Ever since the publication in 1966 of sociologist James S. Coleman report Equality of Educational Opportunity, there has been a raging debate about how to close the racial gap in educational achievement.
Coleman's report ignited a firestorm of controversy. Using data from over 600,000 students and teachers across the country, Coleman and his team of researchers concluded that academic success was related more to the social composition of the school, the student's sense of control of his environment and future, the verbal skills of teachers, and the student's family background, than to the quality of the student's school.
The researcher's most controversial finding, and the one that most policy makers and the media focused on, was that Black students do better in racially integrated setting.
By the mid-1970s, however, after a decade of intense opposition to busing by White parents and White flight to the suburbs to avoid school integration, Coleman concluded in another report that school integration had failed, and that the window of opportunity to achieve quality integrated education had closed.
Coleman's change of heart angered many of his former supporters, especially in the progressive community. Though they were unsuccessful, some members of the American Sociological Association even tried to expel him (he later was elected president of the association in 1991).
By the 1980s, a new education reform movement emerged. Shaped largely by conservative free-market ideas, this movement has held sway since – well, at least until now.
Diane Ravitch, a preeminent education historian, former assistant secretary of education under the first President Bush, and one of the leading voices for the right-wing educational establishment, has done the unimaginable. Ravitch has reversed positions on issues she has held for decades, such as standardized testing, vouchers, privatization, and the No Child Left Behind Act.
Why the change of heart? She has finally accepted a growing body of social scientific research that shows that market-based reforms are not raising student achievement. What they are doing, she now argues, is harming public education.
Ravitch now calls much of the right's educational agenda – which, it should be noted, has been largely kept in place by the Obama Administration – a fad.
"School reform today is like a freight train, and I'm out on the tracks saying. 'You're going the wrong way!'" Ravitch said in a recent interview for the New York Times.
Ravitch's shift, however, comes much too late to save what appears to be a casualty of the right-wing educational reform movement, the Kansas City, Missouri, school system and its poor, mainly black and brown, student population.
In a stunning development, just before the start of classes in the fall, the Kansas City school district plans to shut down nearly half its schools. The moribund school system has seen student enrollments drop by nearly half over the last decade, largely as a result of students leaving for publicly funded charter schools, private and parochial schools, and the suburbs.
What the Kansas City school system plans to do in just a few short months is absolutely mind boggling. In a desperate effort to close a $50 million deficit and belatedly respond to years of declining student enrollments, the district will cut hundreds of jobs (roughly 700 of 3,000 employees) and shuffle thousands of students. The reorganization plan calls for closing 29 of 61 facilities, including 26 traditional schools and three leased buildings that house early childhood programs.
The implosion of the Kansas City school system is, undoubtedly, a dream come true for right-wing educational reformers. For decades, they have been arguing that government controlled schools are obsolete and that certain administrative and structural changes – including choice, charters, merit pay and accountability – are necessary to fix the nation's ailing public schools.
Because you can always point to a few success stories, many will continue to cling to these fads. One outcome of the Kansas City fiasco, though, is not in doubt: thousands of poor, mainly black and brown students – casualties of market-based reforms – are being left behind to suffer.
So, how do we "really" close the educational gap?
On the one hand, I am a staunch believer that equality of opportunity is strongly correlated with equality of schools' resources, such as the number and quality of textbooks, teachers, facilities, and so on. Likewise, raising expectations and improving parental involvement are keys to improving educational achievement of Black and Latino schoolchildren.
However, higher expectations, more participation by parents, and more money for schools will not solve the problem – as an example, the Kansas City school district received more than $2 billion as part of a landmark school desegregation case.
I am convinced that efforts to close the racial gap in educational achievement will continue to fail until the nation deals with the problem of pervasive, concentrated urban poverty.
Over the years, I have become increasingly convinced of the validity of William J. Wilson's thesis about the devastating effects of concentrated poverty in America's central cities, disproportionately inhabited by black and brown people.
Wilson's argument is that since the 1960s, poor ghetto neighborhoods, occupied primarily by blacks and Hispanics, have experienced increasing rates of socioeconomic isolation, dislocation and disorganization, problems "created by the constraints and opportunities that the residents of the inner-city neighborhoods face in terms of access to jobs and job networks, involvement in quality schools, availability of marriageable partners, and exposure to conventional role models (the quote is from Wilson's book, The Truly Disadvantage)."
According to Wilson, as a consequence, poor ghetto neighborhoods have become increasingly characterized by inner-city joblessness, teenage pregnancies, out-of-wedlock births, female-headed families, welfare dependency, serious crime and feelings of low self-efficacy.
This is the social context that far too many black and brown children are growing up in (Kansas City, Newark, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Flint, Hartford, Bridgeport, Charlotte, Memphis, Little Rock, New Orleans, Houston, Dallas, Miami, Liberty City, and on, and on, and on).
James Coleman got it right back in 1966: the social context in which an education takes place matters.
Our children are being set up to fail. It should come as no surprise to any of us when they do.