful desegregation effort in Louisville, Ky.)

Also, at a key point in Joffe-Walt's report, where we are reminded that not all poor children are being admitted to integrated magnet schools, we are implicitly reminded of the need to do a much better job of improving the toughest schools that serve entire neighborhoods with intense concentrations of generational poverty and where so many children endure extreme trauma. And, that makes the lost opportunities of 2009, when Arne Duncan took over as US Secretary of Education, feel even more like a betrayal. Duncan’s test, sort, reward, and punish policies provided two types of opportunity costs. They shifted attention away from research-based, holistic methods for improving instruction in troubled schools and they were a lost opportunity for encouraging voluntary integration efforts.

At the end of The Problem We All Live With - Part Two, it was explained how the election of President Barack Obama could have assisted in promoting desegregation, and his Race to the Top could have been a vehicle for promoting voluntary integration. Civil rights attorney John Brittain said that when he realized that such efforts were left out of the RttT, it was “like a punch in the gut.”

Then, Joffe-Walt and Hannah-Jones had an opportunity to ask Arne Duncan the questions that so many of us have longed to ask.

Duncan replied that policies to promote integration were left out of the RttT because they were “too toxic.” That, of course, is a perplexing response for teachers and families who have to endure Duncan’s toxic test and punish approach. Duncan said that other vehicles for improving poor schools were funded and, to his credit, Duncan didn't praise the punitive aspects of his policies, as he cited successful win-win policies such as seeking to improve graduation rates and college attendance.

To his shame, Duncan ignored the failure of the vehicle that drove his RttT - an unquestioned belief in uncontrolled competition, tests for teacher evaluations, mass dismissals of educators, and undermining due process, while turning poor children of color into lab rats for their corporate reform experiment.

I wonder if Duncan and the Billionaires Boys Club were even aware in 2009 that their “innovations” were bound to recreate the conditions that were documented in Susan Eaton’s outstanding The Children in Room E-4. Hartford had already tried a “relentless focus” on basic skills using a highly structured curriculum, undermining teachers' creativity and autonomy, deterring students from expressing their curiosity, giving up recess, and science experiments and other hands-on activities being replaced by “incessant test-prep drills in reading and math.” No matter how well-funded they are, pedagogies that treat children in segregated schools as less deserving of respectful and engaging instruction have a long history of failure.  

Hannah-Jones wrapped the series up by citing the lack of research that shows that Duncan’s policies had a chance of success. Joffe-Walt closed by citing the politics of personal comfort. It was less threatening to white people to speak of “resources not race.” I can't wait to hear the next questions asked by those reporters, and we should thank This American Life for reminding us of Garland's and Eaton's books.-JT(@drjohnthompson)



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Obama and Duncan COULD have required states to integrate in order to receive their waiver. They COULD have required states to fully fund their schools according to their own legislation. Instead, they chose to require states to prove that segregated, underfunded schools do poorly. Surprisingly, we will find, as the test scores roll in, that underfunded, segregated schools perform poorly. Glad we spent that money on tests.

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