Why Can't the America that Creates 'This American Life' Also Integrate Our Schools?

Paul Tough, formally of the New York Times Magazine, wrote that school reform was the result of "liberal post-traumatic shock" from supposedly losing the War on Poverty. Believing that it was too hard to fight poverty, trauma, segregation and the other causes of education underperformance, reformers sought a test-driven, instruction-driven shortcut. This reductionism has continued to fail.

A remarkable This American Life series, by Nikole Hannah-Jones and Chana Joffe-Walt, explains why there are no silver bullets and why we should embrace the challenge of integrating our schools in order to build an education system worthy of our democracy.

Hannah-Jones begins "The Problem We All Live With -- Part One" with the social science research that explains why NCLB-type reform has proven to be incapable of turning around schools with intense concentrations of students from extreme poverty. When schools face a critical mass of problems created by generational poverty and trauma, a "tipping point" is crossed. As explained by the Chicago Consortium for School Research, it is very unlikely that answers for failed schools will be found inside the four walls of the classroom. In schools located in the poorest neighborhoods, and that serve everyone who walks in the door, a system of socio-emotional supports must be established before instruction-driven, curriculum-driven polices can work.

Sadly, reformers who sought to deputize teachers as the agents for reversing the intertwined legacies of poverty and oppression dismissed such research as "low expectations" and "excuses." The accountability-driven reform movement only made sense if teachers knew how to overcome poverty -- even in our most segregated neighborhoods -- but didn't bother to do so. They convinced politicians and edu-philanthropists to test, sort, reward and punish their way to school improvement. In other words, opposing reforms based on teacher quality and competition, and advocating for comprehensive, science-based policies, was dismissed as giving up on poor children of color.

Hannah-Jones offers a corrective to that corporate reform ideology, and she reminds us that in 1983, St. Louis began "the nation's most successful metro-wide desegregation program." The desegregation experiment wasn't perfect, but "test scores for 8th and 10th grade transfer students rose. The transfer students were more likely to graduate and go onto college... In surveys, white students overwhelmingly said they'd benefited from the opportunity to be educated alongside black students."

One of the best things about Part One is its ending. The state of Missouri claims that it will do right by the Normandy district -- a school system it helped devastate -- by employing the usual reform tactics. They will reconstitute the system, increase charters and virtual schools, and bring in teacher coaches from affluent districts. So, rather than continue with the desegregation policies that have worked, they will use policies that are doomed to fail once again. In other words, the pretense that school reform will help the children of Normandy is just a fig leaf employed by persons who have given up on improving education.

The "Problem We All Live With" masterpiece closes with the words of Hannah-Jones, "this is how far they will go to avoid one thing -- the one thing that already seems to be working - integration!"

In doing so, she sounds like Paul Tough who criticized school reformers who portray efforts to fight poverty, trauma and segregation as "a distraction from their agenda -- something for someone else to take care of while they do the real work of wrestling with the teachers' unions." But, Tough concluded, "In fact, these strategies are essential to the success of the school-reform movement. Pretending they are not is just another kind of excuse."

Then, in "The Problem We All Live With -- Part Two," Chana Joffe-Walt reports that the Hartford, CT school system sought to convince white families it's in their self-interest to go to integrated schools. Joffe-Walt concludes that "the results have been impressive. It used to be that 11% of Hartford students were in integrated schools. Now it's nearly half."

Joffe-Walt draws on the research of scholars like Sarah Garland and Susan Eaton, as well as Dana Goldstein and Richard Kahlenberg. In many ways, Garland's work on desegregation in Louisville, Kentucky parallels that of Hannah-Jones in St. Louis County, and it yields a lesson that is very consistent with the wisdom of James Brittain, a leader of the Hartford integration effort. Garland concluded that policies based on the idea that blacks must "escape" from their world are doomed. Solutions that ignore history will be stillborn. Remediating deficiencies is not a worthy enough goal. We must build on children's and families' strengths.

Garland concluded that whether the issue is fighting discrimination or improving student outcomes, "finding a way to create harmony between separate and often conflicting identities has not just been a black problem." African-Americans have always known the problem of "twoness," of being black and American. Whites, she says, must face the same type of realization.

Similarly, Hartford sought to persuade patrons, not impose solutions. It brought together children of diverse races and economic backgrounds so they could learn in schools that promote holistic instruction. Instead of worksheet science, children gained access to a planetarium. Families can choose a magnet school that offers Montessori, an outdoor garden, a butterfly vivarium, trout-feeding, a LEGO Lab and/or a 3D insect viewer.

Joffe-Walt's story is also consistent with the wisdom of Eaton's outstanding The Children in Room E-4. Hartford had already tried a "relentless focus" on basic skills using a highly structured curriculum, undermining teachers' creativity and autonomy, deterring students from expressing their curiosity, giving up recess, science experiments and other hands-on activities and replacing them with "incessant test-prep drills in reading and math." A prominent reformer complained in the Washington Post, however, that Eaton merely assumed that poor children of color need the same schooling as affluent kids. He ridiculed the supposed idea that struggling children should be studying the history of lacrosse as opposed to being provided basic skills instruction.

Part Two ended with Hannah-Jones and Joffe-Walt asking Secretary of Education Arne Duncan why he did not at least promote voluntary integration efforts in his Race to the Top reform experiment. To his credit, Duncan did not endorse the idea that poor children of color need the structured, micromanaged, top-down pedagogies that corporate reformers have imposed. He said that integration would have been "too toxic," and besides, he pushed for other vehicles (like the School Improvement Grant program [SIG]) to help the most struggling schools. Of course, he did not acknowledge that in doing so he incentivized the test-driven, competition-driven policies that sucked the life out of so many of those schools.

The question is whether our democracy, which is able to produce brilliant programs such as "The Problem We All Live With," and can create great public schools for the middle class and incredible institutions of higher learning, should try to provide the same opportunities for all children. We've wasted billions of dollars trying to invent second-rate solutions for poor children of color and coerce educators into imposing them, and we have failed. If we listen to Hannah-Jones and Joffe-Walt, as well as the great scholars who helped inform their work, we can create schools for all that are fit for a 21st century democracy.