Is Segregation Education's Biggest Problem?

In 1954, Thurgood Marshall and a team of enthusiastic lawyers cheered as the United States Supreme Court struck down the separate-but-equal doctrine that had dominated much of American life, but especially education. Yet, here we are in 2011, and segregation, along racial and socio-economic lines, may still be the greatest threat to education reform. 

Op-Ed columnist Bob Herbert recent wrote an article in the New York Times arguing that education reform may be an easier problem to solve than many of us contend, if we are willing to deal with the even bigger issue of racial and class difference. While I disagree with many of the finer points of Herbert’s arguments - i.e. his implication that more integration will increase parental involvement, that teachers in advantaged areas are on average better than those who teach in disadvantaged communities, and his failure to recognize the reality that district resources may be disproportionately disbursed between more advantaged and less advantaged schools - overall I find his argument to be valid and worth considering.

The most compelling statement in the article is cited directly from the Century Foundation report on housing and school policy, upon which Herbert’s argument is primarily based. In the Century Foundation report, Richard Kahlenberg states, “Ninety-five percent of education reform is about trying to make separate schools for rich and poor work, but there is very little evidence that you can have success when you pack all the low-income students into one particular school.” When we consider many of the major reform initiatives like Teach For America, the New Teacher Project, Federal Title I Funding and the entire charter school movement, Kahlenberg’s statement becomes resoundingly apparent. Perhaps, we should spend less energy on completely overhauling schools in disadvantaged communities and expend more effort in integrating students of differing socio-economic levels into the same schools.

While the Century Foundation report is based only on the Montgomery County, Maryland school system, similar conditions exist all over the country. According to a 2009 UCLA Civil Rights Project report, schools in the United States are even more segregated today than they were before Brown v. Board of Education. Yes, this segregation is not legally enforced, but there’s not much choice when all of the low-income housing is huddled together in certain sections of town, which creates low-income communities, which in turn funnels kids into low-income schools.

I think more research is needed on the success of integration as a model for improving student achievement on a larger scale, however Herbert’s argument that the option should at least be on the table is well-founded. I know that option will make a lot of suburban white middle-class families uncomfortable, but we all pay the cost when our schools fail to educate entire sections of our population.

Over a half-century after the Supreme Court’s audacious decision, it appears we are still fighting the same fight Thurgood Marshall fought then, separate really isn’t equal, by law, circumstance, or choice.

Photo Credit: The U.S. Army