Part 3—One lone simple solution: Nikole Hannah-Jones went to Tuscaloosa to explore a certain problem.
While she was there, she ran into a much larger problem. In our view, she largely finessed the problem in her 10,000 word report, “Segregation Now...”.
Hannah-Jones went to Tuscaloosa to explore a problem she refers to as “resegregation.” It’s a problem which largely can’t be solved—but while she was there, she encountered the gaps.
She encountered the gaps at Central High, an all-black high school in a city whose student population is roughly 80 percent black and is heavily low-income.
Hannah-Jones wrote a fascinating report about the zoning decisions which made Central High an all-black, low-income school. This is a thoroughly worthwhile topic—but so are the giant achievement gaps she encountered at Central High.
What did Hannah-Jones find at Central? She focused on D’Leisha Dent, a superb young person who seems to be one of Central High’s best students.
Based on Hannah-Jones’ reporting, Dent seems to be in the top ten percent of the school’s senior class. (She’s also senior class president.) But despite her dreams of attending a four-year college, Dent wasn’t coming close to scoring well enough on the ACT.
The following passage seems to describe a gigantic problem, the problem of the gaps. In our view, it also defines a second problem—the disdain we liberals seem to have for the real needs of low-income kids:
HANNAH-JONES (4/16/14): Standing one day last fall outside the counselor’s office at Central, D’Leisha looked up at the college bulletin board. It was dominated by National Guard and Army flyers, with some brochures for small Alabama colleges tucked among them. Students with D’Leisha’s grades and tough honors coursework often come home to mailboxes stuffed with glossy college brochures. But most days, nothing showed up in the mail for her, and no colleges had come calling. She had taken the ACT college-entrance exam twice already. The first time she scored a 16, the second time a 17. Her mother’s alma mater, the University of Alabama, expects a 21, the national average. Many four-year colleges will not even consider students who score below an 18.According to Hannah-Jones, Dent had achieved good grades at Central High while taking “tough honors coursework.” She was in the top ten percent of her senior class—but she was scoring in the twentieth percentile among students nationwide who take the ACT.
Late last year, D’Leisha took the ACT for the third time, but her score dropped back to 16. So early on a Saturday in February, she got up quietly, forced a few bites of a muffin into her nervous stomach, and drove once again to the community college where the test is administered. A few weeks later, she got her score: 16 again. She contemplated a fifth attempt, but could see little point.
In that passage about a superb young person, we’re looking square at the gap.
That passage fills us with questions. What didn’t Dent do better on the ACT? In a similar vein: Why did only two kids in Central High’s previous senior class pass the AP English exam?
More questions: If Dent is having this much trouble, what is the academic profile of the rest of the kids in her senior class? What kinds of academic skills do those young people have?
How did Dent, and the rest of her classmates, get so far behind? What was their instruction and experience like in the elementary grades? What was their instruction like in kindergarten? In the first grade?
Did Dent and her classmates attend preschool? If so, what happened there? And what were their “words gaps” like when they were just 3? How far “behind” might they have been, even at that early age?
Finally, the most important question: What can we do in Tuscaloosa for the kids who follow?
Dent is a superb young person. In various aspects of her life, she is a highly motivated high achiever.
How did she get behind in school? We have a million questions about that. We’d love to see those questions discussed.
Hannah-Jones seems to have very few questions. We regard that as a very familiar type of liberal failure.
How did this superlative kid get so far “behind?” In 10,000 words, Hannah-Jones basically offers one answer to that question. She offers one simple solution to this problem, a solution she glosses quite badly.
In the end, Hannah-Jones has one explanation for the punishing gap she encountered at Central: D’Leisha Dent has always gone to all-black public schools.
