Let’s play one of those word-association games. If I say “racial integration of schools,” who comes to mind?
If you’re like most of us, you conjured figures from the past. Perhaps you thought of the heroic young African Americans who desegregated all-white schools in Little Rock in the 1950s. Or maybe Earl Warren, author of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision barring schools from separating students on the basis of race.
I doubt you chose anyone from contemporary American life. Our schools are more segregated than at any time since the late 1960s, but you probably can’t name a national political figure today who has insisted – loudly, clearly and consistently – that kids of different races should be in the same classrooms.
That’s about to change. The incoming secretary of education, John B. King Jr., has been a forceful advocate for integrating American schools. This month, President Obama tapped King to replace Arne Duncan, who focused less on integrating the races than on closing the “achievement gap” between them.
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That’s been a dominant theme of education reform since the passage of the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, which requires schools to report test scores by race; if one of its racial groups is not making progress, an otherwise successful school can face penalties. But NCLB makes no reference to integration at all.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has restricted the ability of school districts to promote racial integration. Striking down desegregation plans in Louisville and Seattle in 2007, the court questioned whether integration would enhance minority achievement.
But just last month, an Education Department study showed that African American eighth- graders who attended schools that were more than 60 percent black scored significantly lower on standardized math tests than African Americans of similar backgrounds who attended integrated schools.
Other research has shown that black kids in integrated schools enjoy higher earnings and rates of employment later in life.
Whites fear that racial integration will hold back their children academically, even though studies have repeatedly shown otherwise. And blacks worry that campaigns to integrate schools demean African Americans.
Enter King. As education commissioner in New York state, he earned a good deal of negative press for his embrace of the Common Core standards and of a new teacher evaluation system based partly on test scores. Fewer people noticed King’s providing grants to increase diversity in high-poverty school districts.
King cast the project as a way to improve minority academic achievement. “Diverse schools create important educational opportunities,” King said. “Our students shouldn’t be isolated because they come from struggling neighborhoods.”
Under No Child Left Behind, we have pretended we can close the racial achievement gap without integrating the races. But that’s a fool’s errand, born of a separate-but-equal fantasy that Brown v. Board of Education never fully dispelled.
So kudos to Obama for appointing King. And congratulations to King for speaking hard truths that too many Americans would prefer not to hear. No matter what you think of King’s other reform priorities, his commitment to integration is right on target.
Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University.