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.

Here's why:

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


  1. Segregation is the historical building block that maintained the gaps after slavery created them. It took 100 years to even start tearing down segregation. It may take 100 years to finally destroy it, but any slowdown or reversal in the process is of monumental historical importance and worthy of reporting. It's "a fascinating and detailed report." End of story. Doing whatever we can to shrink the gaps with whatever situation we are presented with at any given time is also critical. That's another story. There is no need to manufacture some kind of conflict here, and the cheapest form of criticism of a creative work is that it is not another kind of work.

    "For historical reasons, we’re reluctant to call that 'segregation' . . ”

    We'll see where the promised discussion takes us, but we have a very long history of distinguishing between de jure and de facto forms of segregation. We wiped out the de jure kind with more or less one fell swoop, and the challenge has been, first, multi-pronged efforts driven by civil rights organizations to reduce the underlying geographical segregation -- eliminating red-lining and realtor racial "steering," for example -- and designing schools and school systems that take de-segregation even further than the geography would permit. One must be careful not to let efforts to close the testing gaps be twisted into accepting de facto desegregation and implicitly restoring the notion that separate-but-equal is just fine again.

    1. Well said, UL.

      And I only add that for "historical reasons" I'm reluctant to let Somerby define "segregation" to fit his argument.

    2. I could try to say why Bob is right. My word count is too small due to poor black single mom. Hope he solves this.

    3. We wiped out the de jure kind [of segregation] with more or less one fell swoop,….


      The start of the dismantling of de jure segregation begins with the woman who refused to move to the back of the bus. No, not Rosa Parks, Irene Morgan, whose conviction was overturned by the Supreme Court in Irene Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia, 328US373 (1946), which made segregation in interstate travel illegal. The country moves through (among other events) EO 9981in 1948, Brown v Board in 1954, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Civil Rights Act of 1968, ending with Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, 402US1 (1970). After that, we move into the modern era, where the Supreme Court has consistently taken steps in the opposite direction.

      By my calculations, that's 24 years, a span of time I take to be longer than either a fell or a swoop. YMMV.

    4. Yes, the Supreme Court has moved in the opposite direction. Including the elimination of court-ordered desegregation, the fruits of which can be seen in Hannah-Jones' "heinous" and "cruel" article.

      But no worries. "Re-segregation" is no problem. After all, we can't do anything about it.

    5. With 20% white students across the district how does one achieve racial balance? If you think selectively pulling kids out of their private schools for the purpose of integration is at all politically viable then I suggest you're incredibly naive.

    6. Anonymous @ 6:59 seems to have had a mother who used douched frequently during his infancy. He may or may not know his rather, but signs point to frequent household visits by a Troll with whom male bonding failed.

    7. Vocabulary analysis of Anoymous @ 6:59 points to a mother who douched frequently. And "Daddy issues" with a frequent household visitor called "Troll" whose behavior he mimicks but with whom he had male bonding problems.

    8. your mommy... your daddy...


      troll ignores that his substance ("Re-segregation is no problem") has been eviscerated, instead pretends he's a shrink to other commenters, identifies their "issues."

      yawn. troll making us so, so sleepy.

  2. "Students need our help with the gaps. Why do we liberals avoid them?"

    And the only "help" the brilliant Bob has discovered was the need to talk to children from infancy --- something that has been known and quite extensively reported on for quite some time, even predating the 20-year-old research he only recently discovered.

    1. As a liberal what "help" do you propose to solve the problem? It'll take more than liberals just climbing up on their high horse and pointing down to make a dent.

    2. Bob has already given us the answer. It's to hire a virtual army of talkers with huge vocabularies to go into every home with a baby and close that dreaded word gap when their parents can't do it. Pretty soon, millions more five year olds will be announcing their intention to learn Croatian.

      But by all means, let's not set national standards concerning what each child should be learning in the areas of literacy and math at each step of their education. What a daft notion that is.

    3. No one has ever suggested hiring an "army of talkers" to talk to infants. Developing very early vocabulary and language skills is a parents responsibility. No amount of "standards" later on is likely to overcome that neglect.

    4. OK, so let's see if I follow.

      "Re-segregation" is a problem that no government policy can solve. so lets not even talk about it.

      The "word gap" is also a problem that no government policy can solve, so let's talk about it for an entire month.

      That about it?

    5. No. You missed the larger problem Bob likes to avoid.

      White people don't care much about or for black people. Period.
      Childre3n included.

    6. And that seems to be mutual, hence resegregation.

    7. 12:49. Are you black?

    8. Looks like 12:49 knows what black people "seem" to feel, but not whether he/she is one or not.

    9. Are these segregated blog comments?

    10. I don't know 10:05. IF they are we can do little about that.
      In the meantime let's do what we can to work on your punishing gap.

