By now, I’m sure you’ve either a) listened to the much-talked about This American Life two-part series on school integration or b) you’ve listened and read to what others have had to say about the series (most likely b). If you haven’t done either here’s a brief rundown:
According to the podcast, there’s a “problem we all live with…trying to get poor minority kids performing as well as white kids.” There are a ton of education reforms and policies tackling this problem through things like charter schools, college-and-career ready standards, targeted professional development, wrap-around services and more—all efforts that have made progress to closing the Black-white achievement gap. But This American Life asks, why are we reinventing the wheel when we know what works? That is, integration.
New York Times reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones takes a look at a school district near Ferguson, Missouri—Normandy School District (where Michael Brown attended)—and how it accidentally launched a desegregation program after the district lost its accreditation. The first segment was followed by a deep dive into an intentional integration program in Hartford, Connecticut.
To add more fuel to the fire, I’ve asked two of our bloggers—Liz Riggs, education activist and former Nashville teacher, and Makkah Ali, policy mediator and graduate of an intentionally-integrated school in Atlanta—to weigh in with their millennial thoughts.
Ikhlas: Let’s start with last week’s episode. Is, as Ira Glass frames it, integration dead? Have we not been trying it anymore?
Makkah: We don’t have as many champions for integration anymore because our culture heavily relies upon the notion that we are all born with an equal chance of success. Even though we know that a child’s zip code is one of the biggest determining factors of their level of success in life and we know that Black families have inherited discriminatory housing policies that limit where they can rent and buy, we still like to pretend that segregation and inequality are things of the past. We’re not actively using the language of integration because it means coming to terms with some racial injustices that are far too uncomfortable for most people to grapple with.
Liz: I totally agree with Makkah: there are systemic injustices that have made segregation an ingrained part of our society which makes the word integration a precarious buzzword: we don’t have champions for it because we have so many people who are still refusing to admit that segregation is very much a reality of our cities, neighborhoods and schools. Many still have trouble admitting that issues of discrimination are as rampant as they are, making it no surprise that people aren’t champions of “trying” integration.
Ikhlas: So, I think part 2 definitely hits on this—the story of Enid Rey desegregating schools in Hartford was fascinating—that you have to convince white parents that it’s in their child’s best interest to attend an integrated school. That, “it’s the future.” It used to be that 11 percent of Hartford students were in integrated schools, now it’s nearly half.
The results are great but it still seems weird, no? It’s really terrible that we can’t get to the root of the problem and instead, have to convince white parents that Black and Latino kids are “the future.” Am I alone in this?
Liz: This was so sad to me: we have to get the marketing gurus from Apple and Pepsi to consult with the school district on how to get more white kids there. We have parents asking the question: “Will he be the only white student in the class?” I went to a predominantly white high school and then taught in a predominantly Black one, and it wasn’t until then did I realize how rarely in my life I had been one of the only white people in the room. I think it’s pathetic that we still have to convince people that there’s a benefit to true diversity, that there is something powerful about understanding a reality that Blacks in this country likely face far more often than whites: being the only person of your race in the room. At what point are we going to realize that we’re better in this together than we are apart?
Makkah: I think it depends on what you think the root of the problem is. If you think the root of the problem is racial and economic prejudice and inequality, then these results are fantastic. It doesn’t make me happy that we have to market Black and Latino kids as worthy peers of white students, but the need for this marketing strategy is a reflection of the world we are living in and it can’t be ignored. As Ikhlas mentioned, I was in a magnet program in my public high school in Atlanta. Although segregation was technically made illegal in the 1960s, the magnet programs in Atlanta Public Schools were created sometime in the 1980s to catalyze integration and convince white families not to flee to the suburbs. My high school was 27 percent white, just over the 25 percent figure that qualifies it as a successfully integrated school.