Why is Dent so far behind? Below, we’ll show you Hannah-Jones’ full attempt to answer that question. Her answer starts early, in this, her eighth paragraph:
HANNAH-JONES: ...Schools in the South, once the most segregated in the country, had by the 1970s become the most integrated, typically as a result of federal court orders. But since 2000, judges have released hundreds of school districts, from Mississippi to Virginia, from court-enforced integration, and many of these districts have followed the same path as Tuscaloosa’s—back toward segregation. Black children across the South now attend majority-black schools at levels not seen in four decades. Nationally, the achievement gap between black and white students, which greatly narrowed during the era in which schools grew more integrated, widened as they became less so.In that one highlighted passage, Hannah-Jones starts to provide her explanation for the gaps she found at Central High:
“Integration” narrows the gaps. They widen with less integration.
This may be true, in some sense and to some degree, though that account is very sketchy. How much does “integration” narrow those gaps? How much racial balance is required to produce these effects? (Tuscaloosa’s student population is roughly 80 percent black.)
Hannah-Jones doesn’t answer those questions in that early passage. Several thousand words later, she offers a bit more detail:
HANNAH-JONES: Desegregation had been wrenching and complicated, but in Tuscaloosa and across the country, it achieved undeniable results. During the 1970s and ’80s, the achievement gap between black and white 13-year-olds was cut roughly in half nationwide. Some scholars argue that desegregation had a negligible effect on overall academic achievement. But the overwhelming body of research shows that once black children were given access to advanced courses, well-trained teachers, and all the other resources that tend to follow white, middle-income children, they began to catch up.In that paragraph, Hannah-Jones says the desegregation of the post-Brown years produced “undeniable results.” In her next breath, she seems to say that some scholars deny that claim.
Correctly, Hannah-Jones notes the large reduction in the achievement gaps between 13-year-old black and white students which occurred on a nationwide basis in 1970s and 1980s. In this, she refers to data from the NAEP’s “Long-Term Trend” study, which dates to 1971.
Among 9-year-olds, the reduction in the gaps was smaller during this period. But black students of all tested ages showed large score gains during this period.
Did those score gains result from the desegregation which followed the Brown decision? Were the gains concentrated among black students who no longer attended all-black schools?
Hannah-Jones doesn’t address such questions, and she fails to note an important fact—black students have continued to record impressive score gains on the NAEP in recent decades, during the period she describes as “resegregation” (see Alabama data below). The score gains were large in those earlier decades—but the gains continue.
Continuing directly, Hannah-Jones describes the findings of a single recent study. For the record, this study seems to have appeared in 2011, according to Hannah-Jones’ link:
HANNAH-JONES (continuing directly): A 2014 study conducted by Rucker Johnson, a public-policy professor at the University of California at Berkeley, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, found desegregation’s impact on racial equality to be deep, wide, and long-lasting. Johnson examined data on a representative sample of 8,258 American adults born between 1945 and 1968, whom he followed through 2011. He found that black Americans who attended schools integrated by court order were more likely to graduate, go on to college, and earn a degree than black Americans who attended segregated schools. They made more money: five years of integrated schooling increased the earnings of black adults by 15 percent. They were significantly less likely to spend time in jail. They were healthier.Johnson’s study may be very solid. But it focuses on the literal desegregation which occurred in southeastern states in the years after Brown. As such, it relies on specific factors which may not be relevant to any possible “desegregation” today.
Notably, Rucker also found that black progress did not come at the expense of white Americans—white students in integrated schools did just as well academically as those in segregated schools.
(Example: Johnson stresses the role of increased per-pupil spending on black kids who moved into integrated schools in the South in the post-Brown days. Presumably, there would be no similar effect today. Hannah-Jones never says or suggests that Tuscaloosa spends less per pupil on its black students.)
Would increased “integration” in Tuscaloosa affect those punishing gaps? Here we return to our basic problem: Given its student demographics, Tuscaloosa simply can’t provide much “integration” to its black students.
As Hannah-Jones notes, the policies she describes as “resegregation” were put into place by white and black leaders in an attempt to keep Tuscaloosa’s schools from becoming entirely black. But the city’s schools are eighty percent black. The city can’t move its many D'Leisha Dents into middle-class, majority-white schools, as happened to many black kids in the post-Brown days.
