TUSCALOOSA LIBERALS: Attempts to explain!


Part 3—How this predicament happened: How did a superlative kid like D’Leisha Dent get into this situation?

D’Leisha Dent’s mother, Melissa Dent, is a university graduate (University of Alabama, 1995).

Today, D’Leisha Dent is a senior at Tuscaloosa’s Central High School. She’s president of her senior class. She’s a three-time individual state champion in track.

Last fall, she was voted homecoming queen. She’s an honors student who is enrolled in Central High’s Advanced Placement English class.

It also seems that she may not be able to get into a four-year college. For details, see yesterday’s report.

D’Leisha Dent, a superlative kid, can’t score high enough on the ACT to merit a nibble from four-year schools. In the current Atlantic, Nikole Hannah-Jones spends 9900 words explaining this situation in a manner we would regard as possibly lazy and somewhat subjective—and extremely familiar.

Don’t get us wrong! Many of Hannah-Jones’ explanations may be relevant to the deeply important question at hand. She focuses on the “resegregation” of the Tuscaloosa schools in the past fourteen years, a “resegregation” which has produced these enrollment figures at the three high schools maintained by the heavily-black Tuscaloosa City Schools:
Tuscaloosa City high schools:
Bryant High School:
944 students
75 percent black, 19 percent white
59 percent low-income

Central High School:
765 students
100 percent black
83 percent low-income

Northridge High School:
1226 students
61 percent black, 35 percent white
47 percent low-income
(Our data come from greatschools.org. By way of perspective, roughly 50 percent of the nation’s students qualify as “low income.”)

In fascinating detail, Hannah-Jones describes the process which produced these three high schools, along with a set of elementary and middle schools whose enrollment figures rarely reflect the city’s racial balance.

A bit of basic history:

Melissa Dent, D’Leisha’s mother, attended Central High too. But when she graduated in 1988, Central High was Tuscaloosa’s only public high school.

All Tuscaloosa kids, white and black, attended this one high school together. The city also maintained a single middle school for all its kids, black and white.

At that time, all Tuscaloosa kids, black and white, attended these citywide schools together. On the merits, all things being equal, we think that’s a great idea.

In principle, we like that idea. But in this passage, Hannah-Jones describes a problem which developed during the twenty-one years when this policy obtained:
HANNAH-JONES (4/16/14): After Melissa Dent graduated [from Central High], in 1988, Central continued as one of the state’s standout high schools. But over time, local leaders grew more concerned about the students who didn’t attend the school than those who did.

White students once accounted for a majority of the Tuscaloosa school district’s students. But by the mid-1990s, they made up less than a third. Total enrollment had dropped from 13,500 in 1969 to 10,300 in 1995. Many white parents had decided to send their children to nearly all-white private schools or to move across the city line to access the heavily white Tuscaloosa County Schools.
This process, often described as “white flight,” has taken place all over the country. It’s also true that black parents have often moved across city lines to access suburban schools.

Hannah-Jones never says if this has occurred in Tuscaloosa, or if so to what extent.

Starting in the year 2000, Tuscaloosa began rearranging its districting policies in an attempt to stem this white flight; Hannah-Jones tells this story in fascinating detail. As part of this ongoing practice, Central High was districted—and sometimes gerrymandered—to serve as the city’s high school for low-income black kids, Hannah-Jones reports.

In the 1980s, Melissa Dent attended a citywide high school for black and white kids. Today, her daughter, D’Leisha Dent, attends an all-black high school. In fact, she has attended all-black schools for her full thirteen years in the Tuscaloosa schools—like “nearly a third of the district’s black students,” according to Hannah-Jones.

In a series of explanations, Hannah-Jones suggests that this “resegregation” explains the predicament faced by D’Leisha Dent, a superlative young person. None of her explanations is obviously “wrong,” although we’d say she may sometimes be a bit selective in her presentations.

Hannah-Jones describes the “academic benefits” which are said to accrue to black kids who attend racially-balanced schools. She also describes the deficits which sometimes obtain at schools like the current Central High—schools which serve a population of heavily low-income black kids.

Sometimes, Hannah-Jones seems to put her thumb on the scale a tad. Consider this somewhat puzzling passage about one boon of desegregation in the wake of the Brown decision:
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.
Did desegregation “achieve undeniable results” if “some scholars argue that it had a negligible effect on overall academic achievement?” In this report, it did!

In this passage, Hannah-Jones is referring to a reduction in the achievement gap in the 1970s and 1980s as measured on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. But she never notes that black students’ achievement on the NAEP has risen markedly in the past two decades, during the era she describes as “resegregation.” In our view, Hannah-Jones may sometimes put her thumb on the scale a tad when she describes the results of academic research.