Although the magnet program was largely put into place to retain white students, Black families like mine benefited from these new resources. All of a sudden in a resource-strapped public school system like mine, I could take IB and AP classes, take courses in philosophy and economics, participate in foreign exchange programs, study Arabic and Chinese, and choose from an impressive suite of extra curricular activities. Integration inadvertently gives attention to other policy solutions because school systems are wooing white families with those very policy solutions—ones that improve school culture and better prepare students for college and the world, ones that Black families like mine wouldn’t have had access to otherwise.
Ikhlas: Nikole Hannah-Jones puts forth a strong argument for integration as a solution to the achievement gap. But what we don’t hear in either segment is how it compares to other reform policies currently in motion. Makkah, you attended an intentionally integrated magnet school in Atlanta and Liz, you taught at one of the lowest-performing schools in Nashville—given your first-hand experience, what are both of your thoughts on how integration compares to other policy solutions?
Makkah: Nikole Hannah-Jones begins this story by emphasizing that the reason integration works is because it creates an environment where Black kids have access to the same resources as white kids. There are many schools around the country that have high-performing student bodies that are well-rounded, engaged, active in their communities and going into the world ready to meaningfully contribute. The secret to success is pretty basic and un-sexy: a well-funded school system, motivated teachers and administrators, community and family engagement, etc. But innovation and technology and social experiments are in—making sure every student has the latest edition of their math textbook is not. Supporting integration means realizing that it’s not okay to test the latest ed reform trend on Black and Latino kids while their whiter, richer, more heavily-resourced counterparts are succeeding through some pretty traditional means. Our current “disrupt everything” culture of innovation does not want to hear that.
Liz: I think what’s interesting is exactly Makkah’s first point above: integration doesn’t work because there are more white kids in the school; it works because it puts the best resources in front of Black kids and white kids. And, I think the term “resources” does not simply mean the best new “stuff”—technology, books, paper, desks, facilities—it means the best teachers, the most competent and effective administrators, wrap-around services, community engagement opportunities, extracurriculars. I still believe that a teacher is one of the most—if not the most—important factor in a student’s academic achievement. We know that poor students of color end up with the worst teachers, so it makes sense that integration works because we are putting these kids in front of better teachers immediately.
Ikhlas: For me, one of the most chilling moments in the series was during the community meeting when one of the parents declares that their concerns about the transfer of students is about fear of violence, drugs and crime, declaring that it “is not a race issue.”
I agree that integration does yield results and forces us to provide the same resources to all students, but I also know that it’s a far more challenging policy move and creates greater push back among white parents. When it comes to potential outcomes—white families “fleeing”—how do we combat that challenge? Would our energy be better spent in pursuit of other changes like establishing Common Core standards, for example? Of course, all of these could work in tandem.
Liz: I think when the mom wanted to know where the metal detectors were going to be really hit a chord with me. I went to a public, suburban predominantly white high school that had bomb threats nearly every day my senior year of high school, but no one would dare think of suggesting metal detectors. Fast forward to my first couple years of teaching in one of the lowest-performing high schools in Nashville (predominantly Black), not only were there not metal detectors, but there wasn’t a NEED for them. Was the school failing? Yes. Was it because of the kids and their potential for “violence”?? NO.
Makkah: Preventing white flight is akin to solving racism in this country. If I knew how to do that, I would be a very rich woman. The fact is that more opportunities for one group inherently means less opportunities for another, and no one likes that idea. In this country, for most of our history being white and male and straight and Christian meant that you could go to school, own property, actively participate in our democracy, have any job. As women gained more rights, men were not happy. As immigrants and former slaves gained more rights, white people were not happy. Even today, with every court case against affirmative action comes the accusation that underrepresented minorities are somehow taking the spots of more qualified white people. While I agree that integration is one of several reform tactics that we should be pursuing, I think that inequalities will continue to exist at extreme levels if we allow the racial prejudices and separation of parents, administrators and teachers to inform what kids learn, how they learn, and where they learn.
Ikhlas: No matter where you fall on the This American Life series, it’s clear that we need to continue to revisit spaces old and challenge ourselves in places new to increase outcomes for all students.