Schools for a more perfect union: Reaffirming the goals of racially and economically integrated education

By Genevieve Siegel-Hawley

 “Segregated schools were, and are, inferior schools,” declared President Barack Obama a year ago in his landmark speech on race relations in America. “We still haven’t fixed them, fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education, and the inferior education they provided, then and now, helps explain the pervasive achievement gap between today’s black and white students.”

Obama’s words, part of an address titled, “A More Perfect Union,” represented a rare moment of political candor on an issue that still deeply divides the nation. In an era of educational policy largely defined by standards and accountability, school choice and merit pay for teachers, a dream continues to be deferred.

Our public schools, charged with advancing opportunity, are today more Balkanized than ever. Hypersegregation refers to schools characterized by – as the prefix suggests - extreme racial isolation. These are places of learning where 90 to 100 percent of students come from underrepresented racial backgrounds; and where, nine times out of ten, racial isolation is correlated with high concentrations of poverty.  Using this definition, many schools affiliated with Richmond City Public Schools, Petersburg City Public Schools and, to a lesser extent, Henrico and Chesterfield County Schools, would be classified as hypersegregated.  Social science evidence indicates that high poverty schools are associated with fewer resources, restricted access to challenging and enriching curricula, less qualified and experienced teachers and high rates of staff turnover. Today this layered inequality affects nearly two out of every five black students, according to a forthcoming report from the UCLA Civil Rights Project. The situation is equally dire for Latinos, who have experienced rising levels of segregation each year since 1968, when the U.S. government first began collecting statistics on Hispanic students.

In the Richmond area (defined here as Richmond, Henrico and Chesterfield), patterns of racial and economic isolation in schools are heavily influenced by jurisdictional boundaries. But even within the same district white and black students experience very different educational settings. For instance, in 2008 the typical black student in Richmond City Public Schools (RPS) enrolled in a setting where more than 70% of their fellow students qualified for free or reduced lunch.  By contrast, the average white child in RPS attended a school where just over 40% of students received free or reduced priced lunches. In Henrico the discrepancies were even more startling.  The typical white or Asian student headed to a Henrico school where poor students constituted one-fifth of the student body, compared to the average black or Latino student where poor students made up nearly half of the enrollment.

White students are often excluded from conversations about segregated schools. Yet, white students, on average, enroll in schools where three-quarters of their peers are white, making them the most racially isolated group of American students.  While their isolation is not generally associated with a set of inferior resources, it is cause for concern in a world that increasingly relies upon the ability to connect easily with people of other backgrounds and cultures. Indeed, isolated schooling disadvantages all of our students in this respect.

Resistance to the Dream

Unfortunately, it’s easy to develop pat answers to the extraordinarily complex issues of race, poverty, language, identity, equity and opportunity. The truth is that, for a brief while, when the political stars aligned after an epic battle for equality waged in streets and schools, on buses, and at lunch counters, the United States seemed ready to face the tremendous task of rebuilding a nation damaged by slavery and apartheid. After fifteen years of massive white resistance to school desegregation, the courts handed down a string of decisions that put the full weight of the law behind Brown’s mandate. In an astonishingly short period of time, the South - the land of Jim Crow - became the most integrated region in the country. Attitudes changed with the law as the civil rights movement swept forward. In Louisville, Kentucky, a city that greeted school desegregation in 1975 with a red carpet rolled out by the Ku Klux Klan, residents opted to voluntarily continue efforts to integrate schools after just five years of court-ordered implementation.

It is also true that even during the most active period of desegregation, proponents of school integration faced significant setbacks and were required to make political compromises. A 1974 judicial decision - handed down by a Supreme Court newly filled with Nixon appointees - granted a reprieve to northern suburbs for their role in facilitating residential patterns of segregation.  In Milliken v. Bradley, the now rightward-leaning court discounted evidence of the government’s past involvement in contributing to racial isolation and ruled against a metropolitan desegregation remedy for Detroit. The decision meant that, barring proof of intentional suburban discrimination, future desegregation efforts occurring across district boundary lines would have to be voluntary. The country now struggles with a situation where the vast majority of school segregation exists between districts, rather than within them.  Locally, Richmond Public Schools is today comprised of a student population that is roughly 86% African American and 70% poor (in Petersburg City, black students constitute almost 95% of the enrollment and 75% of students qualify for free and reduced priced lunches), while surrounding suburban districts either boast considerably more racial and economic diversity or are largely white and wealthy.

Beyond the geographic challenges presented by the ’74 Milliken decision, and amidst the initial and vocal opposition to desegregation from whites, there were also voices from communities of color ambivalent about strategies that placed their children in close proximity to visceral racism, strategies that often meant abandoning thriving black schools with rich histories of their own. These voices have not died over the years.

