Segregation now

Fifty years after landmark Coleman report, does diversity in schools still matter?

PHOTO: Special Collections at the Nashville Public Library
Grace McKinley escorts her daughter Linda Gail and a friend to Fehr Elementary School in Nashville in September 1957 amid Nashvillians protesting desegregation of the city's schools.

In 1966, America got a wake-up call about educational inequality with the release of a 700-page report commissioned by the federal government.

The underlying conclusion of the document, called the Coleman report after its principal investigator, was that inequalities outside of schools resulted in unequal educational outcomes. The report remains hugely influential, in part because it informed a policy shift in the 1970s to large-scale school desegregation.

School districts have long since abandoned the desegregation plans of the 1970s. But diversity in schools still matters, perhaps more than ever, says a panel of experts exploring education equity 50 years after Coleman.

“We’ve slid back,” said Claire Smrekar, a professor at Peabody College of Education at Vanderbilt University, which hosted the panel discussion on Thursday in Nashville.

Smrekar, who also serves as a consultant with the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, listed policy changes that have resulted in schools reverting to their pre-desegregation racial makeups: Busing has long since ended and was far from perfect while it lasted, burdening black families more than white families, she said. Courts have forbidden districts from adopting assignment plans that specifically address race. Magnet schools, also known as optional schools in some districts, were championed as a tool for integration in the 1990s but have largely had the opposite effect.

The panelists argued that, despite challenges and setbacks, school diversity is crucial both to raising academic achievement and building trust among people of different races, ethnicities, and backgrounds.

Rucker Johnson, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley and a fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research, pointed to recent unrest in Charlotte, N.C., following the police killing of a black man.

Charlotte once was an exemplar of school desegregation but, like districts in Tennessee, the city quickly re-segregated its schools across the 1990s and 2000s. Now it has one of the lowest upward mobility rates for low-income children in the country, because of both school and housing segregation. “That’s not a coincidence,” Johnson said.

Panelists said school choice — the use of charter schools, magnet schools and other programs allowing parents to send their children to a school outside of their neighborhood — might be one of the best tools to boost education equity.

But that takes thoughtful planning, said Carol Johnson, a former school superintendent in Boston, Minneapolis and Memphis, when charter schools first opened in Tennessee. Her husband taught at one.

“Choice is something we value as parents, but we have to be careful, because there are unintended consequences,” said Johnson, who headed Memphis schools from 2003 to 2007. “It’s not the what, it’s the how.”

Johnson said many black parents have expressed to her through the years that they value diversity because it prepares their children for life after school. “We have to get better at educating a more diverse population so we can compete internationally,” she said.

Richard Dinkins, who represented the plaintiffs in Nashville’s desegregation case and is now a judge on the Tennessee Court of Appeals, said neither lawsuits or research are enough to ensure that desegregation actually happens.

“We need to have a coordinated community effort on how we are going to educate our children,” he said. “The lawsuit can’t do it. The research by itself can’t do it. We all have to do it.”

measuring progress

At some Renewal schools, the city’s new ‘challenge’ targets require only tiny improvements

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Mayor Bill de Blasio

When education officials settled on the goals each school in its high-profile Renewal program would have to meet, they allowed them to take three years to meet what are typically one-year goals.

And though some schools have struggled to meet those initial goals, most of them, it turned out, met at least one benchmark ahead of time. So the city came up with new ones — called “challenge targets” — to replace and “strengthen” the goals that schools reached early.

But, according to new data released last week, dozens of those challenge targets require the lowest possible amount of improvement: one hundredth of one point.

In total, just over a third of the 86 Renewal schools have to improve scores on either state math or reading tests by only .01 points above their current averages, according to a Chalkbeat review of the city’s benchmarks for this school year.

P.S. 154 in the Bronx, for instance, needs to boost its average score this spring from 2.48 to 2.49 in math, and 2.49 to 2.50 in reading — both of which are considered challenge targets. (The scores refer to state tests that are graded from one to four, and only scores of three or higher are considered passing.)

