Thursday, June 24, 2010

From Plantations to Ghettos: The Plight of the Black Poor

What does the face of racial inequality look like? Rather than list a bunch of boring statistics, this depiction by The Alameda County Public Health Department of the differing life opportunities for black and white children born in Oakland, California, in a report titled, Life and Death from Unnatural Causes: Health and Social Inequity in Alameda County, says it all:

"Compared with a White child in the Oakland Hills, an African American born in West Oakland is 1.5 times more likely to be born premature or low birth weight, seven times more likely to be born into poverty, twice as likely to live in a home that is rented, and four times more likely to have parents with only a high school education or less. As a toddler, this child is 2.5 times more likely to be behind in vaccinations. By fourth grade, this child is four times less likely to read at grade level and is likely to live in a neighborhood with twice the concentration of liquor stores and more fast food outlets. Ultimately, this adolescent is 5.6 times more likely to drop out of school and less likely to attend a four year college than a White adolescent. As an adult, he will be five times more likely to be hospitalized for diabetes, twice as likely to be hospitalized for and to die of heart disease, three times more likely to die of stroke, and twice as likely to die of cancer. Born in West Oakland, this person can expect to die almost 15 years earlier than a White person born in the Oakland Hills."

Over the years, billions of dollars have been invested in trying to eradicate poverty and racial and economic inequality in America, yet, black ghetto communities remain degrading places, characterized by concentrated poverty, high levels of racial and ethnic isolation, joblessness, family dysfunction, exposure to violence, drugs use and crime, stress, poor transportation infrastructure, dilapidated housing, and failing schools.

While many blacks, such as me, have been able to flee the ghetto, many remain trapped, concentrated and increasingly isolated. America's black ghettos did not occur by accident. They are the outcome of decades of intentional actions taken by national, state and local governments along with the private sector.

In 1860s, the vast majority of blacks – 92 percent – lived in the South. Fifty years later, most blacks continued to live south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

That so few black left the South after the abolition of slavery may come as a surprise, especially given the amount of racial terror blacks faced in the South and since the country had experienced rapid industrial growth in the North during the decades that followed the Civil War.

Al least three factors account for the lack of a black exodus from the South. First of all, because both white workers (especially white ethnic immigrants) and their bosses generally opposed hiring blacks, most blacks found it very difficult to find work in the North.

Second, southern leaders also opposed black migration, assuming that cotton would once again boom and that there would be a need for a supply of cheap black laborers.

The power of the government was employed to assure this outcome. For example, many southern cities and states passed laws which made it difficult or impossible for labor agents to recruit local blacks. As another example, blacks waiting to board northbound ships or trains were arrested for vagrancy to halt the outward flow.

The Federal government was even employed to keep blacks as a cheap labor force in the rural South. For instance, the Freedman's Bureau – established in the War Department in 1865 to supervise all relief and educational activities relating to the former slaves – encouraged blacks to sign labor contracts with plantation owners and discouraged them from moving north.

A third factor was that most blacks were poor and lived in isolated rural areas with little contact with the outside world.

Beginning shortly after the start of World War I, millions of blacks left the rural South and moved to urban areas of the South and the industrial areas of the North and West.

Four factors contributed to The Great Black Migration. The first factor was the drop in the flow of white ethnics emigrating from Europe. Because the fighting was largely concentrated in Europe, immigration to the United States dropped sharply at the start of World War I. Later, total annual immigration was reduced significantly after passage of the 1924 National Origins Quota Act – a highly discriminatory act aimed at reducing Eastern and Southern European immigration.

A second factor was changes in the demand for black labor. Starved for labor, for the first time, northern employers turned to the South and the pool of black laborers they had long ignored.

Soil depletion, the collapse of cotton, and the mechanization of Southern agriculture also contributed to the Great Black Migration. Specifically, foreign competition led to crumbling prices, boll weevils destroyed cotton crops, and the mechanization of agriculture (tractors, mechanical harvesters, and similar equipment) decreased the need for black labor in southern agriculture.

