Sunday, January 17, 2010

American public schools - still unequal (and racist) after all these years

this has been crossposted on several different blogs

In 1949, Black parents and children filed a law suit against the Board of Education in School District #22 in Clarendon County SC, noting the total inadequacy of facilities which were "unprotected from the elements . . .[with] no appropriate and necessary heating system, running water or adequate lights . . . and [with]an insufficient number of teachers and insufficent class spaces." The white schools were of course more modern and better equipped. That suit led to Briggs v Eliot, one of the cases eventually combined into the landmark Brown v Board of Education case that found schools segregated by race "inherently unequal" and thus unconstitutional even according to the perverse "separate but equal" doctrine of Plessy v Ferguson.

If it sounds like all I am doing is retelling ancient history, consider this: in 1999 the South Caroline Supreme Court remanded a case to trial "based on gross differences in resources in the same still-segregated Clarendoun County schools - now serving the grandchildren of the original plaintiffs - and the predominantly White and wealthier districts."

I am quoting from a new book on education for which I will shortly provide a complete review. But I decided this issue was so important I should address it separately. LET ME BE CLEAR: I am the one describing the results as racist, not the author of the book from which I draw the data.

The book is by Linda Darling-Hammond, the Charles E. Ducommun Professor of Education at Stanford University, one of the most respected scholars of American education, and someone who many in the educational circles in which I run very much wanted to see as Secretary of Education. She was an important adviser to the President while he was a candidate, but was strongly opposed by people such as the alumni of Teach for America because of the questions she has raised about the (lack of) long-term effectiveness of that program.

The title of the book is The Flat World and Education: How America's Committment to Equity Will Determine Our Future. It is well documented, exhaustive in its coverage of material. Darling-Hammond has herself appeared as an expert witness in a number of the more recent lawsuits on the question of equity in schools. Let me briefly continue with the material on South Carolina from which i was drawing, and which appears beginning on p. 112:
In 2005, when Abbeville v. State of South Carolina was heard, 88% of students in plaintiff districts were minority, 86% lived in poverty, and 75% of the schools were rated by the state as "unsatisfactory" or below on the state rating system." Graduation rates rangted between only 33 and 56% across the state.
The testimony was eerily similar to that heard in the same courthouse a half-century earlier, with plaintiffs describing crumbling and overcrowded facilities , lack of equipment, large numbers of uncertified teachers, and teacher turnover caused by salaries and benefits much lower than those in other districts.

The issue of inequity has if anything gotten even worse in recent years. One main purpose of federal involvement in education has been to try to provide funds to somewhat offset the inequality of schooling for students in high poverty areas. When the Reagan administration took office, the Federal government was providing 12% of the national spending on public K-12 education. Druing Reagan's first term, when Terrell Bell was Secretary of Education (and A Nation at Risk was published) that dropped to 9.6%. During the second term, when William Bennett ran the department, the percentage dropped to 6.2%.

Meanwhile the inequity of spending within the states had been increasing. And the problems were exacerbated by the Reagan administration's shifting the costs to states not only for education, but "for health care, employment training, housing supports, and other functions." (p. 105). Only in the late 1980s did we see the accumulation of data to allow "tracking of of disparities in instructional resources - teachers, support staff, curriculum, facilities, and professional development" that allowed researches to document the severity and increase of the inequities of inputs.

Understand this - on the conservative side of the educational divide there is an argument that inputs do not matter, that all that matters is results, hence the emphasis on test scores. Yet consider this:
In total, courts in 10 of the 31 states where suits were filed during the 1970s and early 1980s found their state's school finance system to be unconstitutional.
Consider both of those numbers, that 62% of the nation's states saw lawsuits on the constitutionality of how public schools were funded, on grounds often of violation of equal protection, and of those 1/3 - and of the total states 20% - were found to be correct: there was a constitutional violation. Yet, as Darling-Hammond notes, in most states there was little done to rectify the situation.