The modest goals continue to raise questions about the pace of change the city is expecting from the $400 million Renewal program, which infuses schools with social services and extra resources.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has promised “fast” improvements, rhetoric that is in tension with the benchmarks the city has released. (At a panel discussion last week, the head of the city’s principals union expressed frustration with the program’s incrementalism.)

In interviews, city officials defended the challenge targets, arguing that they are designed to give schools that already met “rigorous and realistic” goals an extra incentive to maintain or surpass their progress. But some observers noted the challenge targets are so similar to the original goals, in some cases, that calling them a challenge is hard to justify.

“When you see a challenge target that’s so close to current performance, you think, ‘What the heck is going on here?’” said Aaron Pallas, a sociology and education professor at Teachers College. “It’s really hard to see a .01 expected increase as a challenging target.”

Pallas said the modest gains expected in the city’s challenge targets could be the product of a central struggle baked into school turnaround efforts: the political need to have regular benchmarks to track progress, while knowing that low-performing schools can take years to accrue gains, if it happens at all.

Still, setting expectations too low is not likely to yield much useful information about school progress, Pallas said. And while it’s “hard to know what a challenging target is,” he said, “it’s probably greater than .1,” — ten times higher than some of the city’s targets for this school year.

For their part, education officials insist that the new goals are challenging — even if they only represent fractional increases — because they are technically all higher than the original goals, which the city has claimed were “rigorous.”

“If they’re ahead of [the original goals], keeping them on that target is definitely a challenge for them,” said Eric Ashton, the education department’s executive director for school performance.

Ashton noted that many of the city’s Renewal goals — which include measures such as attendance, graduation rates, and progress on state tests — are aggressive and require some schools to improve certain metrics by double-digit percentages. (Coalition School for Social Change, for instance, must improve its four-year graduation rate to 63.4 percent this year, a 17 percent increase.)

The city also defended the challenge targets on the grounds that if they were set too high, they might offer a misleading picture of which schools should be merged, closed or face other consequences.

“Targets do not keep increasing as high as possible each year,” education department spokeswoman Devora Kaye wrote in an email, “because we need the Renewal benchmarks to help differentiate between schools that are in need of more intensive interventions such as school redesign or consolidation, closure, or leadership change — and schools that need other forms of support like professional development or curriculum changes.”

“We believe schools must always work towards continued progress,” she added. “And a challenge target sets the bar above their achievement.”

moving forward

New York City officials: Large-scale school desegregation plan likely coming by June

PHOTO: BRIC TV
Deputy Chancellor Josh Wallack, third from left, discussing the city's integration efforts.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has promised a “bigger vision” to address segregation in New York City schools, but officials have thus far kept details under wraps.

But they’ve been dribbling out some details, most notably a timeline for when a large-scale plan could be released. Officials at a town hall discussion in Brooklyn Thursday night reiterated that a plan would likely be released by June.

We’re “going to propose some new thinking that we have, both about some of the systems that we run and about ways that we can work together locally to make change,” said Deputy Chancellor Josh Wallack, who is heading the department’s diversity efforts. “We expect it to come out by the end of the school year.”

BRIC TV host Brian Vines, who moderated the panel co-produced with WNYC, pushed for details. “Is there any one thing that you can at least give us a hint at that’s a concrete measure?” he asked.

But Wallack didn’t take the bait. “What I will say is that we are actually still engaged in conversations like this one, trying to get good ideas about how to move forward,” he said, adding that the education department is talking with educators, parents and schools interested in the issue.

New York City officials have been under pressure to address school segregation after a 2014 report called its schools some of the most racially divided in the country. More recently, debates over how best to change zone lines around schools on the Upper West Side and in Brooklyn have grown heated.

“We have a lot of hard work to do,” Wallack said. “But the mayor and chancellor are deeply committed to that work and to working with all of you to make that happen.”

Correction (Dec. 2, 2016): This story has been corrected to reflect that the town hall event was not the first time officials had described a timeline for releasing a plan.