Finally, white racism played its part. Increasing racial violence and the expansion of Jim Crow caused millions of rural blacks to move to urban areas of the North and South. Violence and the threat of violence were often used to intimidate blacks and keep them their place. An estimated 2,060 blacks were lynched between 1882 and 1903. Lynchings were routine events not only in the South but also as far north and west as Oklahoma, Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, and even Wyoming.

The North, however, was not the "Promised Land." Black migrants faced discrimination wherever they settled: they were the last hired and the first fired; they were kept in the most menial jobs due to discrimination by both employers and less progressive labor unions; restaurants and stores refused to serve them; banks typically refused them loans; many dentists, doctors, and hospitals refused to take them on as patients and; due to housing discrimination, blacks were forced to live in dilapidated, overcrowded housing

This is how the black ghetto was created. How do we fix the problem?

It is tempting to believe that all one has to do is "fix the ghetto," by, for example, improving the schools, luring jobs back to the ghetto, and strengthening local law enforcement to fight crime.

These strategies have been tried, but, with very limited success.

We may be well beyond simply "fixing the ghetto." It may be the case that the only way to end the vicious cycle that transmits poverty and racial inequality from one generation to the next is to help people move out of the ghetto into neighborhoods with jobs and better educational opportunities.

Putting that plan into action, of course, is when all hell will break out.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Closing The Achievement Gap Won’t Be Easy; And Charter Schools Will Not Be The Answer

The U.S. is becoming an increasingly diverse society. Nowhere is this more evident than in the nation's public schools. According to a new report, The Condition in Education 2010, by the U.S. Department of Education National Center for Educational Statistics, between 1988 and 2008, the percentage of white students in the nation's public schools dropped from 68 to 55 percent.

During the time period covered in the report, white enrollment decreased in every region of the country, while Hispanic enrollment increased. In fact, Hispanic students experienced the most growth. Between 1988 and 2008, the percentage of students who are Hispanic increased from 11 to 22 percent. Black student enrollment remained stable, while Asian student enrollment increased in the Northeast and Midwest and remained stable in other regions of the country.

Even though the nation's student population is becoming increasingly diverse, racial and ethnic isolation in the schools is nearly as bad as it was more than 40 years ago.

According to research conducted by The Civil Rights Project at UCLA, white, black and Hispanic students typically attend schools in which less than half the students are from races other than their own. Although white students tend to be the most racially isolated (they attend schools, on average, where only 20 percent of students are from a different racial or ethnic group), a growing percentage of black and Hispanic students attend schools with a high percentage of students of color. Nearly three of four black and Hispanic students attend schools where more than half of students are students of color. Almost four of ten black and Hispanic students attend racially isolated schools in which less than ten percent of students are white.

The problem with these schools is that they are not only segregated by race and ethnicity, they also tend to be segregated by class.

Students who attend racially and ethnically isolated and socioeconomically segregated schools also tend to do worse on measures of academic achievement than their white peers. Black and Hispanic students currently score lower than white students on vocabulary, reading, and math tests, as well as on tests designed to measure scholastic aptitude and intelligence. Not surprisingly, the achievement gap also shows up in grades, course selection, and college completion rates.

How do you close this achievement gap? Many people believe that the answer is to open up a charter school – usually, in a predominantly black or Hispanic neighborhood – and let the school work its magic.

I think that they are wrong.

A charter schools is a school that provides free public education to students under a specific charter granted by the state legislature or other appropriate authority. Even though they are only a fraction of all schools, the charter school movement is growing. Between 1999 and 2008, the number of charter schools in the U.S. increased from 1,500 to 4,400. They are being enthusiastically embraced in many central cities where public schools are more likely to be failing. In 2008, more than half (55 percent) of all charter schools were in cities.

According to Susan Eaton (research director at the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute at Harvard Law School) in an article recently published in The Nation, since President Obama took office, "charter schools have enjoyed enthusiastic rhetorical support… and increasing monetary support." She quotes from a March 2009 speech given by the President before the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in which he said: "I call on states to reform their charter rules and lift caps on the number of allowable charter schools wherever such caps are in place."

Don't believe the hype.

Eaton writes that charter schools "demonstrate no evidence of sustained, large-scale success and tend to compound racial and economic segregation." As an example, she cites a recent report by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA which shows that 70 percent of black students enrolled in charter schools attend schools that have student of color populations between 90 and 100 percent.