It is not that money makes no difference. Despite conservative scholars like Eric Hanushek (now at Hoover Institute which is located at but not truly part of Stanford) arguing that the monetary inputs are irrelevant, Ronald Ferguson found something very different: that expenditures properly applied do make a difference.
He found that the single most important measurable cause of increased student learning was teacher experience, measured by teacher performance on a statewide certification exam measuring academic skills and teaching knowledge, along with teacher experience and masters degree. The effects were so strong, and the variations in teacher expertise so great, that after controlling for socioeconomic status, the large disparities in achievement between Blakc and White students were almost entirely accounted for by difference in the qualifications of the their teachers. . . Ferguson found that when regional cost differentials are accounted for, school district operating expenditures exert a significant positive effect on student achievement - an effect that operates primarily through the influence of funding levels on salaries that attract and retain more qualified teachers.
(pp. 106-7)

We are now in a time when we see a push to prepare all students to be "college ready" upon graduation from high school. What is interesting is that we have seen states - South Carolina to be sure, but surprisingly also New York - argue that the state is not required to provide a minimally adequate education: in the case in NY those defending against the law suit argued that the state standards only required an 8th grade education. Lest you think this is ancient history, it took place during the Pataki administration, which actually won on those grounds in the first appellate review, although eventually New York's highest court upheld the the victory at trial that determined there was inequity and ordered the state to change its funding formula to make sure all students receive "a meaningful high school education."

Unfortunately, our current Supreme Court does not accept the arguments of those who seek greater equity of inputs. In a case from Arizona, the Federal District Court and the 9th Circuit both found Arizona out of compliance with their obligation fo provide resources inder The Equal Education Opportunities Act of 1974 to address the educational needs of English language learners. The case started in 1992 in Nogales, and reached SCOTUS in 2009. The state presented the arguments of Hanushek and other conservatives to focus on outputs not inputs, arguments opposed by the 3o current and former presidents of the American Educational Research Association and the National Academy of Education, who argued that, especially with English language learners, that well-crafted considerations of inputs and outputs were mutually reinforcing. In a 5-4 decision written by Justice Alito, the Court remanded for a further examination of whether cricumstances had changed sufficiently to allow the state relief from the original court decision.

Now consider for a moment: 1992 filing and 2009 SCOTUS decision. The state has never complied with the original ruling. The current Superintendent of Public Instruction (disclosure - who was my high school classmate) continues to fight this battle rather than meet the needs of the English Language Learners - who of course are almost always Spanish speaking, and often as discriminated against a minority in parts of the American Southwest as Blacks still are parts of the American South. The impact of the Supreme Court decision will at a minimum further delay addressing the inequity - and violation of law - that caused the original lawsuit.

It is not that the situation has to remain like this. Darling-Hammond examines states that have taken a different approach than this kind of resistance to what is right. Massachusetts had some success, although recent economic problems and periods of Republican governors (Romney) have led to fall backs.l Connecticut has a strong record of meeting educational needs, although there are still some gaps in performance. New Jersey has made major strides. North Carolina, led by the two periods of two terms for Jim Hunt as Governor, very much lifted itself out of the poor educational performance in states of the Old Confederacy.

Simply put, the problem is that absent sufficient resources we cannot use our public schools to lift people up. Schools without resources have less qualified teachers, higher turnover of teachers, less (if any) equipment, out of date books and other instructional material, and often physical plants that give students the clear impression that their education does not matter.

Schools that serve economically distressed populations suffer worst of all, because having funding based on local property values creates even greater problems when property values drop due to loss of employment opportunities and the massive drop in property values caused by the greed and lack of regulation of mortgages in the last administration. States cannot step in to help localities, because most of them are required to balance their budgets.

And the composition of schools in such communities? They are almost always heavily minority, although there are some economically distressed rural communities and some in white ethnic parts of major rust-belt cities.

The issue is not new. Anyone who read Jonathan Kozol's Savage Inequalities: Children in America's Schools, a book written in 1991, understands how deep-seated the problem has been.

We are now approaching 56 years since Brown was decided. We may not segregate our schools by law. We certainly do by economics. And in the process we perpetuate an inequality that is exceedingly racially discriminatory in its effects.

