One of the earliest acknowledgments of the achievement gap came from James
Coleman’s 1966 study, The Equality of Educational Opportunity. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, section 402, required the commissioner of education to study and report to the President and Congress concerns regarding the “lack of availability of equal educational opportunities for individuals by reason of race, color, religion, or national origin in public educational institutions.” Coleman’s study followed the landmark Supreme Court decision of 1954 in Brown v. Board of Education that directed schools in the South to desegregate “with all deliberate speed.” In the years following this monumental and philosophical shift in the education of America’s public school children, few school districts expedited desegregation efforts. Using “freedom of choice” plans as a method of superficial compliance, Southern school districts were especially able to remain as equally segregated as they were prior to the Brown v. Board of Education ruling. By 1968, 77% of Black students attended majority Black schools nationwide (Orfield, 2001, as cited in Reardon and Owens, 2014). This resistance to follow the directive of the highest court in the land, accompanied by additional dissatisfaction regarding the lack of moral courage and political will to comply, resulted in hundreds of school districts being placed under court-order desegregation mandates by the mid 1970’s (Logan and Oakley, 2004, as cited in Reardon and Owens, 2014). In response to court-ordered desegregation, many Whites abandoned the public school system altogether, while others elected to enroll their children in districts that mirrored the demographics of the segregated schools they were more accustomed to having their children attend (Reardon & Owens, 2014), and when these court-ordered desegregations ended, a resurgence of segregation emerged. This response to the ending of mandated integration flies in the face of one of Coleman’s most notable conclusions from his 1966 report: “the social composition of the student body is more highly related to achievement, independent of the student’s own social background, than is any school factor” (p.22).
Although Coleman found differences in school resources among Black and White students, those variations were not large enough to account for the difference in achievement (Alexander and Morgan, 2016). However, James Coleman’s 1966 study concluded something very important, and that is that family background was more indicative of a child’s achievement than other factors such as class size, per-pupil expenditures, curricular resources, and even teacher qualifications. This finding led to a fundamental shift in measuring school quality. Instead of focusing on the factors and inputs that affect student achievement, a focus on outcomes, notably standardized test scores, would consume the nation’s attention and efforts. This long-held view, that outcomes matter more than inputs, has led to a variety of policy decisions, public opinions, and scholarly recommendations. Coleman et al. (1966) noted:
Taking all these results together, one implication stands out above all: That schools bring little influence to bear on a child’s achievement that is independent of his background and general social context; and that this very lack of an independent effect means that inequalities imposed on children by their home neighborhood, and peer environment are carried along to become inequalities with which they confront adult life at the end of school. (p.325)
Several scholars have criticized Coleman’s research methods, yet further review confirms this particular finding regarding the impact of socioeconomic status on student achievement. According to Hanushek (2016), additional analyses have found aspects of family background to have a significant impact on achievement differences (p.23). Similarly, Khalenburg (2013) cites the 2012 study by Mantril, Perkins, & Aberger as confirmation of this finding as well:
In 2012, researchers found a strong statewide correlation between socioeconomic school segregation and the size of the achievement gap between low-income and higher-income students. Examining achievement gaps on NAEP for math and reading in 2007 and 2005, they found that Black and Latino students had smaller achievement gaps with Whites when they were less likely to be stuck in high-poverty school environments. (p.4)
Citing the American Educational Research Association’s 2006 brief on the Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No.1, Darling-Hammond (2018) highlights the overwhelming conclusion regarding the inequity of segregated schools: “More often than not, segregated minority schools offer profoundly unequal educational opportunities. This inequality is manifested in many ways, including fewer qualified, experienced teachers, greater instability caused by rapid turnover of faculty, fewer educational resources, and limited exposure to peers who can positively influence academic learning. No doubt as a result of these disparities, measures of educational outcomes, such as scores on standardized achievement tests and high school graduation rates, are lower in schools with high percentages of nonwhite students” (p.4).