For ourselves, we’d rather see black and white kids attending school together, as they do at Northridge and Bryant High Schools, as they do in the half-dozen high schools run by Tuscaloosa County. We’d rather see superlative kids like D’Leisha Dent attending school with kids of both races.

(Tuscaloosa’s student population is almost entirely black and white.)

We’d also rather see writers like Hannah-Jones stop pushing the frameworks which please us Yankee liberals. We’d like to see these writers go where the rubber meets the road.

For our money, Hannah-Jones routinely fails to do this in her fascinating report. In the passage shown below, she warms the cockles of liberal hearts—and she skips right past an extremely important point.

In this passage, Hannah-Jones describes what happened after the year 2000, when Tuscaloosa abandoned the practice of maintaining Central High as its single high school:
HANNAH-JONES: The night the Tuscaloosa school board voted to split up the old Central [High School], board member Bryan Chandler pledged that there would be no winners and losers. Yet while Northridge offered students a dozen Advanced Placement classes, the new Central went at least five years without a single one. Journalism awards stretch wall to wall in Northridge’s newspaper classroom, but for the better part of a decade, Central students didn’t have a school newspaper or a yearbook. Until last year, Central didn’t even offer physics.
As she continues, Hannah-Jones describes a familiar state of affairs, one observed all over the country. According to Hannah-Jones, many teachers didn’t want to teach at the reconfigured, all-black Central High. For that reason, the school may have become a “dumping ground” for less qualified teachers.

Obviously, low-income and minority kids deserve good teachers too. On its face, it’s also heard to defend the state of affairs described in the highlighted passage, where Northridge High’s kids got AP classes and a school newspaper while Central High’s kids did not.

That said, we think Hannah-Jones may be glossing this matter in a very familiar way. As she does, we think she does a gigantic disservice to superlative kids like D’Leisha Dent.

Hannah-Jones tells a stirring tale in that highlighted passage. In our view, uncaring liberals have been telling this tale for several decades now.

This stirring tale makes us liberals feel good. In the context of Hannah-Jones’ report, you might even call us “Tuscaloosa liberals,” at least for this one week. (Our attention span is quite limited when it comes to the interests of black kids.)

This stirring tale makes us liberals feel good. So do headlines like “Segregation Now,” the thrilling banner editors placed atop Hannah-Jones’ report.

For decades, stirring tales and thrilling headlines have served to make us liberals feel good. They’ve also helped us lazily evade the actual challenge we’re facing.

Tomorrow: About Central High


  1. Or maybe she didn't get into 4 year university because her mom decided to ruin any shot she had at getting in or later getting a job by naming her D'Leisha.

    1. Care to explain this observation?

    2. That ridiculous names on applications are often-times enough to get them trashed? That "traditional black" names on applications have a much lower chance of getting a call back? That the combination of the two is toxic?

    3. For decades, stirring comments like yours have served to make us liberals feel good. They’ve also helped us lazily see the actual challenge we’re facing.

    4. Yes indeed. If I were a prejudiced employer, I would toss a D'Leish Dent into the waste bin without wasting her time or mine. I would pass over anyone named Marcus as well since everyone I know with the last name Marcus is Jewish and everyone I know with the first name Marcus is black.

      However, a name like Tal Fortang. Now that would be a privilege to interview.

    5. I would hire Anonymous.

    6. ...Except that jewish last names have not been scientifically shown to result in much fewer call backs, whereas african-american names have. D'Leish is the worst of both worlds - laughable on its face, stripper-esque, with an african-american connotation. Her mother did her a huge disservice.

    7. Took Marcus only 7 hours and 25 minutes to come up with that rejoinder.

    8. Another fact/thought-free response from another moron too dumb to pick a name.

    9. "Her mother did her a huge disservice."

      Just because TDH has been attracting more commenters on race issues since his foray into the Trayvon Martin homicide doesn't mean the overall intelligence of the comments has gone up.

  2. This series has to be the one in which Somerby's favorite description of other writers, mostly female, is best applied to him: clueless.

