THE GAPS IN TUSCALOOSA: What should we do?


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.


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.
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.

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?

More questions:

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.

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.
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.

(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...

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.
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:

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, Alabama
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)
Alabama's black kids have been scoring higher in Grade 8 math. In the process, they’ve been reducing that gap.


  1. Right Bob. Six points in 14 years. Why, that's almost half a point a year! In another 60 years, that gap will be closed entirely!

    Meanwhile Alabama black eighth graders in 2013 still scored 25 points below what Alabama white eighth graders scored in 2000.

    By the way, which NAEP are you using this time? The Main or the LTT?

    1. The point is that if resegregation is hurting kids academically the gap should be increasing, not decreasing.

      Even integration won't help deliberate obtusity.

    2. Right. A little racial segregation, or a lot of it, never hurt anyone.

      Where else can you go to find a 1998-style vanity blog reflecting the best thinking of 1898?

    3. Good catch, troll. TDH is obviously in favor of returning to the days of Plessy v Ferguson.

    4. Didn't the court write in Plessy that Jim Crow segregation isn't the real problem? The real problem was that parents don't talk enough to their babies before they are 18 months old?

  2. "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."

    This is why TDH is pestered by tribalist trolls who cry in their pillow every time a blasphemy is committed against Rachel Maddow.

    1. For many commenters TDH inspires crackpot commenters who joyously wet their trousers while waiting to attribute many ills to liberals in tribute to their failed careerist blogger.

  3. The key to doing well on the ACT, SAT and other standardized tests is verbal ability. That is enhanced by the habit of reading for pleasure. Reading ideally should include words with which a child is unfamiliar, not just reading materials limited to words at an appropriate grade level, because use of language and the meanings of words are best learned in context and with interested attention.

    I have been finding lots of highly motivated students doing everything asked of them but doing no extracurricular reading at all. The average teen reads fewer books for pleasure every year, 2 per year, the last I heard. Kids who ace those entrance exams read a book a week or more -- in addition to whatever is assigned in their classes.

    I have no idea whether this is due to time demands of athletics (in Dent's situation), video games or social media involvement, overscheduling of activities, home responsibilities/child care or too much other homework. It handicaps kids who are otherwise hardworking and motivated and capable of doing better. So, the correlation between parental literacy and child school achievement may be indirect and result from establishing a habit of leisure reading supported by trips to a library. If you add in a teen culture that mocks or bullies children who read, the gaps are easier to understand.

    1. According to this series the gaps are pretty well set in stone at 18 months.

    2. Clearly visible, yes. Set in stone, no.

    3. No ul. It is pretty clear reading TDH what is implied.

      The Economist refers to substantial developmental gaps which have been measured at only 18 months. We hear the suggestion that children's early interactions affect the way their brains grow. We’re not entirely sure what that means.

      Do children’s brains develop differently in response to their early interactions? We don’t know, but that “30 million word gap” exists by the age of 3. To what extent can these early gaps be addressed? That’s an interesting question. Truth to tell, no one cares about our achievement gaps!

    4. I'm no neuroscientist but it would seem to loosely fall under "use it or lose it". Stimuli produces development of new brain pathways, without that stimulus the brain remains relatively dormant in it's development. So much wasted potential that could be perhaps easily remedied. Tragic really.

    5. Well, I'm no neuroscientist either. Truth to tell, no one may care.

  4. I saw a preview on MSNBC for a series Chris Hayes is going to start next week.

    One person he interviews is quoted as saying desegregation did more to reduce the achievement gap that any other school reform.

    Prediction: Hayes will be savaged for caring about black kids. The "gap series" will stetch into week five, six, and possible seven.

  5. "Hannah-Jones has one idea what to do with respect to the gaps—and it can’t be done!"

    This is ridiculous. The Hannah-Jones article is about segregation, the institutionalization of which sustained the gaps officially for 100 years. She nowhere makes the slightest hint of a claim, or a "dream," that desegregation will "solve" the gaps. An article about the gaps is a different article, and we look forward to Somerby publishing that extremely important article in The Atlantic.

    We also look forward to other articles, including any that may be written by Hannah-Jones, considering the subject of racial segregation and whether or not "re-segregation" is occurring and what its effects, if any, are. She did not "thunder" about apartheid schools, she merely stated accurately that the term is used in academic circles where these matters are studied. It is a term that is exaggerated for effect, but it is a thought-provoking formulation that has a very large kernel of truth.

    Hannah-Jones does not thunder about anything. She also does not hesitate to identify the difficult policy decisions that have been involved and made by both white and black officials, with the implication that heaping blame on anyone is not a useful thing to do. The "it" that "can't be done," continued desegregation of schools, is as doable as closing the gap. Both already have taken decades, and will take decades more.

    It is hard to understand how a possible reversal in the process of racial desegregation, which ought to be viewed as a matter of monumental historical importance to many tens of millions of people can be treated as a trivial matter. It's unfortunate that Somerby tries so hard to twist it into his favorite script about liberals trying to feeling good about themselves. The only way he can do so is to spin what Hannah-Jones has reported into an article she did not actually write.

