In January 2002 the Bush administration leveraged serious political capital to convince Congressional Republicans to sign on to the No Child Left Behind Act. This was, after all, more about civil rights than states' rights; legislation meant to provide federal funding to eradicate the stubborn academic achievement gap between middle and upper-class white kids and the rest of American children.
Six years later, we know NCLB hasn't worked well enough. That's no surprise, considering the bill was under-funded by tens of billions of dollars. But there are other reasons NCLB has failed to achieve its goal of ending educational inequality. It let states off the hook by allowing them to redefine remedial skills as "high standards" and it over-relied on multiple choice reading and math exams at the expense of multi-subject curricula and lessons in critical thinking.
Most fundamentally, NCLB ignored a key underlying sociological problem -- segregation -- that contributes to the achievement gap. We've known for a long time that separate cannot be equal, but as NCLB's supporters well understood, it is doubtful the bill would have passed had it imposed on privileged white people any substantive responsibility for the achievement of minority students. When George W. Bush introduced NCLB during a 2000 campaign address to the NAACP, he said, "No child in America should be segregated by low expectations." But he didn't mention segregation inside brick-and-mortar school buildings, the kind caused by state school district lines cutting off rich people from poor people, or by highways separating black neighborhoods from white.
Unfortunately, as Congress debates a draft proposal reforming No Child Left Behind, segregation is still missing from the debate.
Almost two-thirds of African-American children attend schools that are "minority majority." About 40 percent of them learn in classrooms that are 90 to 100 percent black. In our major cities, the numbers are even starker. In Washington, D.C., for example, 93 percent of public school students are black and Latino; only about 5 percent are white. In the nearby suburb of Bethesda, Maryland, several minutes by car or public transportation from downtown D.C., 62 percent of public high school students are white.
This segregation affects student achievement. In Montgomery County, the public school district to which Bethesda belongs, 67.8 percent of economically disadvantaged children -- those who receive a free or reduced-price lunch -- met or exceeded state standards in reading last year. But in Washington, D.C., less than 30 percent of similarly poor students were proficient in reading.
Abject segregation hasn't mysteriously reappeared in the American landscape -- it has been engineered by housing and transportation policies, by local school districts, and by our legal system. Two decades of Reagan and Bush-appointed judges have allowed districts to wriggle out of Civil Rights era desegregation orders. In June, the newly constituted Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that it is unconstitutional for districts to consider race when assigning students to particular schools, even if the goal is integration. And as The New York Times reported Monday, black parents in Tuscaloosa, Ala. are protesting after their board of education rezoned the school district, relegating many black students to all-minority, lower-performing schools. The parents say the change violates No Child Left Behind, since one of the law's intentions is to allow students in failing schools to transfer to higher-performing, and often less segregated settings. Yet nationwide, only 2 percent of eligible students have taken advantage of NCLB's transfer provision, less a fully realized program than a symbolic head-nod toward "school choice."
When poor children are educated separately, they suffer. As Susan Eaton writes in The Children in Room E4, a riveting and infuriating chronicle of Hartford, Conn.'s public schools, research shows that many segregated kids grow into segregated adults, deeply uncomfortable in the kinds of integrated settings where one is likely to find educational opportunities and higher-paid work. A study by Michigan State education expert Mary Kennedy found that nationwide, poor children who attend racially and economically segregated schools perform at a much lower level than similar poor children who attend integrated schools. And sociologist Jomills Braddock found that black and Latino young adults were much more likely to be hired for a job if they attended suburban high schools instead of segregated, urban ones.
There are many remedies to school segregation, including redistricting, busing, and locating subsidized, affordable housing inside middle-class and wealthy residential enclaves. None of these were recommended in the original NCLB legislation, and none have been seriously proposed during the reauthorization process. NCLB confirmed that the federal government had an interest in promoting interaction between the races through "voluntary desegregation in public schools." But in over 2,000 pages, the only policy lever NCLB recommended to achieve this goal was the creation of magnet schools in low-income, non-white neighborhoods. Such schools are supposed to offer specialty curricula attractive to wealthier, whiter students from outside. But white-majority schools were given no directive or incentive to open their gates to the poor children who desperately need their resources, and who often live just a few miles away.
With the House now in Democratic hands, Rep. George Miller, chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, is the leading voice in favor of making NCLB more effective. But Miller's bipartisan draft proposal reforming the law does nothing more to tackle segregation than the original NCLB did. That is not to say there is nothing to be done to improve high-poverty public schools in the meantime. Some of the Committee's proposed changes to NCLB could make segregated schools much more pleasant places to learn. One provision, which drew vicious fire from the national teacher's unions at Congressional hearings last week, would provide up to a $12,500 bonus for excellent teachers who agree to work for several years in high-poverty schools. And in a proposal strongly opposed by the Bush administration, the House committee would add history, civics, science, government, and writing to the list of subjects whose test scores count toward NCLB's objectives. This will lead to richer curricula and more time for fun, interesting lessons that engage kids in learning.
Still, when so much clear evidence points toward segregation as a major cause of the achievement gap, it's dispiriting that legislation purporting to close that gap continues to all but ignore the problem. Only one presidential candidate, John Edwards, talks seriously about rolling back school segregation. Edwards wants to create a million housing vouchers to help poor families move out of areas of concentrated poverty and send their kids to better schools. He would double current NCLB funding for urban magnet schools, but also spread the responsibility for integration around by providing subsidies to middle class schools that enroll low-income students. Barack Obama's proposals to combat urban poverty would flood select "Promise Neighborhoods" with resources and incentives to improve academic achievement and get parents involved with their kids. More willing to alienate teacher's unions, Obama also supports merit pay. But these policies alone would not alleviate segregation.
What's really needed is a radical rethinking of why we send our kids to school where we do. Many parents can move, or get a new job, or live in a smaller house in order to give their children the finest education property taxes can buy. But millions of other, poorer parents are stuck outside the mainstream with the dilapidated, segregated school around the corner. Should poor children struggle in isolation? Or should we redraw the lines of our best educational systems and our best neighborhoods, bringing them inside?