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Are Segregated Schools a Relic?

The 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education is a propitious time to ask if the landmark decision has achieved its primary goal.  In a provocative essay, Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom acknowledge that the number of "majority-minority" schools has increased by several percentage points over the past two decades ("Brown at 60: An American Success Story,"The Wall Street Journal, May 13).  But they assert that it is logistically impossible to entirely eliminate segregated schools unless mass busing is instituted.  

The Thernstroms believe that the situation exists not because federal courts have released communities from the desegregation orders they handed down many years ago. Instead, it's the result of a dramatic change in the racial demography of students, resulting from immigration and the different birth rates of immigrants and natives. For example, four out of five public school students were white in 1970, whereas today they constitute slightly more than half. They argue that "sophisticated research" shows minority students don't need a large presence of white students to achieve academically.  They point to high test scores in largely black and Hispanic charter schools run by KIPP and the Harlem Children's Zone.

There's an element of truth in what the Thernstroms write. Busing, for example, was never a popular strategy among any racial group. I think it would find even less support today.  But aside from that, the essay is misleading. 

First, the Thernstroms assert that "it is a gross misuse of the term" to declare that schools with "heavy black or Hispanic enrollment" are segregated.  I don't know how they come to that conclusion.  The only possibility is that they are referring to de jure segregation rather than to de facto segregation. 

Second, they cite high test scores in heavily black or Hispanic charter schools as proof that white students are not needed for academic achievement.  But education quality depends on more than test scores alone. It also comes from learning about those who come from different backgrounds and cultures.

Finally, the authors omit a new movement by whites to avoid schools with large numbers of blacks ("How a 'New Secessionist' Movement Is Threatening to Worsen School Segregation and Widen Inequalities," The Nation, May 15).  Primarily located in the South, white affluent communities are breaking away from the existing school district to form their own district and raise taxes on themselves to do so.

In light of the above, it's hard to believe that Brown has been nearly as successful as the Thernstroms claim. But their name recognition alone will help convince unsophisticated readers that what they write is true.




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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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