  3. I’m finding this blog fascinating. I cannot think of another in which the commentors largely post as “Anonymous” and regularly bash the writer - and the writer persists in coming up with challenging ideas. It seems to me that the commentors are convinced that you are really not one of them; and maybe you're not. Maybe you're more a classic liberal, rather than today’s “progressive.”

    As to the substance of this particular post, I think you have indeed identified a difficult problem. If the assumption is that blacks need a large number of whites in their midst in order to succeed, the existence of a city in which whites are rare poses seriously problem. By why accept that assumption?

    There is definite historical evidence for high-achieving black schools - or at least there was before forced desegregation - Dunbar High was a splending example at one time. Maybe a reasonable answer would be to study why that worked.

    1. Fortunately, that's not the assumption. The assumption was written brilliantly by Earl Warren -- that segregated schools are inherently unequal, even if the facilities and teachers are equal, because of the message they burn into the brains of minority students that they are so inferior that majority kids have to be separated from them.

      Oh, and if you want to use anecdotal evidence, I would pick a high school besides one that Michelle Rhee says she turned around.

      Rhee is anathema in these parts.

    2. I was not aware of any claim by Rhee pertaining to Dunbar. I am talking about its record in the first half of the twentieth century, before segregation, when it was considered the best Black High School in the country.

      And I find that I don't agree at all with the assumption that segregation "burn[s] into the brains of minority students that they are so inferior that majority kids have to be separated from them." The history of Dunbar school is a clear refutation of that - its graduates from the old days competed on an equal basis with Whites, as far as skill was concerned. It would be interesting to see evidence for the proposition that they felt inferior.

      And it makes educational problems such as that cited by Bob (cases of cities with relatively few whites) intractable, since it is impossible in those cases to provide the mass of integrated schools that this assumption requires.

      In fact, I would see it more as an expression of racism by Whites - the idea that Black students are incapable of success unless surrounded by White students.

  4. Government schools are, in and of themselves, the problem. As long as a school is run by the government it will be subject to every passing fad and fancy; instead of focused on the education that the parents want the children to have.
    God did not give children to the state...

    1. God wanted schools to focus on the three R's.

      Readin, writing, and reloading.

    2. VO,

      The problem is not the government, at least not the core problem. The problem is that schools are run by educationists, and they have little capacity for anything other than fads and fancy. The government part of the problem is that tax revenues guarantee a powerful presence. If we left education to parents, children in Texas would be taught that evolution is wrong and the Noachian flood is a historical event. The children in Kansas would be taught that the sun revolves around the earth.

    3. Dead Rat,
      Sorry, but the problem is the government. One of the most powerful things in the world is the power of freedom. Let's say a parent in Texas did teach the Scriptures, and some parent in Kansas did teach geocentrism... what of it? They would be two sets of parents. And then there would be other parents who would teach such howlers as that the minimum wage doesn't cost jobs, or that the war on drugs is effective.
      The powerful thing is when there are lots of differnt things and we can see which one works and how well.

    4. It's one word, no initial caps.

      One of the most powerful things in the worlds is the power of freedom.

      Unfortunately, I have no idea what that means, especially given the examples. Perhaps I wasn't clear. If we left public education to parents, the children in public-school science classes in Texas would be taught that evolution is wrong, and their counterparts in Kansas would be taught that the sun revolves around the earth.

      Economists differ on whether the minimum wage costs jobs, and no one thinks that the war on drugs is effective. At least, not in reducing drug use. What does that have to do with anything?

      The powerful thing is when there are lots of different things and we can see which one works and how well

      That sounds nice, but there's little as powerful as ignorance and religious zealotry, which is why I want to see both kept out of public schools.

    5. The difficulty is that all too many public schools have taken on indoctrination as their agenda rather than education. If schools were reliably educating students, I'd probably be on your side, but when all too many schools graduate students with no better than a fifth-grade level of math and reading, it is really hard to say that the taxpayer-funded monopoly is really serving the nation.

      Sure, they aren't teaching zealotry in the name of the religious views at the foundation of Western civilization. But they are teaching zealotry in the name of a very narrow-minded progressivism, which doesn't even have the virtue of centuries of tradition.

  5. Wow, Rat, we really are miscommunicating.

    I am not saying we should put the parents in charge of government schools.That would just make them government schools with a different set of administrators. The problem is that they are government schools.

    Each parent should be in charge of the education of *their own* children... not that of others. Thus one parent could, indeed, teach the nonsense that is evolution. Another could teach the nonsense that is the minimum wage.

    Take an example:
    Suppose three different men each start a restaurant on the same street. Each has different ideas of what kind of restaurant to start. If they are allowed to operate freely we will all get to see what kind of ideas work, and which don't. Perhaps all three will be successful, perhaps all three will fail. Or perhaps one will work and we will see that.

    But if the government ( no matter who is in charge of it) gets to come in tell all of the owners exactly how to run their restaurant then, well, the result will likely be as bad as modern government schools... or VA healthcare.