    1. Name calling doesn't tell the rest of us what you find so wrong with this post, and no, it isn't obvious.

    2. I could write the instructions found on your average shampoo bottle if you need further explanation.

    3. Ripley, A.
      Walsh, J.
      Friedman, T.
      Carr, D.
      Rich, M.
      Ryan, J.
      Maddow, R.
      Collins, G.
      Nocera, J.
      Ravitch, D.
      Bruni, F.
      Strauss, V.
      Reporters, Education
      Tribe, The Liberal
      Public, The
      Graduates, Young College

    4. So, you are saying don't like it when your favorite people are criticized for mistakes they have made?

    5. For genuine mistakes, no problem -- if they occurred recently, that is. For alleged mistakes that are the product of obsessive deep-dives and cherry-picking, not so much.

      You have an interesting perspective: "If Somerby says it's a mistake, then I agree."

    6. Not at all. I am saying Mr. Somerby is repetitive, clueless and a name caller.

    7. I don't think I ever said I agree with everything Somerby writes. I read this blog because it presents a unique perspective, not to find out what to think.

      Some of his criticisms seem like nitpicks to me, but everyone has his or her own pet peeves when it comes to what bugs them.

      Stephen Glass is my exemplar for the phenomenon of a young Ivy Leaguer put in the position of responsibility and having to write articles without having the training to do so. Like Somerby, I remember when writers worked their way up to such positions and learned their craft in the process, instead of being thrown into the deep end immediately after graduation. I don't envy someone in that position and i doubt Somerby does either. He perhaps envision what our media could be doing to serve our democracy if it still had well-trained practitioners. I remember and yearn for the days when copy-editors corrected typos, but my needs are simpler.

      Cue the troll who wants to talk about lawns.

    8. Yes indeed. Mr. Glass had a problem writing. Non ficition.

  3. IIRC the article says she only applied to one college. In my day (1960) people typically applied to 3., Later, kids I know were applying to 4 or 5 or more. Ms. Dent should have been advised to apply to more schools.

    My old high school guidance counselors were pretty worthless. Perhaps Ms. Dent's counselors were less helpful than they might have been.

    1. Things are worse today because counselors are cut from school budgets when money is scarce. They don't focus on kids who appear to be doing well because there are so many kids who are at risk and they have so little time.

      You cannot systematically starve schools and expect them to do a wonderful job.

      I can top David's story. In 1965 I was a national merit finalist and got no counseling whatsoever. I applied to two schools and was accepted by 1 (Pomona College didn't like my high school). I had a 4-year full scholarship that would have paid tuition to Stanford or any school in California, but I didn't know that school existed so I never applied to it. My working class parents did not pay for my application fees, so I had to cover them myself out of my part-time job (at $1/hr each application was more than two weeks pay for me). I received mainly negative attention from my school -- the principal even called me in once to explain that he could not revise the school curriculum to meet the needs of one student -- this confused me because I had never requested anything from anyone and had no sense of being ill-served at the time.

      This kind of thing happens to white kids from working class backgrounds, not just African American kids. When it happens to white kids, it is not attributed to racism but I cannot see how that benefits the kids who are being neglected. This is why being the 1st in a family to attend college is considered an eligibility criterion for affirmative action programs on most campuses. It is also why some are suggesting that race-based affirmative action should be changed to socio-economic status instead.

      As Somerby points out, many middle-class African American parents are putting their kids in private schools or switching to suburban school districts too, because every parent wants the best for their kids. Now that demographics are changing within racial groups, using race as a proxy for disadvantage does not make sense. Neither does treating the best students at poor schools as if they were doing fine when they are not. Dent is probably representative of the neglect of the entire study body at her school. ALL of the kids there deserve better.

    2. I believe colleges are paying a lot more attention than before to economic disadvantage for any applicant, as they should be. There is the first-in-family factor, but also the pressure against legacy admits that was a long-time form of affirmative action for the well-off. But you cannot deny that minority race is in most cases still a significant disadvantage even apart from the economic status. Both should be considered, especially in assessing how much weight to give to test scores that are heavily correlated with socio-economic status.

    3. Perhaps what Somerby is arguing for is not affirmative action but real change in the quality of education provided for children, especially in urban public schools attended by minority race children. Real attention to early childhood education and to supporting young families (regardless of how many parents are present). Trying to correct disparities at the point of college admission or hiring is too late when the skills needed to take advantage of such opportunities have not been acquired.

      Somerby has been complaining that high stakes testing and setting increasingly higher standards (via initiatives like common core), does not help children who are already behind in performance and need remedial attention that addresses their specific needs. So articles should be written about whether and how to meet those needs, not about the broader aspects of education, even resegregation. When the focus is on race and not on what is happening in the early grades in those re-segregated schools, the point is being missed that relaxing standards at graduation is not the same as preparing kids better in the beginning of their school careers, when effort can have the most impact.

      In California, it took Rob Reiner to do something about this.

