Re-segregating Schools


Current efforts to reform public education are driven by a fervent desire to improve student test scores. For many states and local school districts the only thing that counts when judging the effectiveness of schools are the scores students produce on standardized tests.

In the pursuit of higher test scores, a Long Island, New York school district has instituted a tracking system that unfairly segregates kids and teachers by race. The latest “Amityville horror” was concocted in a secret meeting of the seven-member Amityville school board and the district superintendent last August and implemented in the fall without input from the public or teachers. The tracking scheme sorts elementary and middle school students into low, regular, and high-achievement tracks based on standardized test scores, a practice condemned in a recent report by the National Research Council.

In a district where 68 percent of the students are African American, 16 percent Hispanic, and 16 percent white, the “low-skills” classes enroll 91 percent minorities, while the “high-skill” classes enroll only 60 percent African American and Hispanic students. The Amityville tracking system doesn’t stop with students. Although there are eighteen African American teachers in grades affected by the plan, only one African American teacher has been assigned to teach a higher-skills class.

In addition, the Amityville scheme denies students in the “low level” track access to instruction in social studies and science, as well as classes in library, band, orchestra, and chorus. The district defended its tracking system by claiming the intent was to increase the districts below-average test scores and that instruction in any area other than reading and math would be a distraction from this goal.

Parents and teachers have responded to the plan with justified outrage. Hundreds of parents protested the plan at board meetings in the fall. District Superintendent Dean Bettker responded that kids would be moved to higher tracks as their performance improved, but teachers reported only two instances of students moving out of low track classes in the fall semester, both were white children.

Over 30 years after residents sued to force the integration of Amityville schools, the Amityville Teachers Association and the Long Island branch of the NAACP have joined a group of parents in a $5 million federal lawsuit against the district, asserting that the tracking system is racially discriminatory and unconstitutional. For its part, the district has maintained the system is justified in an effort to improve test scores and that it is based on assessment of students’ skills not race. The school district took out a full-page ad in a local newspaper, which was also mailed to residents, claiming that the “real motive” of the Amityville teachers in protesting the tracking system was to get more money for greedy teachers.

Unfortunately, Amityville is not an isolated case of re-segregation in the name of reform. Charter schools are being touted as a way to improve public education, but evidence indicates that, at least in some states, these schools are more racially segregated than adjacent public schools. Charter schools are publicly funded but free of many regulations that govern the operation of public schools. Proponents claim that charter schools provide greater accountability and school choice as well as freedom for educational innovations, higher efficiency, and competition that will stimulate changes in public schools. Charter schools are now legal in 34 states.

Two years ago, as North Carolina considered charter schools legislation, many feared a repeat of the “white-flight academies” that emerged in response to desegregation efforts of the 1970s. To avoid this possibility a diversity clause was inserted into the charter schools bill requiring the schools to “reasonably reflect” the demographics of the local public schools. Ironically, and despite the diversity clause, 13 of the 34 charter schools that opened in the state in 1997 were disproportionately African American, compared with their public school districts. According to the North Carolina Education Reform Foundation, nearly 40 percent of the state’s 60 charter schools violate the diversity clause and all but one of these enroll more than 85 percent African American students. More than half of all students attending charter schools in North Carolina are African American, although the school age population of the state is only 30 percent black. Now the North Carolina Association of Educators, a teachers union, and the black caucus of the state legislature are calling for the legislature to force the segregated schools to diversify in the next year or be closed.

Recent studies in California and Arizona find similar patterns of racial and ethnic segregation in charter schools. There are nearly 50,000 students in 150 charter schools in California, with 200 new charters expected in the next two years. Drawing on case studies of 17 charter schools from 10 California school districts, a recent UCLA report found that charter schools were more likely to be accountable for how money is spent than for educational attainment. This study concluded that California is not enforcing its requirement that charters achieve a racial and ethnic balance reflective of the local school districts’ population. In 10 of the 17 schools studied, at least one racial or ethnic group was over- or under-represented by 15 percent or more in comparison with the local public schools.

Arizona is home to nearly one in four charter schools in the United States. An intensive study of the racial and ethnic composition of over 100 of Arizona’s charter schools revealed that nearly half the schools exhibited evidence of substantial ethnic separation, however, unlike the North Carolina charters, a greater proportion of white students were enrolled in charters. In comparison to their public school neighbors Arizona charter schools were typically 20 percentage points higher in white enrollment. Moreover, charter schools enrolling a majority of ethnic minority students tended to be non-academic schools, that is either vocational secondary schools not intended to prepare students for higher education or “schools of last resort” for students expelled from traditional public schools. The authors of this Arizona State University study concluded that the degree of ethnic segregation in Arizona charter schools is large enough and consistent enough to warrant serious concern among education policy- makers.

In the current practice of educational reform, test scores are understood as the repository of educational value. This fetishism is so strong in mainstream reform efforts that virtually any practice thought to increase test scores is justifiable, even the re-segregation of public schools. The challenge for people concerned about equality, democracy, and social justice in schools and society is to resist and re-direct the current educational reform movement—a movement that promotes standardization and re-segregation while diverting attention away from the conditions of teaching and learning, such as inadequate and inequitable funding and local control of budgets, staffing, scheduling, curriculum, and assessment, that must be changed if the public schools are to be transformed.

One group working to strength- en schools and their communities is Inclusive Community and Democracy (IC&D), a coalition of community, school, and university people based in Detroit at Wayne State University. IC&D works with other grassroots education groups to strengthen communities and schools by linking community groups to university resources; providing training and technical assistance to support schools, neighborhoods, and families; and advocating for those who experience isolation, segregation, and oppression. Two of the efforts under the IC&D banner are the Whole Schooling Consortium and the Rouge Forum. The Whole Schooling Consortium is working in Michigan and Wisconsin to improve the education and community resources available to children and their families who experience the effects of poverty and lack of resources on a daily basis. The Rouge Forum is a group of educators teaching for a democratic society who have had some modest success in defeating the state mandated testing program in Michigan and working in faculty organizations to deal with racism and sexism in academia and in teacher’s unions to raise questions of class size, curricular freedom, and inclusive education.

With more efforts like these, which focus on grassroots organizing and building schools and communities, the deleterious effects of test-driven educational reform can perhaps be overcome.              Z



E. Wayne Ross teaches in the School of Education and Human Development at the State University of New York at Binghamton.