Ignoring the New Majority: Education Reform behind Blinders

Consider three maps—one using data from the 1860 Census, one focusing on public schools in 2011, and one detailing the remaining states allowing corporal punishment in schools:

BigSlaveryMap

[1860; click to enlarge]

Perc of low income students public schools copy

[2011; click to enlarge]

[2005-2006; click to enlarge]

“A majority of students in public schools throughout the American South and West are low-income for the first time in at least four decades, according to a new study that details a demographic shift with broad implications for the country,” explains Lyndsey Layton, based on the report from the Southern Education Foundation (SEF).

The data in the SEF report parallel in many ways the documenting of in-school segregation lingering in the South as portrayed in the HBO film Little Rock Central: Fifty Years Later and reported by Felicia Lee:

On a recent visit to Central High, Ms. Trickey spoke to a self-segregated classroom: whites on one side, blacks on the other. An African-American student apparently dozed as she spoke. Students and teachers alike spoke blithely or painfully of the low educational aspirations and achievements of too many black students. Central, many said, is now two schools in one: a poor, demoralized black majority and a high achieving, affluent white minority.

And five years after the documentary, The Civil Rights Project detailed the extent of re-segregated schools across the South:

  • Since 1991, black students in the South have become increasingly concentrated in intensely segregated minority schools (defined as 90-100% minority students). This represents a significant setback. Though for decades Southern black students were more integrated than their peers in other parts of the country, by 2009-10 the share of Southern black students enrolled in intensely segregated minority schools (33.4%) was fast closing in on the national figure (38.1%).  By comparison, in 1980, just 23% of black students in the South attended intensely segregated schools.
  • For the last four decades, contact between black and white students has declined in virtually all Southern states.  In schools across the region, white students make up 30% or less of the enrollment in the school of the typical black student for the first time since racial statistics pertaining to schools were collected by the federal government.
  • Most of the largest Southern metro areas also report declining black-white exposure. The Raleigh, NC metro had the highest black-white contact although this too has fallen in recent years.  In 2009, the typical black student in the metro went to a school where whites accounted for about 45% of their peers, compared to about 54% in 2002).
  • In 2009, black-white exposure in the metropolitan area of Raleigh was relatively similar to the overall white percentage in the metro (54%)–indicating fairly stable levels of desegregation.  Future enrollment data for the Raleigh metro should be closely monitored to ascertain the impact of recent policy changes to the district’s voluntary integration policy.
  • Two metros, Memphis, TN and Miami, FL, had the lowest exposure of black students to white students in 2009, under 15%. (Siegel-Hawley & Frankenberg2012, September 19)

In Western states with high Latino/a populations, race and poverty patterns constitute double segregation:

  • The typical black or Latino today attends school with almost double the share of low-income students in their schools than the typical white or Asian student.
  • In the early 1990s, the average Latino and black student attended a school where roughly a third of students were low income (as measured by free and reduced price lunch eligibility), but now attend schools where low income students account for nearly two-thirds of their classmates.
  • There is a very strong relationship between the percent of Latino students in a school and the percent of low income students. On a scale in which 1.0 would be a perfect relationship, the correlation is a high .71.  The same figure is lower, but still high, for black students (.53).  Many minority-segregated schools serve both black and Latino students.  The correlation between the combined percentages of these underserved two groups and the percent of poor children is a dismaying .85. (Orfield, Kucsera, & Siegel-Hawley, 2012, September 19)

Combined with the growing trends in the U.S. related to increased inequity, rising child poverty, and re-segregating of schools by class and race, the 2013 SEF report on low-income students being the new majority in public schools should be a wake-up call to the current in-school only focus of education reform. While race and class segregation has proven to be entrenched in U.S. society, education reformers must admit that social institutions such as public schools do not lift children out of poverty but play two roles reformers prefer to ignore—they reflect social inequity and they tend to perpetuate that inequity:

A majority of public school children in 17 states, one-third of the 50 states across the nation, were low income students – eligible for free or reduced lunches – in the school year that ended in 2011. Thirteen of the 17 states were in the South, and the remaining four were in the West. Since 2005, half or more of the South’s children in public schools have been from low income households. During the last two school years, 2010 and public schools. (SEF 2013)

Also hard hit by these social and academic realities are urban public schools:

city public schools

[click to enlarge]

In other words, while the South and West are crucibles for historical and current negative consequences associated with racial and class inequity and segregation, urban areas of the U.S. show that these same problems infect essentially the entire country:

In each of the nation’s four regions, a majority of students attending public schools in the cities were eligible for free or reduced lunch last year. The Northeast had the highest rates for low income school children in cities: 71 percent. The next highest rate, 62 percent, was found in Midwestern cities. The South had the third highest percentage of low income students in the cities – 59 percent.

The SEF report ends with the dilemma facing education reformers who promote a “no excuses” ideology grounded in market-based policies:

There is no real evidence that any scheme or policy of transferring large numbers of low income students from public schools to private schools will have a positive impact on this problem. The trends of the last decade strongly suggest that little or nothing will change for the better if schools and communities continue to postpone addressing the primary question of education in America today: what does it take and what will be done to provide low income students with a good chance to succeed in public schools? It is a question of how, not where, to improve the education of a new majority of students.

The lingering legacy of segregation as well as the rise of impoverished students constituting the new majority in public schools is evidence that ignoring poverty does not make it go away.

Arguing that in-school reform alone can eradicate the scars of slavery that remain vivid in the two maps included above is beyond idealism and approaches inexcusable irresponsibility of a type that is exposed by the data presented by SEF’s report.

With impoverished students now the new majority in public schools, a new era of education reform is unavoidable—one that begins with social reform addressing racial and class inequity and then continues by redesigning a public school system that itself is dedicated to equity of opportunity.

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8 thoughts on “Ignoring the New Majority: Education Reform behind Blinders

  1. Pingback: Ignoring the New Majority: Education Reform behind Blinders – @ THE CHALK FACE

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  4. Pingback: CALL FOR PROPOSALS: Pedagogies of Kindness and Respect: On the Lives and Education of Children | the becoming radical

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