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The Children in Room E4: American Education on Trial by Susan Eaton (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 357 pages, $24.95)

The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America by Jonathan Kozol (Crown, 404 pages, $25.00)

The Charter School Dust-Up: Examining the Evidence on Enrollment and Achievement by Martin Carnoy, Rebecca Jacobsen, Lawrence Mishel, and Richard Rothstein (Economic Policy Institute/Teachers College Press, 186 pages, $16.95)

The Knowledge Deficit: Closing the Shocking Education Gap for American Children by E.D. Hirsch, Jr. (Houghton Mifflin, 169 pages, $22.00)

This year the U.S. supreme court will rule in high-profile cases challenging voluntary racial school integration programs in Seattle and Louisville. The Court may very well ban or restrict these programs, which would be unfortunate. But such a decision could also spur liberals to new thinking on integration and education reform that could be very productive.

Ever since the wars over compulsory busing in Boston and other cities in the 1970s, school integration has been dismissed as politically toxic. “Desegregation's not a part of the agenda anymore,” Congressman John Lewis of Georgia tells author Jonathan Kozol in The Shame of the Nation. In fact, schools have been resegregating, but there's no public outcry. Until his most recent volume, Kozol himself could be accused of neglecting the issue. His books from Savage Inequalities to Ordinary Resurrections argued not so much for integration as for equalizing school expenditures.

But while compulsory busing is a nonstarter, there is something of a social science consensus that integration, particularly by socioeconomic status, matters a great deal to a child's education. As Kozol himself notes, research finds that integration matters even more than equalized school spending. In a much-discussed study 40 years ago, the sociologist James S. Coleman found that the single most powerful predictor of academic achievement is the socioeconomic status of a child's family, and the second most important predictor is the socioeconomic status of the school a student attends. High-poverty schools -- even those with equal funding -- are marked, on average, by unhealthy peer pressures, unruly environments, low levels of parental involvement, weak teachers, and low expectations. Being born poor is one strike against a child; attending school where everyone else is poor is a second strike.

Coleman's finding about the centrality of a school's socioeconomic makeup -- replicated in dozens of subsequent studies -- helps explain why an array of education reforms have proven unsuccessful. Take charter schools, which first opened in the early 1990s and now educate more than 1 million students in more than 3,500 schools. In theory, because charter schools are chosen by families, they need not reflect neighborhood segregation and could draw together student bodies that are economically and racially diverse. But integration usually occurs only when consciously planned, and charter schools seem to be at least as segregated as regular public schools. The results are not surprising. According to Martin Carnoy and his colleagues in The Charter School Dust-Up, students in charter schools do not on average learn more than students in regular public schools, and often learn less. The theory of charter schools -- that a change in governance, particularly one that weakens the power of teacher unions, would produce large gains -- is not borne out by the evidence, they say.

An August 2006 U.S. Department of Education study largely confirms these findings. The report, which analyzes fourth-grade math and reading scores, found that students in charter schools scored lower in both areas than students in regular public schools, even after controlling for various student characteristics, such as race and socioeconomic status.

In his slender new volume, The Knowledge Deficit, E.D. Hirsch Jr. is also concerned with making “separate but equal” schools work better. Hirsch, the bestselling author of Cultural Literacy (1987), argues that political progressives should be educational conservatives because a uniform curriculum would better serve the interests of equality and social mobility, whereas the current opposition to a prescribed curriculum among educators who want to allow for the individuality of students and teachers actually leads to widening inequalities. This is the lesson Hirsch finds from data comparing education in the United States with education abroad: Countries with national curricula see the gap between rich and poor and between majority and minority students decline over time, while the disparity in the United States widens the longer students stay in school. One study finds that when American students are compared on standardized tests, the grade of “A” in schools with low-income students is equivalent to the grade of “C” in middle-class schools.

Hirsch persuasively argues that a common curriculum emphasizing what a student needs to know to do well in mainstream society is essential for the goals of social mobility and social cohesion. In this connection he cites 19th-century educator Horace Mann's view that a “common curriculum” is a prerequisite for equal opportunity and national solidarity. But Hirsch fails to note that Mann favored not just a common curriculum but a “common school,” in which children of all backgrounds learn together under one roof. Equalizing access to a rich curriculum is important, but so is access to the other ingredients of good schooling -- active parents, supportive peers, and great teachers.

Of course, the reason that most educators -- from Hirsch to advocates of charter schools -- ignore Mann's call for schools educating diverse populations is the widespread belief that there is no political will to promote integration by either race or class. But in The Shame of the Nation, Kozol correctly challenges this received wisdom. School districts have learned a great deal about how to achieve integration since the days of compulsory busing, which triggered white middle-class flight. Programs of public school choice today allow students trapped in bad high-poverty schools to attend better performing middle-class public schools, while attractive magnet offerings draw suburban students voluntarily into city schools.

