Segregated Education in Desegregated Schools: Why We Should Eliminate "Tracking" With "Gifted and Talented" for All

While more students generally attend racially and economically diverse schools, it is no secret that our schools are anything but unitary.
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In the 1969 Supreme Court ruling Alexander vs. Holmes County Board of Education, a unanimous court ruled that a Mississippi school district "terminate dual school systems at once and to operate now and hereafter only unitary schools." The ruling, a mandate for non-compliant segregationists, was supposed to finally reverse the tide of Jim Crow era "separate and unequal" education.

Today, while more students generally attend racially and economically diverse schools, it is no secret that our schools are anything but unitary. According to recent reports by The Civil Rights Project at UCLA, concentrations of Blacks and Latinos into resource-deprived schools are at unprecedented levels, reversing years of progress toward integration since the monumental Brown v. Board (1954) and subsequent decisions. But while more recent Supreme Court decisions from Oklahoma City, Louisville, KY and Seattle, WA and policy-level failures such as No Child Left Behind (NCLB) are rightfully viewed among myriad protagonists of these trends, often overlooked by integration advocates is the reality of "dual school systems" operating at the curricular level, not just at the facility level.

Take for example the case of Southwest Elementary School in Durham, North Carolina. When David Snead began his tenure as principal in 1999, he discovered that 98% of the school's white students and only 7% of black students were identified as "gifted and talented" (G&T), therefore placed in a separate, challenging curriculum. More astonishingly, this was in a school where blacks represented over 70% of the student body, while whites represented only 30%.

Snead, who is white and male, came face to face with one of America's long-embedded institutional-level responses to integration: racialized tracking. And rather than accept internal segregation as an everyday norm, one grounded in the still-prevalent belief that minority students are "cognitively inferior" (or for self-professed non-racists, that they purposely under-perform out of fear of "acting white"), Snead believed otherwise. The principal worked with the school's teachers to alter ways they thought about "giftedness," given that their assessment triggered consideration for subsequent testing into advanced curricula. The results were astounding.

By 2003-2004, 60% of the school's black students were identified as G&T, while 40% of white students were identified as such. Moreover, the impact of the change was evident in the school's performance on state test scores. In 1999-2000, 41% of the school's fifth grade black students did not pass the state reading test compared to 12% for white students, and 23% of blacks did not pass the mathematics test compared to 9% for whites. By 2002-2003, only 10% of both black and white students did not pass the reading test, and less than 3% did not pass the mathematics exam. Indeed, the new structure was even associated with improved pass rates for white students.

Southwest Elementary achieved something remarkable: they eliminated the racial achievement gap by eliminating the instruction gap, and they did it even though most white students, on average, came from affluent, two-parent families while most of the school's black students did not. In fact, during Snead's tenure, the proportion of students eligible for free or reduced lunches increased for its black students, but decreased for its white students.

On the surface, examples like that of Southwest Elementary should impel policymakers to address the chronic problem of segregated curricula in our schools. In New York City, for instance, some mayoral candidates and parent organizations have called for improved minority access to the city's popular G&T programs, which are demographically dominated by white and Asian students. But a bold response isn't one that simply improves access and opportunity, but one that eliminates tracking altogether and provides "gifted and talented" education for all. In short, schools should de-track toward excellence for all students.

In North Carolina, for instance, such an endeavor was launched in some of the state's lowest income school districts, and the preliminary evidence is striking. Project Bright Idea, created by state educators in collaboration with experts at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Duke University, sought to test whether raising expectations could enhance student performance regardless of race or socioeconomic background. The program, which operated from 2004-2009 in 11 North Carolina school districts, enrolled 5,000 kindergarteners and first and second graders from disproportionately low-income communities. Meanwhile, teachers underwent intensive training and development to address their dispositions about the abilities of black and impoverished children while providing the schools and teachers with the resources and capacity to deliver a high level of instruction for all children.

David Snead and Project Bright Idea's intervention demonstrate that kids, regardless of family arrangement and poverty status, can do well academically with a challenging curriculum and instruction predicated on the belief that they can master complex material. But to work effectively on a larger-scale, additional teacher training and development must be prioritized and funded, which means efforts by education reformers to fire teachers based on high-stakes testing (standardized test scores) must come to an immediate halt. If we are to reverse the tide of internal segregation in our schools, we must ensure that teachers are prepared and trained to provide a high quality education to ALL students, not just a select few.

Author's Note: the case of Southwest Elementary, along with a similar example out of Rockville Centre High School in Long Island, NY, is documented by William Darity, Jr. and Alicia Jolla in "Desegregated Schools with Segregated Education," in Hartman, Chester and Gregory Squires, The Integration Debate: Competing Futures for America's Cities. Routledge Press, 2009.

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