Part 5—A tale of at least two cities: On balance, we weren’t enthralled by The Atlantic’s performance.
Last month, the famous American publication featured a 10,000-word report called “Segregation Now...”
Pseudo-liberal hearts were moved. For several major reasons, we were less than enthralled.
Don’t get us wrong! In her lengthy report, Nikole Hannah-Jones told a fascinating story about the historical treatment of race within the Tuscaloosa City Schools.
She focused on the city’s high schools. She took us all the way back to pre-Brown days, when Tuscaloosa ran one high school for its white kids and a second high school for their black counterparts.
In 1979, under the aegis of federal courts, the city finally took a completely different direction. In this passage, Hannah-Jones described the creation of Central High School, a single, city-wide high school which all students attended:
HANNAH-JONES (4/16/14): In the fall of 1979, Central High School opened to serve all public-high-school students in the district—no matter their race, no matter whether they lived in the city’s public-housing projects or in one of the mansions along the meandering Black Warrior River. The mega-school, a creative solution to a complex problem, resulted from many hours of argument and negotiation in [Judge Frank] McFadden’s chambers. It was spread across two campuses—ninth- and 10th-graders at the former black high school, now called Central West; 11th- and 12th-graders at the old white high school, called Central East. (The judge’s order also created three single-grade middle schools.)All traces of the segregated system were discarded? We'll guess that the gaps were still there.
All traces of the segregated system, from the mascots to the school colors of the two former schools, were discarded. All of Tuscaloosa’s public-high-school students would now unite under the red-and-white banner of the Falcons. As one of the biggest schools in the state, Central would offer classes in subjects ranging from Latin to forensics.
In theory, this turn to a single all-city school was a great idea. In practice, the large number of campuses this arrangement involved made for a somewhat clumsy solution.
That doesn’t mean that this arrangement couldn’t have worked. As she continued, Hannah-Jones painted a glorious picture of the new Central High—and she voiced an objection:
HANNAH-JONES (continuing directly): Over the years, Central racked up debate-team championships. Its math team dominated at state competitions. The cheerleaders tumbled their way to nationals, and the Falcons football team trounced local competitors so badly, some refused to play against it. Central students were regularly named National Merit Scholars. In 2001, the state found Central’s projected dropout rate to be less than half Alabama’s average.Welcome to Shangri-la! Portraits like these make us liberals feel good. But how accurate is this portrayal? To what extent did “large numbers of black students” actually “thrive” as they studied that “robust curriculum” in this earlier high school?
“Central and its resources could reach any child,” said Robert Coates, a former principal of the school.
The school was hardly perfect. Black students were disproportionately funneled into vocational classes, and white students into honors classes. Some parents complained that competitive opportunities were limited to just the very best students and athletes because the school, at 2,300 students, was so large. And the white flight that had begun when the courts first ordered the district to desegregate continued, slowly, after the formation of the mega-school. But despite these challenges, large numbers of black students studied the same robust curriculum as white students, and students of both races mixed peacefully and thrived.
In the end, there’s no real way to answer that question. There are no data describing the academic performance of Tuscaloosa’s various kids during the era in question.
But make no mistake—Hannah-Jones is telling a tale of at least two cities in her portrait of the school which could reach any child as its math team ruled the state, as it racked up those Merit Scholarships.
According to Hannah-Jones, some of the kids who attended that version of Central High came from “the mansions along the meandering Black Warrior River.” Other kids at that earlier version of Central “lived in the city’s public-housing projects.”
Academically, those kids were almost surely living in two different cities. Much of American history had been devoted to creating the gaps which almost surely defined that state of affairs.
What did the various “achievement gaps” look like in that era’s Tuscaloosa? No data exist to answer that question. But those gaps are large in Alabama today, as they are around the nation, although the gaps are getting smaller in both the nation and the state.
How large are the gaps in today’s Alabama? In Grade 8 math, Alabama’s black students have recorded substantial score gains in the past two decades, but so have the state’s white students.
For that reason, the various gaps were still large on last year’s NAEP math tests. Despite the score gains of recent decades, these were daunting statistics:
Average scores, Grade 8 mathFor the record, Alabama’s higher-income black students scored close to their national peers last year. In all other categories, Alabama’s average scores trailed those of the the nation by substantial amounts.
Alabama, 2013 NAEP
All students: 269.19
Higher-income students: 286.71
Lower-income students: 255.64
White students: 279.57
Black students: 250.16
Higher-income white students: 288.18
Lower-income white students: 266.62
Higher-income black students: 272.98
Lower-income black students: 245.94
(To give you a general sense of those gaps, the average score for all students nationwide was 283.62. Alabama trailed the nation by more than thirteen points.)
Let’s return to the Tuscaloosa of 1979. Better yet, let’s imagine that Tuscaloosa returned to its earlier policy this year—that all the city’s various students attended one large high school.
In many ways, that would presumably be a good thing. But students would be attending that school from at least two different cities.
Higher-income white students would be coming from their homes across the Black Warrior River. Lower-income black students would be coming from their homes in the public housing projects in the city’s West End.
If Tuscaloosa is like Alabama as a whole, a gap of more than 40 points separated those groups in Grade 8 math last year. According to a very rough rule of thumb, the one group, on average, exceeded the other by four academic years.
Hannah-Jones rhapsodized about the way Tuscaloosa’s kids all attended one high school in an earlier era. She then offered an insinuation about the way that school’s black kids were “disproportionately funneled” away from honors classes.
It’s easy for liberals to play it that way. It makes us pseudo-liberals feel good.
It’s safe and it’s easy; journalistically, though, it’s quite slick. In our view, an approach like that is also unhelpful, uncaring.
In our view, it does a disservice to the superlative kids who stand on the lower end of those punishing gaps, which are very real.
How do we make those gaps go away? How do we better serve superlative kids like D’Leisha Dent, who wants to achieve and to serve?
Thank you for asking those very good questions! In our view, Hannah-Jones largely finessed that very key point in a piece which ran 10,000 words.
When “Our month of the gaps” continues, we’ll tell you why we say that.
Over the past thirteen years: Over the past thirteen years, Grade 8 math scores have risen in Alabama, as they have around the nation. Some of the gaps are smaller.
Below, you see the average scores for the state’s white and black students. For each year, you see the average for white kids, the average for black kids, and the size of the gap:
Average scores, Grade 8 mathScores are higher for both groups. The size of the gap is down.
White kids, black kids: Alabama, 2013 NAEP
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)
(We’re starting with the year 2000 because, for technical reasons, it’s the earliest year which permits a clean comparison with 2013. Score gains were also recorded in the 1990s.)