Although much ink has been spilled on Milwaukee's ill-fated private school voucher program, Kozol notes that the city also has a long-standing program in which 4,200 Milwaukee students are able to attend schools in 22 suburban districts. An even larger public school choice program allows some 10,000 students in St. Louis to attend good suburban schools. Graduation rates of students in both programs, Kozol notes, are far higher than those of students who stay in the city. In Hartford, meanwhile, there are long waiting lists for urban students wanting to attend suburban schools and for suburban children wishing to attend city magnet schools (often located in tough neighborhoods) because at the end of the bus ride sits a special program such as a Montessori school.

The Hartford integration program, as author Susan Eaton details in her fascinating new book, The Children in Room E4, highlights the role of state courts as a new source of support for integration. For years, the federal courts were the engine for fairness and integration in the schools. But that came to a halt in the 1970s, when Nixon appointees ruled that there was no right to equality of education funding (San Antonio v. Rodriguez), and that city desegregation plans would normally exempt the suburbs (Milliken v. Bradley). The decision in Milliken was particularly devastating because it meant that in places such as Boston, desegregation plans would bus poor whites and poor blacks without touching more affluent white suburbanites. The social science evidence, however, suggests that socioeconomic status is critical: Blacks don't do better sitting next to whites; poor kids do better in middle-class environments. Milliken, therefore, severely undercut the achievement benefits of desegregation.

As Eaton notes, after the Rodriguez decision on school funding, action moved to the state courts, which over the last several decades have found an affirmative right to an “equal” or “adequate” education in state constitutions. Connecticut was one of those states, but educational opportunity continued to lag despite the ruling. “Equal funding for schools,” Eaton notes, “hasn't alone proven sufficient.” This was especially true in Hartford, which Eaton describes as “the poorest city in the wealthiest state in the richest country on earth.” Standards and expectations were far lower in Hartford than in middle-class communities. One black parent proudly rejected the idea that her children needed to go to the suburbs to get a good education until she discovered that a remedial fifth-grade class in suburban South Windsor used the same text book as the regular ninth-grade class in Hartford.

Eaton's book tells the story of a band of dedicated lawyers led by NAACP Legal Defense Fund attorney Jack Boger, now the dean of the University of North Carolina Law School, to “find a way around Milliken, not merely for kids in Connecticut, but for the entire country.” In 1989, Boger and his colleagues filed a lawsuit, known as Sheff v. O'Neill, arguing that the Connecticut constitution's affirmative provision that all children should be provided a “substantially equal education” meant the right not only to receive equal funding but also to attend racially and economically integrated schools -- whether or not the state was itself responsible for segregation, and whether or not students lived in the city or suburbs.

In 1996, the Connecticut Supreme Court handed the plaintiffs a stunning victory, saying that de facto segregation was a violation of the Connecticut constitution and that a remedy for Hartford's segregation must involve the suburbs. The decision appeared, says Eaton, to be “the new Brown.” As with Brown, however, elation gave way to halting efforts and broken promises by the state. Ten years later, while thousands of school children are benefiting from an urban-suburban public school choice program devised to comply with Sheff, more than 70 percent of Hartford students still attend racially and economically segregated schools, and thousands of students are on waiting lists for spaces in integrated schools.

About half of Eaton's well-crafted book is dedicated to what life is like for students in one segregated Hartford school, Simpson-Waverly Elementary, particularly the third-grade class in room E4, led by a heroic teacher, Lois Luddy. The usually heartening stories in educational journalism of this kind come with the subtext that we could make segregated schools work if we only had more truly dedicated teachers. But Eaton turns this familiar script on its head. While Luddy does a wonderful job with her students, she is also a strong supporter of the Sheff litigation. “Everyone separate? It's not working,” Luddy says.

The U.S. Supreme Court may be about to make the goal of integration even more difficult, as there appear to be five votes to strike down the use of race in student assignment. Such a ruling should be not an excuse for giving up on integration but rather an incentive to address inequality at an even deeper level. Today, about 40 school districts integrate student bodies by socioeconomic status, which even Justice Clarence Thomas would allow. Our society has tried making separate but equal work for many years now, to little avail. As these books suggest, directly or indirectly, perhaps it is time to try something different.

Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, and a nonresident senior fellow at Education Sector, is author of All Together Now: Creating Middle Class Schools through Public School Choice (Brookings Institution Press, 2001). He is writing a biography of teacher union leader Albert Shanker.

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