Hannah-Jones offers one last account of the way integration can fight the gaps. It comes very late in her piece:
HANNAH-JONES: When school officials make decisions that funnel poor children of color into their own schools, they promise to make those separate schools equal. But that promise is as false today as it was in 1954...Tomorrow, we’ll look at Hannah-Jones’ extremely fuzzy ideas about what makes schools “equal.” For today, let’s consider this last hopeful image she crafts:
High-poverty, segregated black and Latino schools account for the majority of the roughly 1,400 high schools nationwide labeled “dropout factories”—meaning fewer than 60 percent of the students graduate. School officials often blame poor performance on the poverty these kids grow up in. But most studies conclude that it’s the concentration of poor students in the same school that hurts them the most. Low-income students placed in middle-income schools show marked academic progress.
When low-income students are placed in middle-income schools, do they show “marked academic progress?” It’s possible! But this is a fuzzy and fleeting claim, despite the enormous length of Hannah-Jones’ report.
Even if we picture such outcomes, the basic problem remains unchanged. In Tuscaloosa, as in many districts which are much larger, demographics make it very hard for school officials to place “low-income (minority) students” into “middle-income schools.” And, as Hannah-Jones reports, Tuscaloosa leaders feared that such attempts would only extend the ongoing white flight—would drive away the district’s remaining white and middle-income students.
(Has black middle-class flight has been a factor here too? Hannah-Jones never addresses this phenomenon, which is well-known elsewhere.)
Dreaming the impossible dream, Hannah-Jones imagines a world in which Dent, a superb young person, is placed in majority white, middle-income schools. But in the city of Tuscaloosa, that dream can’t be accomplished on a widespread basis. And it certainly can’t be accomplished on a widespread basis in our larger school districts.
Dreaming is fun, but the gaps remain—and the gaps are large.
We have no doubt that Hannah-Jones is a very fine person. But in our view, she largely finesses and disdains the gaps she at Central High.
However we plan to address those gaps, it can’t be done in the dreamy way she imagines. Given its basic demographics, Tuscaloosa can’t provide the type of “integration” Hannah-Jones seems to imagine.
We liberals! It’s fun for us to shake our fists and denounce “apartheid schools.” It makes us feel like we’re on the front lines, just like in the civil rights days!
But when it comes to public schools, the demographics were different back then. The challenges we face today are quite different too.
Our all-black, all-minority schools are going to open next September. They will be full of great kids—and the gaps will be there, waiting to be addressed.
Hannah-Jones has one idea what to do with respect to the gaps—and it can’t be done!
Why did Dent and her Central High classmates seem to fall so far behind? What can we do for young kids like Dent moving forward?
Can we help them before they're 3? What should happen in kindergarten?
We’d like to see such questions addressed. But it seems to us that Hannah-Jones writes from within a throwback culture.
For many of us liberal adults, it feels good to talk like it’s 1965. To thunder about “apartheid schools.” To insist on a dreamy solution which basically can’t be accomplished.
For many of us liberal adults, it’s fun to talk like it’s still 65. But for Tuscaloosa’s beautiful kids, we’re sorry to tell you—it isn’t.
Tomorrow: What constitutes a “good school?”
One of Alabama’s gaps: Below, you see the change in one of Alabama’s gaps in this age of “resegregation.” Black kids are scoring better in math, and are reducing that gap:
Average NAEP scores, Grade 8 math, AlabamaAlabama's black kids have been scoring higher in Grade 8 math. In the process, they’ve been reducing that gap.
White kids, black kids (the gap)
2013: 279.57, 250.16 (29.41)
2011: 280.13, 249.82 (30.31)
2009: 280.31, 248.01 (32.30)
2007: 278.20, 245.78 (32.42)
2005: 275.57, 239.97 (35.60)
2003: 274.70, 240.27 (34.43)
2000: 275.32, 239.89 (35.43)