Other research shows that a higher percentage of charter schools are high-poverty schools than low-poverty schools. Between 1999 and 2008, the percentage of charter schools that were high-poverty increased from 13 to 23 percent, while the percentage of charter schools that were low-poverty declined from 37 to 21 percent.

Although, according to Eaton, charter schools reinforce rather than "upset the stratified structure of public education," they have boisterous and energetic supporters of all ideological persuasions. But, she writes, "the notion that high poverty racially segregated schools are equal to middle-class school has been consistently disproved by a half-century of research."

Closing the achievement gap will not be easy. It starts before children enter kindergarten and continues into adulthood. It has persisted despite decades of school reform efforts and the investment of billions of dollars into K-12 public education across the nation.

While a few widely-publicized and wildly-celebrated all-black or all-Latino charter schools "beat the odds" and succeed, that is the exception not than the rule. Let us not be fooled. "Loudly heralding the relative few that 'beat the odds' (typically not for more than two years) obscures the harsh reality of the odds themselves, which remain low for kids who attend high-poverty segregated schools," writes Eaton.

The "real" way to close the achievement gap is to combat concentrated poverty and reduce racial and ethnic isolation and socioeconomic segregation in the schools. Charter schools do neither particularly well.

It's time to move on.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

No Surprise Here: Growing Socioeconomic Segregation and Racial and Ethnic Isolation In the Schools.

The U.S. Department of Education National Center for Educational Statistics recently released its annual Condition of Education report. This year's report includes a special section that focuses on high-poverty schools in America, examining the types and locations of schools, the characteristics of the students and their teachers and principals; and student achievement.

According to the report, The Condition in Education 2010 , socioeconomic segregation in the nation's public elementary and secondary schools is on the rise, leading to a wide and persistent gap in educational achievement between racial and ethnic groups. Between the 1999-2000 and 2007-2008 school year, the percentage of students who attended high-poverty schools (schools in which 76-100 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-priced lunch (FRPL)) increased from 12 percent to 17 percent – a 42 percent jump. Just about 20 percent of elementary school students and 6 percent of secondary school students attend high-poverty schools

It should come as no surprise that an overwhelming majority of the students who attend schools with high concentrated poverty are students of color. In 2007-2008, whites made up only about 14 percent of students in high-poverty schools, whereas, some 34 percent of students were black, 46 percent were Hispanic, 4 percent were Asian/Pacific Islander, and 2 percent were American Indian/Alaska Native.

Regardless of the type of school being considered, students of color make up a large percentage of socioeconomically segregated students. In 2007-2008, only 14 percent of students attending high-poverty elementary schools were white, while 34 percent were black, and 46 percent were Hispanic. Similarly, about 11 percent of students in high-poverty secondary school were White, while 38 percent were black, and 44 percent were Hispanic.

These patterns – black and Hispanic students making up a very large percentage of students of color that are socioeconomically isolated – hold especially for cities and suburbs. For example, Hispanics made up a large percentage of students in high-poverty elementary schools in both cities (48 percent) and suburbs (55 percent), followed by blacks (37 and 29 percent) and whites (10 and 12 percent). Likewise, Hispanics made up a larger percentage of student in high-poverty secondary schools in both cities (47 percent) and suburbs (56 percent), followed by blacks (40 and 27 percent) and whites (7 and 11 percent). Only in towns and rural areas do the percentage of whites attending socioeconomically isolated schools approach the percentages reached by black and Hispanic students.

Generally speaking, students of color are much more likely than white students to attend a school that is socioeconomically segregated. For example, because most students in the lower grades attend neighborhood schools, greater percentages of students of color are enrolled in schools in which a majority of the students are poor. Roughly 70 percent of Hispanic, 69 percent of Black, 60 percent of Indian/Alaska Native, and 34 percent of Asian/Pacific Islander students were enrolled in elementary schools that at least half the students were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch compared with just 25 percent of whites.

