Cutting Class

Economic integration may be the key to fixing America’s schools, but Washington is scared to even talk about it.

By Richard D. Kahlenberg

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Hope and dispair in the American cityHope and Despair in the American City:
Why There Are No Bad Schools in Raleigh

by Gerald Grant
Harvard University Press, 226 pp.

In this perceptive and important new book, Gerald Grant tells a modern tale of two cities —Syracuse, New York, and Raleigh, North Carolina—that took starkly different approaches to improving schools and communities. Syracuse trod the well-worn path of trying to revitalize local communities and pouring extra resources into high-poverty schools, a strategy that failed miserably. Raleigh, by contrast, merged with suburban Wake County and sought to integrate school populations, first by race, and then, more recently, by socioeconomic status. The district, Grant writes, "reduced the gap between rich and poor, black and white, more than any other large urban educational system in America." The book raises an important question: Why, even in the age of Obama, is 95 percent of education reform about refining the Syracuse strategy rather than replicating Raleigh’s?

Grant, an emeritus professor of education and sociology at Syracuse University, began his work as a tutee of one of the giants of twentieth-century sociology and education, James Coleman. The legendary 1966 Coleman Report, authorized by Congress, found that after the socioeconomic status of the family a child comes from, a school’s socioeconomic composition is the most important predictor of achievement. As Grant writes, "The norms of a good school are shaped more by the children who come through the door than the dollars spent on books, buildings, laboratories, teacher salaries, or other traditional measures of school quality." Low-income students do better in middle-class schools, Coleman found, and the achievement of middle-class children is not harmed by the presence of low-income students so long as the school is predominantly middle class. In majority-middle-class schools, Grant notes, low-income students are exposed to classmates who achieve at high levels and expect to attend college. Parents volunteer in the classroom, and well-qualified teachers hold students to high standards.

In the late 1960s, Syracuse did try to integrate its schools by race, but because the plan was confined to the city, rather than the general metropolitan area, schools quickly hit a tipping point at which middle-class students—and many teachers—fled. Before long, Syracuse, like many cities, was in the business of trying to "fix" its de facto segregated high-poverty neighborhoods and schools—an effort Grant himself joined.

A resident of Syracuse’s Westcott neighborhood, bordered by Syracuse University on one side and a major housing project on the other, Grant sent his children to the public schools and became involved in neighborhood revitalization efforts to reduce crime and reclaim civic spaces. More broadly, Syracuse built a new convention center and art museum, and increased spending on education substantially. But, Grant notes, "segregated institutions for the poor cannot be equalized solely by pumping more dollars into them." The low-income student population increased to more than 70 percent of students. Fewer than three of ten eighth graders could pass state tests in math and reading, and nearly half dropped out of school before graduating. Grant says he had once believed that it was possible to "save cities one school or neighborhood at a time," but he now concedes, "I was wrong."

In contrast to the Syracuse model, Raleigh and Wake County civic leaders took a very different path that helped the area grow into a thriving economic community hosting the nineteenth-largest public school system, bigger than districts in Baltimore, Milwaukee, Denver, Boston, San Francisco, Cleveland, Atlanta, Seattle, and Washington, D.C.

In the 1970s, Raleigh began to see white flight from city schools, as Syracuse did, but in 1976, the school boards of Raleigh and Wake County took the bold step of merging into a single Wake County school district. Business and civic leaders did not want Raleigh to become another Durham, with concentrated poverty and failing schools. They wanted a top-notch system, one in which all students would be prepared to work in a diverse global marketplace. Many whites were resistant, and some blacks thought it would be better to have control over a largely black city district, but civil rights and business leaders prevailed in their belief that an integrated metropolitan-wide system would be far better for the community as a whole.

In the early 1980s, the merged district needed to find a way to fill many underutilized schools in downtown Raleigh. The superintendent, Walter Marks, decided to turn one-third of the system’s schools, including virtually all of those located in Raleigh, into magnet schools. Special programs were offered—such as arts and theater, science and technology, and an International Baccalaureate curriculum—and within a single year downtown schools were full and racially balanced. Many had waiting lists. Over time, under-chosen schools were closed down, while popular programs were franchised. Today, roughly 40 percent of Wake’s schools are magnets.