    1. But while we anxiously await further articles on the topic of "resegregation" the gaps persist and a whole new generation falls behind. It's obvious liberals cannot solve the problem of education gaps, here for instance they have no immediate answer except to wax nostalgia for how great they think they once were. It's going to take black parents

    2. What great things could conservative wax nonstalgic about
      I wonder.

    3. I myself wonder why Somerby feels good talking like its '65.

    4. I for one am not a conservative. If these comments are at all typical then clearly liberals aren't capable of stepping up with any viable solutions. Talk of greater integration would require either waiting for a population shift (perhaps advances in cloning can fill classrooms with white kids), or, you'll have to selectively pull kids out of their private schools against their parents will in an act of "social engineering" that would all but destroy liberalism politically.

    5. Since your first comment was a mere reflexive parroting of a line from Somerby it is clear you haven't the ability to step off the perch from which you defecate.

    6. Meanwhile liberals such as yourself still have no solutions to offer. Just a look back at fond memories of liberal glory from back in the day.

    7. I for one am not a liberal.

  6. Scratching My HeadJune 18, 2014 at 2:45 PM

    A major irony is that we have been abandoning desegregation efforts as the evidence for its value becomes more and more powerful. We have more than a halfcentury of research about the impacts of diverse schooling and the ways to make integration most successful.

    Although we decided as a country to desegregate our schools
    with very little information, we are abandoning the effort now that we have a great deal of knowledge about its benefits.

    The consensus of nearly sixty years of social science research on the harms of school segregation is also clear: separate remains extremely unequal. Racially and socioeconomically isolated schools are strongly related to an array of factors that limit educational opportunities and outcomes. These include less experienced and less qualified teachers, high levels of teacher turnover, less successful peer groups and inadequate facilities and learning materials.

  7. Hey there boys and girls in Howler Land.

    After a month of reading Somerby on kumquats and mean old uncaring reporters, want to read something really well written on the topic of acheivement gaps?

    As many of you are liberals, the answer is probably not. At least according to Somerby. You don't care! Alas!! Gack!!!

    If your results differ, try here:

    This guy taught middle school too!

  8. How exactly should Tuscaloosa be desegregated again? Should people be told where to live? Should they be assigned to particular schools? How do you achieve balance with only 20% white students to be spread across all the schools in their district? Are you suggesting that parents should be compelled to send their kids to public schools and that private schools and home-schooling should be abolished?

    Given the current political realities, do you think any of those things is likely to happen? And if not, how else can desegregation be accomplished?

  9. Should people be told where to live? No.

    How do you achieve balance with only 20% white students to be spread across all the schools in their district? Well, you might consider consolidating the county and city school districts to increase the level of diversity in all or most of them.

    Are you suggesting that parents should be compelled to send their kids to public schools and that private schools and home-schooling should be abolished? No.

    Jeez, you're looking for easy answers and "solutions." What part of the word "difficult" don't you understand? You do every little thing you can think of reduce segregation that's consistent with everyone's legal rights. You do every little thing you can think of to close the gaps by improving the education of kids who have had few advantages at home leading to early learning and school readiness. You keep plugging along, for 500 years if that's what it takes. You don't throw your hands in the air and say, this is hard so it can't be solved, so let's stop even trying.

    1. The strategy of "do everything all the time everywhere" is not necessarily more effective at achieving goals than "prioritize problems and apply resources at the point where they will do the most good."

      Plugging along for 500 years without making substantial progress suggests a different approach is needed.

      Here is Somerby's point -- doing things that make the doers feel good without helping the people who need help isn't a viable approach. It is like giving small handouts to people on the street without addressing the root causes of homelessness.

      The emotion called "frustration" exists to help people identify which problems are unsolvable so that they can shift either their goals or change their efforts to do something that will accomplish more. You don't keep banging your head against a wall just because it seems like the right thing to do and makes you feel like an empathetic person to do so.

  10. What should we do?

    1. Support your public library. Support initiatives like "First Five" in CA and similar programs across the country that aid parents in nurturing children in the first years of life. Support WIC and aid to mothers with small children. Support universal preschool and Head Start and similar preschool programs. Make more aspects of public culture low cost and family friendly (as Utah does, for example). Support your public schools instead of charter and private schools and oppose people like Bill Gates who would coopt education for the benefit of profit-making enterprises. Elect Democrats whenever you can. Be nice to parents with small kids, especially on airplanes. Get the idea?

    2. Here are some more: fix the economy and decrease unemployment. Pass living wage legislation and increase minimum wage so families have resources to nurture their kids. Work on creating high wage jobs. Make higher education affordable again (so kids can acquire skills that will give them more resources to raise their families). Support and fund agencies that protect kids from domestic violence, abuse and neglect. Support and broaden health care for all. Support reproductive health choices so that all children are wanted. Fight consumerism that redirects family funds away from more important priorities. Support the public park systems so that families have a low cost place to help kids explore nature. Get the idea?

    3. Get gang leaders interested in motivating their members to pursue their educations because that's who will influence them since baby daddy is unknown to them.

    4. fix the economy and decrease unemployment. Pass living wage legislation and increase minimum wage so families

      living wage legislation and increased minimum wage will increase unemployment.

    5. Once again, David. Not true.

    6. Gang intervention and after-school programs have been pretty successful in Los Angeles -- although I know @12:14 was being facetious. You can support programs that supply role models, including church youth programs, Big Brothers, Boys clubs, scouts and a bunch of local initiatives. I assume you are not only interested in what happens to boys -- you do know that girls get involved in gangs too, right? This isn't just about the baby daddys.