Want to Improve America’s Education System? Desegregate It

May 24, 2012Bryce Covert

A solution for our poor educational ranking and huge achievement gap is staring us in the face.

America’s educational system is pretty bad at serving its students. Even Mitt Romney thinks so. In a speech yesterday, the presidential candidate called education “the great challenge of our time” and “the civil-rights issue of our era,” pointing out that minority children get screwed the most. The numbers behind his sentiment are pretty stark: in the OECD’s report on educational achievement among 70 countries, the U.S. falls almost in the middle, ranking 24th in reading, 30th in science, and 32nd in math.

With numbers like those it would make sense for the country to try whatever it could to improve learning for our kids. But we’re throwing out one method that has proven to have clear advantages: desegregation.

In an op-ed over the weekend, David L. Kirp explained the research behind this idea. As he notes, “economists’ studies consistently conclude that African-American students who attended integrated schools fared better academically than those left behind in segregated schools.” Those children were more likely to graduate from high school and college. And it wasn’t a zero sum game in which white children fell backward as black children moved up. “Between 1970 and 1990, the black-white gap in educational attainment shrank — not because white youngsters did worse but because black youngsters did better,” he writes.

Yet the achievement gap has been yawning in recent years. As of 2007, white students were scoring an average of 26 points higher than black students in every subject. We may look to the fact that schools have become increasingly segregated. There’s purposeful re-segregation, as in the recent policy changes in North Carolina. One school district eliminated a busing program in 2002 and another is set to follow. Meanwhile, the Wake County school board struck down its program that integrated schools based on socioeconomic status. Or take the less deliberate example of New York City. While the public school population is as diverse as the city’s, about 650 of its 1,700 schools have populations that are 70 percent a single race, according to the New York Times’s analysis. More than half are at least 90 percent black and Hispanic.

So no time like the present to re-desegregate our school systems in order to raise educational achievement. If we want to work on how we stack up against other countries, we would do well to consider it as a strong option in our arsenal.

The effects can go beyond test scores. Kirp notes that the positive effects of desegregation stayed with children throughout their lives. One study showed that “black youths who spent five years in desegregated schools have earned 25 percent more than those who never had that opportunity." That’s good for the rest of the economy. And unlocking educational potential for those who don’t happen to be white will also boost it. In fact, a new paper says that as much as 20 percent of growth in American productivity over the past 50 years can be attributed to increased equality for black people and women. It makes sense: by letting a diverse array of people compete in the workforce, you’re more likely to find the most talented for the job.

Sometimes our educational failings can seem large, complicated, and impossible to solve. Many of them are. But the solution of going back to purposefully desegregating our schools is staring us in the face.

Bryce Covert is Editor of Next New Deal.

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