  4. Can someone translate Bob's verse?

    "We’d also rather see writers like Hannah-Jones stop pushing the frameworks which please us Yankee liberals. We’d like to see these writers go where the rubber meets the road.

    For our money, Hannah-Jones routinely fails to do this in her fascinating report. In the passage shown below, she warms the cockles of liberal hearts—and she skips right past an extremely important point."

    What point does she skip over? And where does the rubber meet the road? I read thiis latest posting a few times and have no idea what he's trying to say.

    1. I'd like to know the answer to those questions myself. Apparently 12:14 has no idea either.

    2. You are right Hankest. I can't answer the questions but I was trying to translate.

    3. I think she skips over the point that the school is not doing its job well with any of the students. Dent's problem is not simply that she cannot pass the ACT or AP tests (something people like to attribute to racial bias long after such tests have been revised to eliminate such biases). She has been earning good grades without the learning such grades should signify. The evidence of this is that she (and her classmates) cannot write a good poetry essay in their AP class, despite being the school's honor students. Such a class should be full of strong essays, not struggling students.

      The frameworks that please Yankee liberals are about racism and segregation, not about under-funding and inadequately trained teachers and courses where students are not challenged but still get A's for mediocre performance. Why are such schools tolerated when kids are black or poor but not tolerated by middle class parents who vote with their feet and take their kids elsewhere? Is it racist of parents to flee a school like Central high or are they seeking a school that will better prepared its students for college?

      If you consider Somerby's essay like a poem that an AP student must interpret, some commenters here seem up to the task while others flounder and blame Somerby for being too obscure. How much of the fault for this belongs with the reader and how much with the failures of various educational institutions to prepare readers for a complex world full of challenging and difficult to parse reading material?

      Think how foolish it would be to claim that Dent's whole problem is that literature is too hard to read.

    4. 2:57, thanks for the attempt. I'm not sure that's what he means at all; but perhaps.

      As for your point about readers not being prepared to parse difficult material, i guess you can chalk me up as one of those - although unlike Bob I didn't find Stephen Hawking especially difficult reading.

      Anyway, if Bob is trying to make a point as simple as the one you present, why would he work so hard to obscure what he's trying to say? I find this especially odd as lately Bob's been bashing writers discussing truly difficult topics (e.g., philosophy and astrophyscis) as being impossible for the layman to understand.

    5. I don't know. Maybe he likes to show instead of tell. Maybe it amuses him to watch people flounder. Maybe he writes to get things out of his system and doesn't care whether or how his message is received (some artists are like that and others have speculated that this blog may be performance art).

    6. Its meaning is plain. Bob's style is more than clear so should not be dumbed down and thus less entertaining since it seems the obstacle to understanding his points is tribal resistance

    7. 4:15, if it's clear, please answer the two questions raised by 11:24. So far the one noble attempt was merely a guess.

      I don't know if i'm tribal, my headress is in the wash, but i am interested in knowing what he's trying to say. I do not believe it is at all clear, prove me wrong (PLEASE!)

    8. "We’d also rather see writers like Hannah-Jones stop pushing the frameworks which please us Yankee liberals. We’d like to see these writers go where the rubber meets the road."

      If you read his blog regularly, you would see two re-occuring complaints by Mr. Somerby that make this paragraph more clear: 1) "expert" journalists (many from Yankee states like NY) often write about pleasing-sounding solutions (liberal pleasing frameworks) to fixing lower income education problems, but many of these "experts" have never stepped foot into a classroom (rubber hits the road), and many of the solutions are not backed up by empirical evidence and 2) that NY liberals/journalists (Yankees) often make fun of southern voters and that this is not a great way for liberals to try and change people's minds about liberal ideas (rubber hits the road could also refer to NY journalists going to southern states).

      You can call that "just a guess" but i think it is pretty close.

      The point she skips over is less clear to me, but i am sure it would be clearer if i had the time and inclination to read the post a little closer.

  5. I am enjoying Bob's dissection of the article, and even more so the trolls' reaction to the truth. They don't like their thrilling, feel-good tales exposed for the rube bait they are.

    1. I am accustomed to Bob Somerby displaying his stupidity by proclaiming this type of article to be a thrilling feel-good article for liberals.

      Why do you think it is?

    2. I'm a liberal and the article didn't make me feel good. That said, Anonymous 1:34, can you respond to the questions asked by Anonymous 11:24? I can't.


    3. Neither can 1:34. 1:34 can only fling poo.

    4. Hank- are the answers:

      1. It is a common occurrence, not isolated to any one part of the country or size of city?

      2. Point 1 is the point where the 2 meet?

  6. "By way of perspective, roughly 50 percent of the nation’s students qualify as 'low income'.”