Segregated schools are not a thing of the past. Bartz (2016) notes that the percentage of segregated schools has risen from 5.7% to 18.6% across our nation. The United States Government Accountability Office affirms this notion in their 2016 report, Better Use of Information Could Help Agencies Identify Disparities and Address Racial Discrimination. They concluded that between 2001 and 2013 public schools with high concentrations of Black and Hispanic students grew from 9% to 16%. The central problem of the achievement gap is clear: poverty and socioeconomics matter a great deal. Khalenburg (2013) agrees, stating, “the major problem with American schools is not teachers or their unions but poverty and economic segregation”(p.14). Yet educational leaders are reluctant to cite this overwhelming body of research and use their voices to activate a higher degree of moral courage and political will. Despite having substantial research and knowledge regarding the benefits of more integrated schools, school and district leaders look to politicians and government leaders to lead the way in making this a reality for America’s poorest children. Practitioners have an enormous opportunity to make the case that America’s schools can improve when America’s moral courage and political will to address its persistent opposition to equity improves as well. Scholars such as Bartz (2016) rightly note that educators across the country have had minimal success in narrowing the achievement gap between Black and White students. The response to this lack of success in closing the achievement gap can no longer result in “whatever it takes” and “no excuses” mantras, billions of dollars in test prep curriculum, and demoralized professional educators who treat their efforts as an isolated variable. We have already determined what it will take, just as Coleman’s 1966 report noted, a more balanced socially comprised student body. This is what educators across the country should be advocating for in addition to improved compensation, higher quality working conditions, and sharpened preparation programs. Internal conversations regarding the impact of concentrated poverty must extend themselves beyond the walls of the teacher’s lounge. Educational leaders must arm themselves with the research needed to redesign the notion of accountability that focuses solely on educational outputs while giving minimal credence to the critical inputs that substantially influence academic and life outcomes for children in our public schools.
In the December 2017 article, “A New Path for School Integration”, McDaniels frames the problem quite well. Concentrated poverty combined with racially isolated student bodies present educators and students with numerous challenges: limited curricular access and opportunities, minimal enrichment experiences, and a revolving door of inexperienced teachers. McDaniel (2017) highlights two startling statistics that seem to confirm Darling-Hammond’s (2018) contention that our schools are becoming more segregated. “More than a third of students attend schools in which 90% of their peers are of the same race. Furthermore, 40% of the natation’s more than 1, 700 school districts are hypersegregated, meaning that most low-income students attend schools where 75% of the student body is also low-income” (p. 2). While an analysis of 2013 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) results point to a continued gap in achievement between White and minority students (Bartz, 2016), the court-mandated desegregation era offers a counter-narrative. Efforts made to make the public education experience a more equitable one through the targeting of resources via the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act through programs like Title I and bilingual education, which supported school desegregation and in turn helped improve academic achievement for minority students. According to Darling-Hammond (2018), the achievement gap in reading decreased by over 50% for the nation’s 13-year-olds based on NAEP results between 1971 and 1988 and reduced by 20 points in math during the same period. The results of more socially and racially integrated schools ought to be enough to convince educational leaders to activate their voices and advocate for what we know works to improve academic outcomes for our most marginalized students. Instead of asking what programs will help reduce today’s achievement gap or what cocktail of consequences might motivate educators to produce better results, we should be asking a different question: What is keeping us from doing what we know works for all students and does harm to none?