Students of color who attend extremely impoverished schools are at a severe disadvantage compared to their peers:

  • For both elementary and secondary schools, a smaller percentage of teachers working in high-poverty schools have earned at least a master's degree and professional certification than teachers working in low-poverty schools (0 to 24 percent FRPL).
  • On each National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) assessment given between 2000 and 2009, average reading and math scores for 4th- and 8th- grade students from high poverty schools were lower than the scores for students from low-poverty schools.
  • Students from schools with high concentrated poverty are less likely to graduate from high school; in 2007-2008, on average, 68 percent of 12th grade students in high-poverty schools graduated with a diploma, compared to 91 percent at low-poverty schools. The graduation rate for students in high-poverty schools has dropped significantly since the 1999-2000 school year, when 86 percent of students graduated.
  • Students from schools with high concentrated poverty are less likely to attend college. Only 28 percent of students from high-poverty schools enrolled in a four-year institution after graduation, compared to 52 percent of graduates from low poverty schools.

In order to fully understand why so many students of color are socioeconomically segregated, one must examine the role federal and state governments, exclusionary zoning legislation, and private discrimination has played in bringing about and perpetuating residential segregation. For example, at the federal level, the government promoted housing discrimination through a variety of public policies, including the location of public housing in ghetto communities, urban renewal programs that destabilized black neighborhoods, and the practice of "red-lining" by the Federal Housing Authority (FHA) in their home mortgage guarantee program. The problem of residential segregation has been exacerbated by "white flight," the continuous outmigration of jobs and industries out of central cities, and the flow of working-and middle-class blacks and Hispanics out of cities and into the suburbs. The point is that segregated housing in America's urban centers developed both slowly and quite intentionally.

Efforts to "fix" high-poverty schools have not worked well. It has been very difficult to overcome the many challenges these schools face, including low parental involvement and low-expectations of the students. It appears that the only real solution is to break these schools up. However, because of racially segregated housing patterns, reducing the number of schools with high concentrated poverty will not be easy. Giving students the opportunity to attend racially, ethnically and socioeconomically balanced schools may be their only hope for an economically secure future.

Monday, June 7, 2010

I Earned My Bachelor’s Degree Without A Ton Of Debt; But That Was a While Ago, When A College Education Was Affordable

It's hard for me to believe that I graduated from high school nearly 26 years ago. I was only 17 when I enrolled in Eastern Michigan University (I turned 18 in October of my freshman year) in 1984. It's even harder for me to believe that I earned my bachelor's degree without burying myself in debt.

Looking back on it all, it was highly improbable that I would attend college; it was even more improbable that I would go on to earn a Ph.D. eleven years later. The odds, it seemed were stacked against me. First of all, I grew up in a welfare-dependent household. Second, neither my mother nor my father had earned a high school diploma. And last, even though two of my siblings had attended college, neither had successfully completed their degree.

That I enrolled in college was pure luck. Don't get me wrong, I wasn't a terrible student, but, at the same time, I wasn't a great student either. And although my parents had not attended college, they stressed that all their kids get an education. At the same time, I hadn't harbored a lifelong dream to become, for example, a university professor. As a matter of fact, I had no idea what it took to become a professor; I had never even heard of a Ph.D. Outside of school, I had no consistent exposure to college educated people. As far as I knew, doctors were physicians. Aside from medical doctors, I knew a little bit about a few other professions, including lawyers, social workers, and, of course, preachers. But, I had no idea what it took to become any of these.

Like many high school seniors, I didn't have a clue about what to do after graduation. In the middle of my senior year, I walked into the career service office desperately looking for help. I needed help; and I needed it quickly. As I sat there, talking for the first time with anyone seriously about life after high school, I remember staring at brochures for the army and thinking to myself, "no way." After retrieving a copy of my high school transcripts for the counselor, she quickly asked me why I hadn't thought about attending college.

The counselor handed me a stack of applications. I rushed home to fill them out. Sitting alone at the kitchen table, one of the first things I noticed was that most of them required an application fee. Several of the schools had a fee as high as $40 dollars. I knew that there was no way that my mother could afford such a cost and did not bother to ask her. I applied to two schools; they were the only ones in the stack that did not require an application fee.

