Breaking Down the Persistence of Segregated Schools

I want it all: quality education and diversity. This is the only recipe for true excellence.


Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Heather Harding will be leading a session on “Economically and Racially Diverse Schools” at Teach For America’s inaugural Alumni Awards and Educators Conference in Detroit on July 18, 2013. The conference gathers alumni teachers, school leaders and school systems leaders from across the country fora day of networking and professional development. Travel stipends are available. Alumni educators: register today.

Could it be that the Brown-era goals of school integration will come back in full force, now that small groups of urban middle-class parents are refusing to decamp to the suburbs? Until very recently, it seemed that only the Civil Rights Project and a few scattered independent schools considered the explicit goal of racial integration. Although at least one charter-management organization had begun to lay the groundwork for offering parents a “choice” school where racial and class integration is an important feature, more readily, we heard a school-reform dialogue that accepted de facto segregation as long as the goal was an equal quality of educational experience.


An old black-and-white photograph of a group of African-American adults and children holding signs protesting school segregation.


Photo by Ske via Wikimedia Commons

When choosing schools for my young children, I am hyper-aware of my desire that they be schooled with a diversity across many domains—race, class, religion, sexual orientation, and lifestyle. As a new Southerner—resident of D.C. and formerly North Carolina—I read a recent Huffington Post piece about biracial accommodation with great interest. I asked myself what the relative merits might be of accepting a new “separate but equal.” Why should it matter if all the kids in a school are of one race, if the school’s quality is high?

Well, it seems to matter a lot, according to recent research about human development and our best chances for raising children who are likely to reject theories of racial intellectual inferiority. Even the term itself—biracial accommodation—is disingenuous. What are we accommodating? Racism? How does anyone learn to assimilate without access to different cultures? How do we learn to accept difference without deep exposure through personal relationships? I have to admit, I skeptically eyed another mother who doggedly pursued my son for a playdate until it dawned on me that she might be trying to create a more diverse set of friends for her fair-haired and shy [white] daughter. I want my son to see his friends for the individuals they are—and I want him to feel comfortable in his skin—faintly tannish approaching light brown, but distinctly African American.

The metaphor of the melting pot is dated. Instead of melting into one unidentifiable mess of soup, we’re aiming for a salad bowl, where ingredients maintain their distinct shape and flavor but enhance the overall dish into something better in the end. Yet the debate on racial segregation in schools still leans heavily on a false dichotomy between quality and diversity. Segregation remains the experience of too many of our urban and rural students.

Every time I see a story about high-performing urban charter schools where 98% of the kids are black or Latino, I get queasy. I worry that while the academics at these schools are superior to their peer schools, they lack what most middle-class parents want in an education—world-class academics in an environment that provides the social capital necessary to be successful in an ever-more-diverse world.

When we relegate some kids to a singular racial and cultural experience but extol the virtues of our growing global society, we are decidedly not closing the achievement gap. As a parent who enthusiastically embraces school choice, I cannot accept that common response to calls for racial desegregation in our urban charter schools: “Well, should I turn these poor kids of color away in favor of non-poor white kids?” My answer is likely to be “Maybe.” I want it all: quality education and diversity. This is the only recipe for true excellence. We shouldn’t settle for less.


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