Darling-Hammond argues that we must have an appropriate commitment to educational equity if we are to meet the promise of this nation, perhaps even if we are to survive as a democracy.

As a teacher, I see that our current approach, with its emphasis on test scores at the expense of all else, only further exacerbates the inequality to which so many children of color are already subjected. To meet the "standards' of performances on tests of reading and math, students who lack access to music and art and similar things outside of the school context find them eliminated from their curriculum, while students in middle class schools where such things are readily available through family and community resources have them reinforced in their curriculum.

Something is wrong. Something is out of balance. And those being shortchanged are almost always children of color.

People still argue that spending money on their education is wasted because of their lack of background, or similar such nonsense. That is outright racism.

The inequity of opportunity created by the inequity of resources, whether or not its intention is racial discrimination, has the effect of perpetuating racial inequity. Those who are unwilling to confront are at a minimum quiet accomplices of the continuation of racial discrimination.

American public schools are still unequal, and thus racist in impact, after all these years, after more than half a century since our nation recognized that separate public schools were inherently unequal. It matters not that the separation now is by economic status rather than officially by race. It is still unequal, and insofar as it falls so disproportionally upon children of color, call it by the appropriate adjective - racist.


Christopher said...

The story about South Carolina's stagnant system is maddening and shameful. I wonder, though, is the emphasis on inputs that you highlight the best path to closing the achievement gap? Take a look at this presentation:
Pages 115-120 talk about the impact of money. School systems like Atlanta, DC, New Jersey and Cleveland have some of the highest per pupil expenditures in the country, and some of the worst outcomes. The correlation between spending money and higher outcomes seems to be weak. I'd be curious to hear about how you interpret this data.

teacherken said...

Christopher - it cannot simply be a matter of comparing total dollars. It depends on how those dollars are applied. And there is a huge cost incurred in constant turnover of teachers, which is often a problem in inner city (and thus heavily minority spending) schools.

As far as New Jersey, they have made major strides in closing the gaps compared to some other states, even as they have a long way to go. I would strongly suggest you read that portion of Darling-Hammond's book.

Nancy Flanagan said...

Thanks for opening this discussion, Ken and Christopher, because it lies at the heart of the arguments about how best to "fix" failing schools. Most people assume that students who live in poverty also attend grossly underfunded schools; in fact, discrepancies in school funding (how much per pupil and how the money is generated) are so vast, between and within states, as to make comparisons--how much money yields what outcomes?-- close to pointless.

I live near Detroit, a district recently highlighted as having the worse NAEP scores in the country. Detroit is neither a poor district nor a wealthy district in Michigan, a state that has taken great pains to try to equalize school funding without enraging the white suburbs which have traditionally supported their schools generously, or leaving rust-belt urban schools with no resources. There is no perfect formula, but lately the legal watchword for ed funding has been "adequacy."

It's not a bad word. It does point to the idea that money is necessary but insufficient to make the kinds of reforms that might actually start moving indicators in the right direction (graduation rates, satisfaction, and a range of other measurable outcomes, in addition to statewide assessments). Moving the indicators is complex, as factors (employment, health, transience) interact in non-linear and unpredictable ways.

The problem with playing with the inputs = outcomes equations (every economist's favorite game) is that there are tons of examples of schools where the inputs are in the top percentages and the outcomes are substandard. There are also places where inputs are low and outcomes high (Utah springs to mind here). You can rush to judgment ("let's take away the money since it doesn't help")--or you can figure out what, precisely, does move the needle for the kids who need the most assistance.

There's an undertone of disparagement, rather than hope and commitment, in some of the work I see on funding and reform. I'm curious, too: what do other people see as the answer to providing enough funding to make real change?

mlu said...

Racism. Sure. That's it.

I imagine some people feel a warm glow of moral superiority when they make ugly accusations of others. But as the writer says, the problem keeps getting worse. It keeps getting work because this way of seeing is also a way of being blind, and it will never work.

When all decisions are made by the state and equality is the only measure that anyone remembers--when we are all unfree and captive--we will still find that we are not equal.

This folly has dominated our politics for a long time. It's all some people know.

trailmarky said...
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