There is substantial evidence that socioeconomic integration disrupts a pattern of concentrated poverty and produces improved academic outcomes for those who are on the deficit end of the achievement gap and at a minimum, does no harm to those who are not (Khalenberg, 2013). Educators cannot afford to refrain from this conversation. School reform efforts must include the voices of practitioners who can speak to the impact of segregated schools with high concentrations of poverty firsthand. If educational leaders stand down instead of speaking up, the resistance to doing what we know works may continue and the gaps in achievement are likely to widen. The resistance to address school inequity through means of integration is strong. According to McDaniels (2017) “since 2000, 71 communities have tried to secede from their school districts. 47 of these efforts were successful” (p. 47). In June of 2018, the North Carolina House ratified HB514 that would make it possible for suburban municipalities to create, operate, and partially fund their own charter schools, giving enrollment priority to area children. This type of political maneuvering to resist integration has already proven itself disastrous via Coleman’s 1966 report, yet the idea is popular in Southern suburban communities. In Bauman’s June 2017 Chalkbeat article titled, “Memphis-Shelby County Spotlighted in National Report on School District Secession”, she cites research from EdBuild (2018), a nonprofit group that focuses on inequity and education funding. Additionally, Bauman notes two important factors: the timing of the Shelby County secession and the reasoning behind the desire to secede. Prior to this effort to separate, a merger of Memphis City Schools, a mostly black and lower-income district, with Legacy Shelby County Schools, a suburban, and mostly white and affluent district, had taken place. Shelby County wanted to establish a special school district that would significantly and negatively impact funding for the lower income Memphis district and had sought to do so since 2008. To avoid this reduction in funding on top of an already financially strained situation, members of the Memphis City Schools voted to dissolve its school system in 2010, which left its schools under the control of Shelby County Schools. Shelby County citizens, however, didn’t share the same sentiment. In essence, members of the Shelby County community did not agree with their suburban tax dollars being used to support Memphis City Schools. Additionally, the Shelby County School Board worked with their legislative delegation to reverse a ban on the creation of new school districts and a new law allowed for the suburban areas of Shelby County to “break away while opening the door for any municipality in the state with a population of 1, 500 to secede, as long as it had the support of a majority of municipal voters” (EdBuild, 2018). Due to the Shelby County Schools secession, six affluent communities in Tennessee followed their lead and by the start of the 2014-15 school year, each community had established separate school districts. While some say the motivation to separate centered around socioeconomics and local control rather than race, there is an important lesson to learn here: creating separate and smaller districts is fiscally irresponsible and inherently inefficient. Bauman cites EdBuild’s 2018 report affirming such in her July 2017 Chalkbeat article: “The United States spends $3,200 more on students enrolled in small districts (of fewer than 3,000 students) than on larger districts (of 25,000 to 49,999 students) according to the report. Small districts also tend to spend about 60 percent more on per-pupil administrative costs.“ This growing trend of more affluent communities creating separate districts should be concerning to all educators. The implications are broad and go beyond the impact on student outcomes. There are other important factors that come in to play as a result of concentrated poverty such as frequent turnover at the teacher and leadership levels, greater limits in curricular and enrichment experiences (Bartz, 2016) and reduced quality in professional development opportunities for educators. Yet these types and degrees of resistance aren’t new. In an effort to put off integration, South Carolina enacted a school equalization program whereby legislators approved a multi-million dollar effort to keep schools segregated. In doing so, the state would build new schools for African-American children to prove its’ efforts toward providing equitable facilities and escape the potential desegregation ruling that was sure to come after the 1951 Briggs v. Elliot case in Clarendon County, South Carolina. The case resulted in a three-judge panel ordering the school board to make an effort to equalize school facilities (Dobrasko, 2018).
Educational leaders must not underestimate their role in advocating for a balanced and more integrated school experience for our students. If we cannot appeal to people’s hearts, perhaps an appeal to their mind or their pocketbooks might work. We know the financial waste that comes from the creation of small school districts (EdBuild, 2018). We are aware of the impact on achievement in schools with high concentrations of poverty (Bartz, 2016). Despite this knowledge, we’ve been reactive in dealing with the effects of these factors, trying to work within the limitations and constraints placed upon us, rather than putting forth efforts to address the causes of this challenge and change those policies and decisions that we know create gaps in achievement for students. As we move forward, educators have a new role to play and must be willing to speak out if we are serious about dismantling the achievement gap and the institutionalized and systemic structures of racism that accompany it. According to Khalenberg (2013), some school districts have successfully encouraged socioeconomic integration. Some of the most notable recommendations to support solving this challenge include the following:
- State and local leaders should consider consolidating school systems to advance the potential of integrating schools at scale (McDaniels, 2017).