    The sneering quotation marks around "low income" are inappropriate. Students whose families make up to 185% of the official poverty level qualify for the reduced lunch. That is still far below the median income -- for a family of four, for example, about $20,000 below.

    Yes, that is low income. In fact, duh, there is a national program that allows them to qualify for free or reduced lunches because they are considered to come from households with low income. And it's not surprising that about 50% of public school students would qualify as low income, since private schools tend to skim off the top and over 20% of children live below the actual poverty level.

  7. But urban, the larger point is how can we as a nation tolerate having 20% of our children in actual poverty and 50% of our public school kids in low income households?

    It makes no sense to reserve the term "low income" for half of our public school kids when the word "low" is comparative and the condition being described applies to such a large segment of the kids. It makes the term "low" meaningless when everyone is low income.

    When you start looking at this more closely, most households are concentrated at the low end of the income spectrum in comparison to the tiny sliver that are actually high income. Whether people earn the median income or $20,000 below is not worth arguing about (although it makes a huge difference in quality of life terms) when people earning $200,000/yr consider themselves struggling and are, compared to the millionaires that define high income in our society.

    Have you considered that Somerby might be sneering at the way we discuss income these days, in general? You can take poverty level and triple it or quadruple it and still be talking about people with very little money. Something is very wrong with the way we are describing incomes. I think we need to start by throwing out the use of median income to discuss poverty and calculating those averages so that we can see the range between the top and bottom of our household income scales as the rich get considerably richer while everyone else stays the same or declines in income.

  8. I think the sneering is far more convoluted than you understand. He has invested a lot in attacking those who, like Diane Ravitch, have referenced the school lunch program as an indicator of poverty in order to show that international comparisons suggesting poor schools in the country fail to indicate the effect of poverty on test scores. Since free or reduced lunches are available to students at, respectively, 130% and 185% of the poverty level, the criticism is technically correct. However, the attacks and their vehemence are misplaced in substance because (1) one can substitute the words "low income" for "poverty" and make exactly the same point about U.S. test scores vs those of other countries; (2) high incidence of low income students almost perfectly predicts high incidence of those living in poverty under the official definition; and (3) the NCES itself references the school lunch program as an indicator of the prevalence of "poverty."

    If there's another purpose to the quotation marks, it might be helpful to explain it, instead of relying on minions who despite their best efforts probably don't come close to understanding it themselves.

  9. I'm with you, urban.

    Regarding "poverty", there no reason why being relatively poor should make one a bad student. My own upbringing makes me see far fewer people are truly deprived than the official number living in "poverty". When my wife, daughter and I were living on $200/month fellowship, we didn't have any luxuries, but that didn't mean our daughter suffered educationally. In my youth, my father had a decent job, which was good enough. We always had a roof over our heads, clothing to wear, and food to eat. I would say that our absolute standard of living compared unfavorably with many families below the poverty line today.

    In short, "poverty" is no excuse for bad test results.

    1. Grad students aren't representative of those living in poverty.

  10. Haven't read the Times article, but the highlighted part Bob writes about here is directly related to this:

    Costing Out | Tax Re-structuring | Advocacy Strategies | Recent Events | Useful Resources

    Historical Background

    In 1991, the Alabama Coalition for Equity (ACE) and the ACLU of Alabama, filed suits challenging the state's education finance system on adequacy and equity grounds. The cases were consolidated and went to trial in 1992. The trial court's 1993 liability decision, ACE v. Hunt, held for plaintiffs on both the adequacy and equity claims based on the state constitution.

    A remedy negotiated among the parties and ordered by the court, in ACE v. Folsom, included performance-based education, professional development, early childhood programs, inclusive special education, and equitable and adequate funding -- to be fully funded within six years. The Alabama Supreme Court upheld the liability order in Opinion of the Justices (1993), but vacated the remedy order in 1997 (Ex Parte Governor Fob James).
    Extraordinary Order to Dismiss

    In 2002, the Alabama Supreme Court, on its own initiative, in an extraordinary order, re-opened the case, which it had affirmed on four previous occasions, and, in May 2002, years after its appellate jurisdiction had expired, dismissed the case.

  11. "Part 3—How this predicament happened: How did a superlative kid like D’Leisha Dent get into this situation?

    D’Leisha Dent’s mother, Melissa Dent, is a university graduate (University of Alabama, 1995)."

    And what, we might wonder, were Melissa's scores on the ACT?