Rothstein: March ‘had it right’

Organizers of the 1963 March on Washington were correct to call for immediate desegregation of the nation’s schools and neighborhoods, Richard Rothstein writes in an Economic Policy Institute report.

The marchers, he says, “did not need to be told what a half century of social science research has confirmed – schools cannot fulfill their potential so long as African Americans are segregated, as (Martin Luther) King put it, into ‘a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.’”

But instead of pushing integration, the federal government in the 1960s backed “compensatory education”: more money for schools serving poor and minority children. Rothstein argues that today’s education reform ideology, focused on test scores, teacher effectiveness and choice, follows a similar track. It promotes a false dream that, if we just get the accountability factors right, we can have schools that are separate but truly equal – or at least equal enough.

The report runs nearly 20 pages and covers a lot of ground. Here are a few highlights:

The March on Washington didn’t integrate the schools, but it did help trigger the well-known study of the nation’s schools by sociologist James S. Coleman, who expected to find that funding discrepancies accounted for the achievement differences between black and white students. In fact, Rothstein writes, the study found that funding didn’t make as much of a difference as expected.

What did make a difference was integration, but only where black children were integrated into majority middle-class schools. In other words, the priorities of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom had been correct: To improve black student achievement, the nation must improve socioeconomic conditions for black families, as well as implement integration not only by race but by social class.

But the Johnson and Nixon administrations buried the report’s findings. Courts ordered busing to integrate urban schools, but the approach was eventually abandoned.

Attempts to raise achievement solely by improving ghetto schools continue to date, with disappointing results. It remains the strategy of contemporary reformers, and its continued failure leads, inevitably, to conclusions that public education itself has failed and must be dismantled.

Rothstein points out that black students have made remarkable academic progress, as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Black fourth-graders improved their scores by a full standard deviation over a generation: “an improvement rate rarely encountered in any area of human performance.” How did this happen? Rothstein doesn’t claim to know, but he suggests possibilities: higher educational attainment for mothers, smaller family size and improved health care. He says policymakers have been “shockingly incurious” about the trend, and it hasn’t been widely studied.

He says critics of schools are missing the boat by fixating on the black-white achievement gap. The gap is shrinking, but it continues because white students also are making progress. “It is hard to see how improvement for both whites and blacks can be deemed evidence of school failure, but by focusing on the gap rather than real improvement, most policymakers draw such a conclusion,” he writes.

Yet there is one indicator that’s clearly going in the wrong direction.

Isolation of black students, particularly of low-income black students, in predominantly black and low-income schools, is increasing … When low-performing students are concentrated in the same schools, it is more difficult to raise their achievement than when these children are integrated into the middle-class population. … Children learn less from each other if few come from homes where large vocabularies and more complex language are used and where they were often read to when young.

Rothstein’s report appeared last week as part of a series marking the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and its uncompleted agenda. “By stressing integration as the most important goal of education improvement, the March on Washington had it right,” he concludes. “It is appropriate not only to commemorate this resolve but to renew it.”