It was one of the most exciting days in my life when I received letters of acceptance from the two schools that I applied to. The first letter of acceptance came from Johnson C. Smith University, a historically black university in Charlotte, North Carolina. A short time later, a letter from Eastern Michigan University came in the mail. After my mother and I talked it over, we decided that EMU was the best choice. The next question I faced was how to pay tuition and room and board.

After contacting EMU about my decision, the admission counselor advised me to fill out the application for federal financial aid. Since my family was poor, I was eligible for full assistance. However, there was a problem; because I had applied so late for financial aid, I was ineligible for a full Pell Grant and needed to take out a loan for $2,500 to help pay for my first year of college. Fortunately, I borrowed that year the bulk of the money that I needed to borrow over the next three years to finance my education. Largely through a combination of Pell Grants, work study jobs, and some borrowing – Perkins and Stafford loans, but not a lot – I was able to fund my undergraduate education.

Things have changed a lot since I started college. According to the College Board's Trends in Student Aid study, "too many students are borrowing more than they are likely able to manage." Based on an analysis of data from 2007-08, the researchers found that about one out of every four students graduated with at least $24,600 in debt, and one out of every ten students graduated with at least $39,300.

The authors point is not that every student is borrowing too much; rather, the challenge many students face finding good paying jobs and their overall lack of understanding about the financial impact of loans, means that many of them are taking on too much debt to manage.

Given the lower socioeconomic standing of blacks in American society, it may come as no surprise that the College Board finds that black students are far more likely than Asians, whites, and Hispanics students to graduate from college with high debt. Only 19 percent of black students graduated with no debt. By comparison, the percentage of debt-free Hispanic (33 percent) and Asian (40 percent) graduates was much higher. Roughly one in four black students completed college with at least $30,500 in student-loan debt, compared to debt levels ranging from 9 percent to 16 percent for other groups.

With more low-income students of color than ever attending college, the debt problem will only grow worse. For these students, financing an education with manageable debt like I did is practically impossible to do. Too much debt can contribute to future financial insecurity.

What can be done? The recent passage of The Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act, which was included in the health care reconciliation bill that passed earlier this year, was an important first step. But much more needs to be done to increase Pell Grants and access to other forms of need-based aid (more grants, not more loans).

More also needs to be done to improve the financial literacy of admitted students and their families. But, a big challenge is that many universities are more interested in enrolling students – especially private and for-profit universities – than giving them and their family sound financial advice. As a recent NY Times article points out, in spite of having knowledge of the financial aid system and knowledge of the student and their families' financial situation, most universities feel no real obligation to counsel some of their students about the financial grave they are digging for themselves.

A potential reason this is so is because tuition-driven universities do not want to suffer the likely consequence of encouraging students – particularly middle-income students – to go elsewhere. Unless the university is able to persuade more wealthy students to attend, it runs the risk of having to attract financially needy students to reach enrollment goals. This is a huge problem for many private universities.

According to the results of a recent survey by the National Association of College and University Business Officers, private universities are spending more than ever on student financial aid. The authors of the survey contend that the tuition-discount rate – the difference between what students actually pay to attend and what it actually cost to attend the university without financial support – which now stands at roughly 42 percent, is exacting a heavy toll on many private universities. Many institutions have "had to implement salary freezes, hiring freezes, staff reductions, and other cost-cutting measures in order to increase their spending on institutional grants."

For the foreseeable future, loans will continue to play a key role in providing access and increasing affordability for low and moderate-income students. More than ever, students need access to low-cost loans to supplement grants and scholarships. The Perkins Loan program helped me fund my education. Created in 1958, Perkins provides low-interest loans to financially needy students. Unfortunately, Perkins is set to expire in 2012. President Obama has proposed overhauling and expanding the program. Congress needs to act now, both renewing the program and giving it an infusion of money to keep providing aid at needed levels.

Whenever I talk to my students about the value of an education, I remind them that it is the great equalizer in our society. It has been the main tool used by millions of Americans – particularly people of color – to achieve social mobility. Realizing the growing importance of a college degree to achieve middle-class status, more students than ever, are pursuing a postsecondary education. At the same time, students are drowning in debt to finance their education because colleges, even public ones, are not as affordable as they use to be. Making college affordable once again needs to be a national priority.