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John Thompson: Garland and Carr Remind Us of the Perils of Segregation

Guest post by John Thompson.

One of the greatest flaws of the contemporary accountability-driven school reform movement is its lack of historical awareness. Two great books, Sarah Garland's Divided We Fail, and Sarah Carr's Hope Against Hope, offer a corrective.

Garland's Divided We Fail recounts the rise and fall of school desegregation in Louisville. She reconstructs a time when education was part of the civil rights movement of the 20th century. Civil rights leaders knew that Brown v. Topeka, which outlawed de jure segregation, would not be a silver bullet. They could not have fully anticipated, however, the myriad of ways that white privilege would continue to be protected. Even so, during the 1970s, black student achievement grew at an unprecedented rate - producing gains far greater that those achieved by subsequent "reforms."

By 1996, however, a black student, Dionne Hopson, was not able to attend the high school of her choice, Central High School, even though she was one of only 107 students accepted to that school. She was denied admittance because the district's policy was to limit African American population to 42% at any given school. The intricacies of enforcing desegregation had created an absurd situation where her educational choice was limited by the decisions of whites to not be bussed to a central city school. As fewer whites applied to Central, that metric meant that more blacks had to be turned away from it.

The U.S. Supreme Court acknowledged that bussing to achieve racial balance could be "administratively awkward, inconvenient, and even bizarre in some situations." Despite Louisville's admirable efforts, white flight made desegregation more complicated. A unified school system was created, bringing the suburbs into the same district as the urban schools. But, that forced the district to make more decisions that seemed authoritarian. The pursuit of justice became a "numbers game," as the central office decided who receives medical deferments from being transferred and which schools should be closed to achieve racial balance, and to disproportionately damage black teachers and the black middle class to help poor black children.

During the Reagan administration, Garland explains, a new approach emerged that seemed more congenial to Americans who were comfortable with local control. A "seismic shift" occurred, where the focus changed from providing equal opportunities to equal outcomes. Little did we know that this seeming shift away from government mandates would culminate in numbers-driven school "reform." A movement toward choice would culminate in a level federal micromanaging of local schools that was beyond anything that desegregation advocates could have contemplated.

Sarah Carr's Hope Against Hope describes the effects of reform in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. By then, "reformers" saw their crusade as the civil rights movement of the 21st century. Convinced of the righteousness of their cause, true believers descended on New Orleans, never doubting that unelected "experts," armed with data, could save the city's schools from themselves. As Carr writes, "Many of the most powerful people in the country have a plan for the future of education in America, one that focused on more charter schools, technocratic governance, weakened teachers' unions, and the relentless use of data to measure student and teacher progress." They made New Orleans the laboratory for testing their theories.

Carr, like Garland, keeps commentary to a minimum in describing a year in the lives of a student, a teacher, and a principal in three charters. Her narrative yields little support for "reformers'" claims to have greatly improved New Orleans schools. On the contrary, she calls more holistic, bottom -up policies that respect New Orleans culture and that address children's mental and emotional health.

I am not unbiased, but I suspect that objective readers of Hope Against Hope will recoil at the hubris of young, mostly white and affluent technocrats. Few readers, I bet, will think that in the wake of the flood, and in a city where so many children are traumatized by violence, that it made sense to concentrate solely on classroom instruction, as opposed to children's mental health. Rather than building on students' strengths, outsiders focused on remediating their weaknesses. In a city with such a rich musical and cultural heritage, "reformers" unilaterally decided to narrow the curriculum. In a system, for better and for worse, which was based on relationships, outsiders imposed their will. In both the successful Sci Academy and a floundering KIPP charter, students were required to essentially repudiate their culture.

At the end of their balanced histories, Carr and Garland voice concerns about our increasingly segregated schools, and the willingness of policy wonks to impose their theories on poor children of color. Garland concludes that "desegregation should have been a two-way street." She is frustrated that desegregation was dismantled without "salvaging its undeniable benefits." Contemporary reformers have ignored its lessons. They also focus on "tearing out dysfunction and blight, instead of finding existing strengths and building on what people value." Garland, explains, "Once again, ... those in power are treating black schools as they did black neighborhoods during urban renewal - with an imperious sense of what is good for the community, regardless of what the people there want."

Carr acknowledges the problems in New Orleans, where "the past is always present." But, she questions the disproportionate firing of black educators, who were replaced by young white outsiders. She documents the "callous disregard" for that history by outsiders who run schools with "a mixture of corporate and Silicon Valley paradigm that emphasize data, placelessness, a hierarchy based on ambition, institutional prestige, and an idealization ... in which nothing is static or fixed."
Carr concludes, "If schools want to succeed in the long run, the education they offer must become an extension of the will of a community - not a result of its submission."

What do you think? Why have some reformers continued to ignore history? Why can they not recognize the cultural strengths of the people who they seek to help? Will these books prompt a questioning of technocratic "reforms?"

John Thompson was an award winning historian, with a doctorate from Rutgers, and a legislative lobbyist when crack and gangs hit his neighborhood, and he became an inner city teacher. He blogs for This Week in Education, the Huffington Post and other sites. After 18 years in the classroom, he is writing his book, Getting Schooled: Battles Inside and Outside the Urban Classroom.

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