Cleaning out my desk for the Observer’s looming move, I found a yellowed copy of a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools data profile for 1996-97.
That was several years before I started covering education, so I tapped the Observer’s archives to get a sense of what was going on 20 years ago.
In March 1996, the school board was in the midst of a superintendent search.
The year was dominated by a controversial student assignment review that drew hundreds to public hearings, as the board tried over and over to craft an acceptable plan. Matthews residents were so upset about busing that they talked about splitting from CMS to run their own schools.
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Testing, teacher pay and school safety were hot topics. Racial tensions ran high in 1996 after a white police officer shot an unarmed black motorist.
All together now: The more things change ...
But this isn’t just an ironic trip down the Flashback Freeway.
Today, with another controversial assignment review in progress, there’s a lot of talk about how CMS was different when the district drew boundaries and assigned magnet seats to achieve racial balance.
“Were test scores and student performance better when CMS had forced busing and more socioeconomically balanced schools?” a CMS parent emailed me recently. She was wrestling with the notion that CMS should reassign students to break up today’s racial isolation and concentrations of poverty.
“I’m a big supporter of public schools,” she wrote, “but I just don’t have faith that moving students around will necessarily make things better for poor children.”
I gave her my thoughts – more about that to come – but the old report provided a fascinating fact check. It was prepared by Superintendent Eric Smith, who was hired in the 1996 search, years before the federal No Child Left Behind Act made such information readily available on the Internet.
How good were old days?
To greatly oversimplify a complex debate, some people see the era of desegregation in CMS as a pinnacle of community commitment to public education and an inspiration for today’s efforts. Others see it as a failed experiment that serves mainly as a cautionary tale.
In 1996-’97, CMS was roughly 25 years into desegregation plans ordered by federal courts. In addition to boundaries and busing, the district had opened magnet schools with seats allotted by race to encourage voluntary integration.
Compared with today, CMS was a much smaller district, with a white majority, a barely noticeable Hispanic population and much lower poverty levels (see accompanying chart).
The district was still a few years away from the legal challenge that would yield massive reassignment in 2002 – and set in motion the challenges that the school board faces today, with large numbers of low-performing schools that are virtually devoid of white and middle-class students.
As I told the curious mom, it’s impossible to track a meaningful path of academic progress over the years because North Carolina changes its testing system so often. Big swings almost always come from new exams and revised grading scales.
And test scores will never settle debate over the value of diversity. Even if we had a rock-solid way to track academic performance and assignment policies over the years, we wouldn’t know whether those policies caused gains or setbacks. Assignment is one piece of a complicated puzzle that includes bigger social, economic and demographic trends, as well as ever-changing education strategies.
But to answer the mother’s question, I told her that to my knowledge, racial and income gaps were significant during desegregation and remain so today.
When I found the dusty report, I checked that premise by pulling pass rates on state math and reading exams for eighth-graders then and now.
What does it mean?
While the exams themselves have changed repeatedly, the results are strikingly similar. Then and now, white students passed at about twice the rate of black and low-income students (current state reports don’t tally results for students who aren’t classified as low income).
There has been dramatic improvement in four-year graduation rates, up more than 25 percentage points for white students and 30 for black and low-income students. But CMS leaders acknowledge that even now, huge racial and income gaps on college-readiness tests show some graduates may be ill-prepared for college and skilled work.
Some may see these numbers as proof that desegregation brings no benefit, that creating more racially and economically balanced schools simply masks the problem.
Amy Hawn Nelson of the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute and UNCC sociology professor Roslyn Mickelson have been two of the biggest proponents for a renewed push for diversity. Both have done research on CMS students in the late 1990s and concluded that the benefits of diversity are clear.
I asked them how they’d respond to the snapshot presented by the CMS report.
Both noted that for all its national recognition, CMS never did a perfect job of integration. Not only were some schools skewed disproportionately black or white in the late 1990s, but Mickelson’s research found that even the most racially balanced schools (roughly 60 percent white and 40 percent black at the time) were internally segregated, with high-level classes disproportionately white and low-level ones disproportionately black.
And both argue that some of the biggest benefits of desegregation show up not in test scores but in long-term life prospects.
Nelson, a 1997 graduate of South Mecklenburg High, says the experiences of her generation varied widely, from true integration to “really poorly orchestrated desegregation.”
“The problem is that the national data trends and the studies of long-term outcomes indicate that deseg has done better than anything else at reducing the harms that occur with segregation,” Nelson said in an email. “So, it’s not that deseg is perfect, it’s that segregation is so harmful and detrimental to every life outcome.”
Where does it lead?
Bottom line: It’s clear that CMS doesn’t have an educational Eden to return to. And it’s hard to seriously argue that any assignment change will fix the problems of urban education and catapult disadvantaged kids to success.
But I haven’t heard anyone make that argument. For all their differences of opinion, board members have united in saying they see assignment as just one strategy in a bigger educational plan.
It’s like they’re playing a very high-stakes game of Jenga, trying to carefully move a piece here and a piece there in hopes that the whole fragile tower doesn’t collapse. Board members are working, with limited success, to get the rest of the community to join in, saying important pieces include housing policies, preschool and higher education.
Maybe 2016 will be remembered as the time when a community united to solve the puzzle.
Or maybe our counterparts in 2036 will look back and marvel at how little has changed.
CMS: Then and now
Data from the 1996-’97 district profile compared with the most recent available data, from 2015-’16 for enrollment and 2014-’15 for test scores and graduation rates. Results for state exams show the percent rated as grade level then and now, although the state exams and the grading system have changed since the 1990s.
Grade 8 reading (black)
Grade 8 reading (white)
Grade 8 reading (low income)
Grade 8 math (black)
Grade 8 math (white)
Grade 8 math (low income)
Graduation rate (black)
Graduation rate (white)
Graduation rate (low income)