Research shows what it takes to make our public schools work, labor economist Rucker C. Johnson writes in his recent book “Children of the Dream.” It takes racial and socioeconomic integration. Funding that is abundant and equitably distributed. And a focus on high-quality preschool.
“Children of the Dream: Why School Integration Works” is an unusual book, written for a general audience but packed with original and eye-opening research findings. It conveys a hopeful message: We can make education work and we don’t need to look for alternatives to public schools.
Johnson is a highly regarded economist who holds the title Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley. He wrote the book with journalist Alexander Nazaryan.
Along with research on the benefits of integrated, well-funded schools and preschools, the book provides personal stories about individuals who have fought for and lived effective reforms. It also recounts the many setbacks to improving education, what it calls “our failings as a nation.”
While education studies often focus on short-term results measured on standardized tests, Johnson’s research takes a longer view. Relying on large sociological data sets, he examines the impact of education policies on outcomes such as college completion, adult wages and overall well-being.
“Analyses of these data lead inevitably to a conclusion at once thrilling and frustrating,” he writes. “Integration works, but only if we give it a chance – that is, if we implement collaborative policies beginning in the early childhood years and sustain quality investments from prekindergarten through high school graduation and beyond.”
Johnson’s research shows that students who experienced court-ordered school desegregation attended schools that were better funded and had smaller class sizes. They achieved more years of schooling, higher graduation rates, higher adult wages, greater marital stability and better health.
And the effects were significant. Black children who attended desegregated schools throughout K-12 completed a full year of education more than black children who attended segregated schools. For African-American adults, having the experience of court-ordered desegregation was associated with a 30% increase in adult earnings and a 22% decrease in the likelihood of being imprisoned.
Impatience can be the enemy of success, however, and our tendency to flit from one school-reform idea to another means good ideas are rejected before they can work. For example, some studies of the federal Head Start preschool program concluded that academic gains faded as students got older. Johnson finds that the gains persist when Head Start kids go on to attend well-funded schools.
History suggests that making the necessary changes won’t be easy. “Children of the Dream” details the resistance that followed the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, from outright defiance in the South to anti-busing violence in the North. More recently, lawsuits and court rulings have derailed successful integration plans in Charlotte and Seattle; and affluent, largely white areas have seceded from school districts in Memphis and Birmingham to form their own districts.
Johnson faults the school choice movement for “emphasizing individual concerns over the public mission of education.” He says some of the arguments in favor of vouchers are “eerily similar” to language used to oppose desegregation in the 1950s and ‘60s. But he strikes a tone of patience and optimism, confident that research can help guide us to creating schools that work significantly better for all students.
“Rome was not built in a day, and effective social policies do not work overnight,” Johnson writes. “Hope can fuel the perseverance needed to allow policies to reach fruition.”