MONDAY, JUNE 16, 2014
Part 1—A tale of two problems: Within our student population, the so-called achievement gaps are quite large.
Millions of deserving kids are on the short end of those punishing gaps. Question:
How much do we liberals and progressives actually care about this?
We’ve spent the past two months thinking about The Atlantic’s 10,000-word report, “Segregation Now...” (Full title: “Segregation Now.../Sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education, the schools in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, show how separate and unequal education is coming back.”)
How much do we liberals care about those very large achievement gaps? Based on the focus of that report, it’s tempting to say: Not enough!
Our view? For whatever reason, the liberal world often seems to exhibit a type of disdain for the children who are on the short end of those punishing gaps. We’ve thought about “Segregation Now...” for the past two months and, on balance, despite its strengths, that’s largely the way the piece hits us.
We’re sure the author, Nikole Hannah-Jones, is a fine person who had nothing but good intentions in fashioning this report. (She devoted a year of work to the project.) In “Segregation Now...,” Hannah-Jones created a fascinating, detailed report about the role played by race in Tuscaloosa’s schools over the past sixty years, dating back to the days of legal segregation.
That said, Hannah-Jones writes from within a liberal/progressive culture which seems to have lost its sense of perspective about the problems confronting low-income black kids. We’d say that lack of perspective was on display as Hannah-Jones (and her editors) selected the problem on which her report would focus.
What’s wrong with the focus of this report? In the end, we’d say that “Segregation Now...” is a tale of two pubic school problems—and that Hannah-Jones focused on the problem which basically can’t be solved!
Hannah-Jones focused on the problem of “segregation”—the manifest lack of racial balance in Tuscaloosa’s public schools. She provided a detailed profile of a student at all-black Central High School—a superb young person who has never had white schoolmates in twelve years of public schools.
For historical reasons, we’re reluctant to call that “segregation,” a point we’ll discuss as the week proceeds. But in principle, we think that racial separation is an unfortunate state of affairs, much as Hannah-Jones does.
This “segregation” is the problem on which Hannah-Jones chose to focus. But on the whole, it’s a problem which can’t be solved.
At the heart of her report, Hannah-Jones explains the process by which Central High came to be an all-black public high school. She spent less time explaining why D’Leisha Dent, the president of Central’s senior class, attended all-black schools all through the lower grades too.
In fascinating detail, Hannah-Jones reports the historical process by which Central High was zoned to be an all-black, low-income school. Repeat: This is a fascinating, detailed report.
Hannah-Jones suggests that Dent would be performing better in school if she had attended school along the way with white, middle-class students. In theory, that’s entirely possible, though Hannah-Jones spends little time discussing the academic evidence which underlies this suggestion.
In principle, we agree! In a perfect world, it would be better for Dent to go to school with white kids—and for Tuscaloosa's white kids to go to school with a superb kid like Dent. But if we regard this general state of affairs as a problem, it’s a problem which can’t be solved.
Tuscaloosa’s student population is only 20 percent white. Overall, there is no way to create schools in this city in which lower-income black kids benefit from the academic culture created by a substantial base of middle-class white schoolmates, as the research recommends.
Meanwhile, school systems in larger cities have even fewer white students than Tuscaloosa. Chicago’s public schools, to cite one example, are only 9.2 percent white.
In Tuscaloosa and in Chicago, there is no way to create the type of “integration” Hannah-Jones seems to have in mind. Beyond that, the white student population is rapidly shrinking in the nation’s public schools. With the percentage of white students down to roughly 50 percent, it has become harder and harder to create the kind of “integration” Hannah-Jones seems to be recommending.
On balance, Hannah-Jones has chosen to focus on a problem which basically can’t be solved. In the process, she came upon, and largely finessed, a second very large problem:
As she reported on Central High, Hannah-Jones came face-to-face with our large achievement gaps.
These gaps can, and must, be addressed. This must occur in our all-black and “majority-minority” schools, schools won’t be going away in any foreseeable future.
The one problem can and must be addressed. But the liberal world often seems to prefer to focus on the other problem—the one which can’t be solved!
Our view? We adult liberals often seem to be right at home discussing the problem of segregation. At the same time, we almost display a sense of disdain for the giant societal problem posed by those very large gaps.
We stress the problem which can’t be solved. We tend to ignore or finesse the gaps.
To us, this almost feels like a bit of disdain for the problems faced by our struggling kids. In the face of their giant needs, we spend our time addressing the problem which basically can’t be solved.
Students need our help with the gaps. Why do we liberals avoid them?
Tomorrow: Embellishing the problem