Hannah-Jones’ minimal effort: How do you solve a problem like Tuscaloosa?
(Like Baltimore, Cleveland, New York, Seattle? A problem like M9inneapolis?)
To us, that question mainly means this: How do we create a school system which helps a great kid like D’Leisha Dent qualify for a four-year college?
For Nikole Hannah-Jones, the emphasis seems to be different. Here’s the question she examined in her fascinating, chapter-length report for ProPublica and The Atlantic:
How do we create a system in which a kid like Dent goes to school with white kids as well as with black kids?
In fairness, those questions are related for Hannah-Jones, at least in theory. At various points, she suggests that kids like Dent would fare better academically if they attended schools with kids from various races and classes.
That certainly could be the case. At several points in her 10,000-word piece, Hannah-Jones describes research which, she says, points in that direction.
Would Dent be doing better if she had attended school with more white and middle-class kids? It’s certainly possible! Midway through her piece, Hannah-Jones described what happened when American schools desegregated in the aftermath of the Brown decision:
HANNAH-JONES (4/16/14): 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 the highlighted passage, Hannah-Jones refers to average scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, whose Long-Term Trend study began in 1971. During the two decades to which she refers, achievement gaps between black and white students did narrow, in some cases substantially.
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.
(Click here, scroll to page 16 and the pages which follow.)
That said, Hannah-Jones may have cherry-picked a bit by focusing on 13-year-olds. The gains were less dramatic during that period among 9-year-olds, and the halving of the achievement gap only occurred among 13-year-olds in reading, not in math.
Meanwhile, achievement by black kids has risen substantially on the NAEP in the past two decades, the period Hannah-Jones regards as an age of “resegregation.” This fact tends to undermine Hannah-Jones' general perspective. Perhaps for that reason, it isn’t mentioned in her lengthy report.
It’s also true that Hannah-Jones’ analysis in the passage above may seem a bit shaky. As she starts, she says desegregation “achieved undeniable results” during the two decades in question. Two sentences later, she is saying that “some scholars argue that desegregation had a negligible effect on overall academic achievement.”
Even her most upbeat conclusions have to read with care. Example: “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.”
That’s fine, but “beginning to catch up” is a very soft standard. Based on decades of experience, we recommend caution concerning Hannah-Jones’ account of Johnson's research.
For ourselves, we’re not impressed by such fleeting work; we think superlative kids like Dent deserve a much more careful appraisal. We had a similar reaction to a fleeting analysis near the end of Hannah-Jones’ report.
In this passage, Hannah-Jones refers to Druid High, the high school for Tuscaloosa’s black kids during the days of legal segregation:
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. Indeed, in some ways all-black schools today are worse than Druid High was back in the 1950s, when poor black students mixed with affluent and middle-class ones, and when many of the most talented black residents of Tuscaloosa taught there.Are some all-black schools today “worse than” Druid High was? In part, it depends on what you think a “good school” is, a question to which Hannah-Jones gives little thought.
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.
Druid High taught the children of black professionals; the Central High attended by Dent teaches mostly low-income kids. Central High has fewer Condoleezza Rices to work with. That doesn't tell you how good a job the school is doing with the kids it has, who have many fewer advantages.
In that passage, Hannah-Jones seems to say that kids growing up in poverty “show marked academic progress” when placed in middle-income schools. At least as a matter of theory, that’s an upbeat thought.
But how much progress do such kids show? The claim offered here is very fuzzy. How much better might Dent be doing had she attended mixed-race schools with larger numbers of middle-class kids? Hannah-Jones talks an upbeat game, but she devotes very few words to this supremely important question.
Down through the decades, we’ve seen a ton of careless happy talk about such crucial matters. It’s always easy for journalists to toss off reassuring comments about how much better things would be if we just made a few simple adjustments in our schools.
We’re very reluctant to accept such judgments from drive-by experts like Hannah-Jones. That’s especially true when so little attention to given to these clams in such a lengthy report. We think kids like Dent deserve more than the familiar old happy talk.
In our view, we received more happy talk when Hannah-Jones interviewed superintendent Paul McKendrick. We’ve read happy words like these for way too many years:
HANNAH-JONES: D’Leisha arrived at Central in 2010...A year later, the district hired a new superintendent, Paul McKendrick.As we noted like week, superintendents always say things like that. Journalists always repeat them. In fact, a great deal of research suggests that kids from low-income, low-literacy backgrounds are way behind their middle-class peers by the time they’re three years old. McKendrick’s formulations sound good, but they fail to address the problems which result from the size of our achievement gaps.
Sitting in his office, at a desk six inches deep in papers and reports, McKendrick, a bespectacled man, quiet but forceful, said the black, mostly poor kids of the West End had been separated and written off. A recent audit of Central had found that 80 percent of students were not on the college track. The low test scores that have plagued the school don’t stem from “a child problem,” he told me. “You may have some children that have special needs or cognitive issues, but you are not going to say a whole group of kids” has “lost intelligence in some way.”
How much better might Dent be doing had she attended middle-class schools? In a 10,000-word report, Hannah-Jones devotes little real attention to this question.
She told the Tuscaloosa News that she wanted to write a good story about a familiar topic—“resegregation” in the South, where we have “a lot of history with the ‘Stand in the Schoolhouse Doors’ and Alabama being the cradle of the civil rights movement.” For details, see yesterday's post.
We think that focus is tired and stale, perhaps a bit dishonest. D’Leisha Dent doesn’t live in the era of “Stand in the Schoolyard Doors.”
D’Leisha Dent lives in an era of very large achievement gaps. Tomorrow, we’ll look at the size of those gaps, and wonder what a city can do if it actually wants to address them.
Solving Tuscaloosa means fighting those gaps. Tomorrow, we’ll look at some numbers.