- Policymakers should look beyond attendance zones and boundary maps to consider the consolidation of schools or school districts as a mechanism of breaking up large concentrations of poverty or racially isolated student populations (McDaniels, 2017).
- States and local communities should invest in high-quality preschool for children from low-income households (Darling-Hammond, 2018).
- Local communities and large metropolitan cities should consider expanding and/or preserving affordable housing in high performing school zones (Darling-Hammond, 2018).
If educational leaders intend to play a role in dismantling the inequity in public education, it will mean raising awareness through the sharing of scholarly literature, engaging in political discourse and policy creation, and using our democratic power to demand that America addresses its persistent approval of policies and accountability requirements that perpetuate the very gap it seeks to close. Failure to do so will result in a continuation of the popular, yet faulty widespread negative narrative that our public schools are failing our children, especially those in our most vulnerable communities. We know better and therefore, we must do a better job of being informed thought leaders and advocates for equity. We can start by asking parents, community members, policy makers, legislators, and other stakeholders a new question to answer: What are we willing to do to close the achievement gap?
Alexander, K., & Morgan, S. L. (2016). The Coleman report at fifty: Its legacy and implications for future research on equality of opportunity. The Ru¡ssell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences, 2(5), 1–16. Retrieved from http://www.rsfjournal.org/doi/full/10.7758/RSF.2016.2.5.01
Bartz, D. E. (2016). Revisiting James Coleman’s epic study entitled equality of educational opportunity. National Forum of Educational Administration and Supervision Journal, 34(4), 1-10.
Bauman, C. (2017, June 21). Memphis-Shelby county spotlighted in national report on school district secession. Chalkbeat. Retrieved from https://www.chalkbeat.org/posts/tn/2017/06/21/memphis-shelby-county-spotlighted-in-national-report-on-school-district-secession/
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Darling-Hammond, L. (2018). Education and the path to one nation, indivisible. Palo Alto, CA: Learning Policy Institute. Retrieved from https://learningpolicyinstitute.org/sites/default/files/product-files/Education_Path_To_One_Nation_BRIEF.pdf
Dobrsako, R. (2018). South Carolina Equalization Schools 1951-1960 [Website]. Retrieved from http://www.scequalizationschools.org/equalization-schools.html
EdBuild. (2018). Fractured: the breakdown of America’s school districts [Report]. Retrieved from https://edbuild.org/content/fractured#shelby
Hanushek, E.A. (2016). What matters for student achievement. Education Next, 16 (2), 18-26.
Kahlenberg, R. D. (2013). From All Walks of Life: New Hope for School Integration. American Educator, 36 (4), 2.
Logan, J.R. and Oakley, D. (2004). The continuing legacy of the Brown decision: court action and school segregation, 1960-2000. Retrieved from http://mumford.cas.albany.edu/schoolsegregation/reports/Brown_report_1_28.pdf
Mantil, A., Perkins, A. G., & Aberger, S. (2012). The challenge of high-poverty schools: How feasible is socioeconomic school integration?. The Future of School Integration, 155-222.
McDaniels, A. (2017, December 19). A New Path for School Integration. Retrieved from https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/education-k-12/news/2017/12/19/444212/new-path-school-integration/
Orfield, G. (2001). Schools more separate: Consequences of a decade of resegregation. Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED459217.pdf
Reardon, S. F., & Owens, A. (2014). 60 years after Brown: Trends and consequences of school segregation. Annual Review of Sociology, 40.
United States Government Accountability Office (GAO). (2016). Better use of information could help agencies identify disparities and address racial discrimination (GAO 16-345). Washington, DC: Government Printing Office. Retrieved from http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-16-345