Photo courtesy of CNN

Yesterday’s Dropout Nation commentary on desegregation and school reform elicited some interesting responses. Today, we publish one from Steve Peha, who contributed last week’s piece on the reading wars and the dropout crisis. While one may not fully agree with his positions (this editor is still uncomfortable about abandoning integration; I also disagree that standardized testing is the cause of the achievement gap — it merely shows what is happening to children in classrooms throughout the country), but Peha’s thoughts are worth your attention and consideration.

Great piece today, RiShawn, on a very dicey issue. Here are my thoughts.

You are correct, it seems to me, in urging our nation to privilege education over integration. It is regrettable, however, that we should have to make this choice but I think we do. Imagining, as I once did, that Brown ushered in the beginnings of a color-blind education system ignores important realities about color-blindness, education, and systems. We may have had our eyes on the prize when it came to civil rights, but I think we took our eye off the ball when it came to making sure that the franchise of learning was extended to all. This miscalculation, understandable and forgivable, must be addressed directly, even if it opens up old wounds and precipitates new conflicts.

The Brown decision now seems tragically paradoxical to me. The key finding, that segregated schools are inherently unequal, a notion I had long considered unassailably correct and therefore unworthy of closer examination, turns out to be much more complicated than I would have ever imagined.

Recently, I have been reading Stuart Buck’s new book, “Acting White: The Ironic Legacy of Desegregation.” He has, what I believe to be, a unique and compelling thesis that at least partially explains why we are where we are today with regard to the issue of integration and educational equity. His thesis is both simple and startling: forced desegregation dismantled a thriving—if under-resourced—black education system and replaced it with a white education system that was hostile to black children and unresponsive to their needs.

As districts began to desegregate in the 1960s, they chose, of course, to shutter black schools. In order to integrate white schools, black children had to be parceled out often among many different schools to reach federally mandated integration targets. This meant that kids who had gone to school together all their lives suddenly lost their friends and teachers, and wound up as small minorities in schools where they were not welcome.

Blacks also lost the schools that were the centerpieces of their communities, particular the many great black high schools in the South. Along with this, the percentage of black educators in some communities dropped from near 50 percent to as low as 10 percent, thus depriving black children and their families of educational role models and academic community leaders. Black teachers and principals were no more wanted in white schools than were black children. But there was no Supreme Court mandate extending employment rights to educators whose schools were summarily closed.

As Mr. Buck sees it, this led eventually to the concept of “acting white”, or the notion, held among some black children that aspiring to academic success was neither appropriate nor desirable because academic achievement, post-desegregation, was a “white” thing to do. Interestingly, Mr. Buck has been unable to find any references to the concept of “acting white” the pre-date desegregation. Prior to desegregation, there seems to have been no stigma at al in the black community regarding academic achievement. In fact, Mr. Buck asserts that blacks were more aligned and supportive of educating black children (often paying out of their own pockets to build black schools, for example) than they are now.

Buck sees the change in black youth culture as a classic case of out-group non-conformity where a minority group that is held in contempt, as black children were – and to some extent still are in many of our nation’s schools – makes a conscious decision not to conform to the norms of the in-group majority. In the earliest days of desegregation, black children sought to recapture the group identity they lost when their schools were closed and they were forced into hostile environments. As members of a new out-group, these kids they began adopting non-conformist attitudes, the most powerful and insidious of which was the notion of  not “acting white” which came to mean not participating in a white-dominated academic world.

Buck connects the construct of “acting white” to the Achievement Gap in a very simple way: regardless of a black child’s socio-economic status, many black children, both boys and girls, simply do not aspire to be like their white peers in terms of academic achievement. Their choice is not based on ability or even family values related to education which, for most families of all races and ethnicities, remain uniformly strong. It’s merely a social construct among teenagers seeking group identity in a situation where, more than a half century after Brown, they still feel unwelcome.