In 2000, under Superintendent Bill McNeal, Wake took the additional step of changing the emphasis of school integration from race to socioeconomic status. Under legal pressure to abandon the use of race in student assignment, the district adopted a goal that no school should have more than 40 percent of students who are eligible for subsidized lunch. This move was also consistent with a long line of academic literature— going back to the Coleman Report—that finds it is not the race of classmates that matters to educational achievement as much as their socioeconomic status. To take one example, it is a disadvantage to be in a school where classmates exhibit a high level of antisocial behavior, but that problem is far more closely associated with class than race. One study Grant cites finds that while blacks scored thirteen points higher on an antisocial index than whites, when one controls for social class, the black/white difference is reduced to three points. Meanwhile, poor students of all races scored twenty-one points higher than advantaged students.

In Wake County’s economically integrated schools, teacher turnover is far lower than in Syracuse, and most teachers send their children to the district’s public schools—something rarely done in Syracuse. Wake is able to attract high-quality staff and has the highest percentage of nationally board-certified teachers of any urban district in the country. Achievement and graduation rates of poor and minority students are higher in Wake County than in Syracuse, even though Syracuse spends several thousand dollars more per pupil than Wake. And most middle-class families are satisfied with the system: according to a 2006 poll, 94 percent of Wake County public school parents agreed with the statement, "My child’s school provides a high-quality educational program."

Which is not to say that Raleigh’s plan is perfect. On one level, it is a victim of its own success. The explosive growth in the district (from 53,000 students in 1976 to 134,000 in 2008) has caused it to reassign students frequently to new schools, angering parents. And growth has made compliance with the 40 percent free and reduced-price lunch cap difficult to meet. By 2008, 30 percent of Wake’s 150 schools exceeded the 40 percent threshold, though few reach the intense concentrations of poverty found in many cities. The influx of former northeastern residents, some of whom are used to having the right to "purchase" an exclusive neighborhood public school, has complicated matters politically. But at the end of the day, it is hard to argue with Wake County’s success. Grant finds that Wake students scored comparably to students in Syracuse’s suburbs, even though Wake had four times the percentage of low-income students.

What is astounding—and profoundly disturbing—is that education reform at the national level has basically ignored the type of findings so powerfully outlined in Hope and Despair in the American City. In Washington, the "hot" education reforms include charter schools, teacher pay for performance, and community schools, like those found in the Harlem Children’s Zone, which combine extended learning time with pre-K programs and social services. If implemented well, these policies can have important positive effects on students, but they tend to be limited because they accept as given the fountainhead of school inequality: economic school segregation. Much ink has been spilled, for example, on the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) charter schools, which are indeed highly successful with the students who apply for, and stay in, their rigorous programs. But KIPP’s success with a self-selected
population that endures a difficult environment (60 percent dropped out of San Francisco–area KIPP schools) is far less impressive than efforts to educate low-income students living in an entire region. As Grant notes,

No city like Washington or Syracuse with high concentrations of schools in poverty has been able to replicate the success of KIPP and similar exceptional schools on a city-wide basis. By creating fairly balanced schools on a countywide basis, Wake County challenged the norm in all schools attended by poor students.

Of course, the central reason that Wake County’s success is ignored is that school integration is seen as politically toxic by the cognoscenti in Washington, D.C. But in fact, out in what Sarah Palin calls "real America," a number of jurisdictions have sought to reduce concentrations of school poverty. Today, more than sixty school districts use family income as a factor in assigning students to school. Most rely heavily on magnet schools in order to provide an incentive for integration. The list includes some predictable liberal university towns, like Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Berkeley, California, but it also includes places like Omaha, Nebraska, and McKinney, Texas.

"The choice between Raleigh and Syracuse," Grant concludes, "is the choice between hope and despair, the choice between one America and two Americas." In most cities, he writes, there is an "invisible wall" that keeps inner-city children separate from more affluent suburban kids. Most "throw money over the wall to children in a different caste of schools." If Barack Obama genuinely wants to provide equal educational opportunity for children, however, he needs to take steps to tear down that wall.


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Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, is the author of All Together Now: Creating Middle-Class Schools Through Public School Choice, and Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race, and Democracy, newly out in paperback.  
 
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