If Mr. Buck is correct, and I believe he is, then you’re correct, too. It’s not just that education must be privileged over integration, but that integration cannot be achieved, as fully as we have once hoped, without sacrificing educational equity for some children. As I imagine Stuart Buck would see it, this is also an ironic legacy of desegregation.

This does not mean, and Buck does not suggest, that we must go back to segregated schools. In fact, he is against this. He offers no particular solutions to this problem, however, though he is clear that any forced return to segregated schools is morally unacceptable.

This leaves us with a problem to address. However, there is not an obvious constituency, per se, to address it, nor are there any obvious policy solutions either. Personally, I believe there are cultural solutions and that we must pursue them vigilantly. But, like most cultural change, these new ways of looking at the world have to manifest themselves virally through ideas that slowly alter two current worldviews: a “white” world view that thinks institutional racism is behind us and a “black” world view that knows it’s not but that wants to fight the old fights by the old rules. Neither view accurately captures the situation as it is today. And that bodes ill for progress, I’m afraid.

School segregation is not ideal. But de facto school segregation is socially workable if it contributes to significantly improved academic achievement and politically workable if it never becomes even remotely associated wit the de jure segregation of the past. It’s important to realize, I think, that the essential educational problem blacks faced prior to Brown was not access to white schools but access to good schools, something kids of all races and ethnicities still face today – even white kids need better access to better schools. So, as I think you’re advocating, we will do better to view this situation as a school quality issue as opposed to a racial equality issue. Good schools for all children must be our highest priority. Racial make-up must, for now, be a distant second at best real point of Brown is lost if we lose sight of the fact that concept of school quality is not race-specific.

It’s also important, I think, to be very clear, in hearts and in our heads, that de facto segregation is materially different from de jure segregation. We read too much into Brown, I think, when we conceive of it as some kind of great opportunity-leveling decision. It wasn’t. It was symbolic, of course, but in reality it was technical and structural. The inherent wrongness of Plessy lies in its late 19th century de jure nature, not in mid-20th century de facto reality. We now know, from charter schools systems like KIPP, YES, ICEF, and others that segregated education can not only be equal but superior to integrated education. We also know from historical record that there were many excellent black schools prior to Brown, schools that were all too often summarily closed, even when they were newer and in better condition than white schools within the same district.

Still, many in our country, both black and white, are deeply troubled by the resegregation of our schools. But as I watch them by the thousands in nearby Raleigh, NC, lining up to protest at Wake County School Board meetings, I note that few are fighting for education directly, and none seems to mention children very often at all. Most are fighting for integration directly, education indirectly, and civil right symbolically, as though somehow they were all the same thing.

Unfortunately, neither side in what has this summer become an historic regional battle is correct. If the new neighborhood schools policy is over-turned, it will have no effect on school quality. If it is upheld, school quality can be maintained with judicious action by the district below the board level. In neither case, however, is education in Wake County likely to improve for anyone in the near future. Worse yet, the balance of power that just swung in the white majority’s favor at the last school board election, will surely swing back soon. If school assignment policies change each time the board does, all we’ll be doing is destabilizing the lives of our children—a bad prescription for kids of any color or life circumstance.

Like you, I believe the education must come before integration in national reform. But what does that mean in terms of changes in policies and attitudes? Here are four ideas I’ve had recently:

Do not impede the natural development of de facto segregation through school choice, neighborhood schools, and charter school creation. It’s very clear that sending kids to places where they don’t feel welcome, and away from their homes and communities, while good for integration, is not good for education. At the same time, districts like Wake County, which implement neighborhood school policies, must achieve resource equalization through “money follows the kids” funding formulas. Districts which find themselves disproportionately resegregated must be held to higher standards in their efforts to staff of every school with high-quality teachers and administrators.

Reframe the achievement gap in terms of meaningful life outcomes not test scores. Measuring the achievement gap with test scores is one of the most pernicious causes of the gap in the first place. For one thing, using this measurement, it will never close unless test rigor falls so low that passing becomes meaningless. There will always be test score differences among groups with varying socio-economic resources—and the tougher the tests, the larger those differences will be. Second, state test scores are meaningless for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that states change their scoring on a regular basis. Having all kids reach “proficient” in the state of North Carolina, for example, would only be an indication of equally low achievement because proficiency in our state is set so low. Third, what we want is not equality of academic achievement, but equality of meaningful life outcome opportunities. This means, for example, that closing the gap must be reframed around those academic achievements that correspond to quality of life. Test scores do not. College attendance, however, does.

Here in Chapel Hill, I’ve started the “20/20 Vision” for our schools. Simply put, I have proposed changing our current meaningless district mission statement to something as simple as this: “By the years 2020 all students will graduate from high school with the skills and scores they need to succeed in higher education.” Kids don’t have to go if they don’t want to, but the choice should be theirs, and not the whim of a failing system that rejects one of the most basic expressions of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Higher education can mean anything from getting an associate’s degree at the local community college to getting a B.A. from an Ivy.

If most of the white kids go to elite universities and most of the black kids go to regional colleges, is this still a gap? Yes. But not one that necessarily represents a meaningful difference in life outcome opportunity. A kid who works hard in community college can easily gain entrance to the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill for a B.A., then hop over to Duke for an M.A. (basketball allegiances notwithstanding), and from there to a Ph.D. at Harvard, Yale, MIT, or Carnegie-Mellon. The point here is not that one group of kids gets it better than another, but that all kids get a path to the same endpoint should they choose to pursue it. The gap we must close is not one of achievement but one of opportunity. And getting to college—any college—is the most meaningful way to provide that opportunity.

Does this mean every student has to go to college? Not at all. But we must give every child the skills necessary to do so if, at any time in their lives, it becomes a priority. This gives kids the choice, not the system. The system is inherently unequal and we cannot address that at this time through educational policy alone, and perhaps not even through social policy. The equalizer, then, must be a form of educational emancipation. All children must have the opportunity to pursue higher learning if and when they so choose. If some degree of de facto segregation helps us reach that goal, then it is something we must tolerate.

Solve the “out-group non-conformity” problem in our schools. Mr. Buck’s insight about the power of out-group non-conformity is frightening. But it’s also fixable. It does require, however, a cultural change at the district and community levels and this is not an easy thing to do. Certain behaviors and attitudes, on the part of both children and adults, can no longer be deemed acceptable. As human beings, we may not be color-blind, but academic achievement must be color-blind. This can be accomplished with community leadership both within our schools and without. Awareness and acknowledgment of the problem is the first step. I hope that Mr. Buck’s book and his thesis are explored in depth by many school and community leaders.

Allow limited federal “charterization” in extreme circumstances. In states that do not allow charters, or in states that have reached charter caps, the federal government must be given the power to force local districts to authorize new charter schools where significant and longstanding educational inequities can be shown. Here in Chapel Hill, for example, we have what I believe to be the largest test-score-based achievement gap in the nation. Our district, despite its long record of civil rights support, and our community, despite its long history of liberal voting, create and maintain an academic environment that does not welcome children of poverty or children of color.

Four charter schools – three K-8 and one high school – could solve this decades-old problem. In all likelihood, de facto segregation would occur as majority white families would certainly want to stay in what are regarded as some of the best schools in our state. Unfortunately, North Carolina has been at its charter cap for several years and will not authorize any new charter schools.

Here, in Chapel Hill, where the achievement gap is so great, and in some of the rural counties in our state where overall achievement is so low (particularly in the “Leandro” schools which are still under federal mandate), additional charter schools could provide, if not a solution, at least a path to the future promise of a solution.

Integration is a worthy value for our society to pursue, and we must keep pursuing it. But with regard to education, integration can no longer be seen as an end in itself. As a means to the end of a more just and equitable society, integration is a powerful force. As a policy tool for shipping kids around to schools where their needs will never be served, it is an ironic impediment to social justice.