Much of this resistance stems from years of struggle and unfulfilled promises. In the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system, after a painstakingly slow process, a far-reaching city-county desegregation plan was implemented in 1972.  The plan ensured that whites and students of color attended the same schools, but did little to combat segregation occurring inside the system’s educational facilities. The practice of tracking, or sorting black and Latino students into lower level, special education, or English as a Second Language (ESL) classes - while white and Asian students are grouped into honors and AP courses - can undermine even the most integrated school building. These discriminatory school level policies, engineered by those interested in preserving white privilege, sabotage the most well-crafted district student assignment plan.  Nevertheless, research from the era of comprehensive school desegregation in Charlotte-Mecklenburg pointed towards positive outcomes for students of all races attending integrated schools.

Despite this uneven but steady progress in Charlotte, the school system was released from court oversight in 2002.  A decade earlier the Supreme Court declared that a school system could be deemed unitary once it had shown “good faith” in complying with its desegregation orders. This ambiguous legal standard allowed school systems around the country to be prematurely released from judicial supervision-- with chilling effects. For example, since Charlotte’s court order was lifted, the system’s public schools have resegregated with alarming speed. In 2006, four years after the court granted CMS unitary status, the number of racially identifiable schools in the district had nearly doubled.  This phenomenon of resegregation, or the reversal of gains made during desegregation, has meant that levels of racial isolation for black students have increased every year since the “good faith” ruling made it easier for school systems to gain unitary status.

Gather together all of these strands – rapidly increasing segregation and resegregation, conservative courts, white resistance, fading hopes from communities of color – and weave among them one more. Some education stakeholders, like supporters of the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) network of charter schools, are calling for an emphasis on schools of excellence in our most segregated neighborhoods, for funding above and beyond traditional formulas (to include money previously set aside for transporting students to desegregated settings) that would theoretically offset the hardships of racial, socioeconomic and linguistic isolation. After all, they argue, sitting next to a white student doesn’t guarantee a better education, and certainly, in some schools where tracking has taken hold, it has meant an inferior one. While the sum of many years of research suggests that the harms of segregated settings are real, and, conversely, that integrated settings contain certain well-documented benefits, with all of these challenges we come to the ever-present question: “Is integration worth it?” The years of battle, the remarkable – but in many cases short-lived - era of school desegregation, and the painful reversal of those gains brought us to the city of Philadelphia, to hear Barack Obama deliver a speech acknowledging the country's failure to deliver on the vision of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Why Dr. King’s Dream Still Matters
As a country, we daily grow more diverse. By some estimates, the United States will be a majority-minority society in 2042. For American schoolchildren, this shift will occur by 2023.  The percentage of white students has shrunk from over 80% in the late 1960s to just fewer than 54% today. Latino students now slightly outnumber black students, while the country’s Asian population continues to grow. Our nation is changing and our schools are the first to reflect these new demographic realities. Ultimately, we have two choices: we can continue to travel down our current path, standing by as suburban communities replicate patterns of racial and socioeconomic isolation that currently define American cities; or we can confront and challenge these trends.

In the past, racial apartheid has given rise to grossly unequal life opportunities for members of different racial groups. Today, as our society becomes increasingly diverse, the need for leaders and workers who have developed skills that enable them to work with people from a variety of cultural backgrounds grows ever more urgent.

The democratic ideals epitomized by the old-fashioned image of a little red schoolhouse signify some of what’s best about our country. Horace Mann’s principle, “education, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of men,” is contained within those walls. Great teachers, eager students, moments of insight, shared ideas - they live there, too. The fundamental commitment to the ideal of public education, though strained at times, has long guided our nation. As our global borders become more porous, as our national perimeter encloses a more diverse population, the little red schoolhouse still holds an answer. It can function as an equalizer, and it can produce civic-minded, thoughtful youth prepared to live in a new and dynamic society.

Imagine a classroom where the desks have been arranged in six different groups. In each, girls and boys from a range of racial, ethnic, linguistic, socioeconomic and religious backgrounds sit easily beside one another. The students have just read George Orwell’s 1984 and the teacher, after leading a discussion on the author’s critique of society, has asked her students to begin a project where they design their own version of utopia. The group work has the students engaged and animated. Revealing words and phrases rise above the general din: “Oh, that’s interesting, I never thought of it that way before,” and, “Yeah, I hear you, but where I come from, this is how it works.” Small revolutions of the mind occur in these democratic exchanges.

Integrated educational contexts provide students with the opportunity to learn and work with children from a wide array of backgrounds. Fifty years of research indicates that these settings foster critical thinking skills that are increasingly important in our multiracial society - skills that help students adopt and understand a multitude of perspectives. Evidence also suggests that, in the long term, graduates of integrated schools are more likely to attend integrated colleges, have friends from other backgrounds, and live and work in racially diverse spaces.  These students also demonstrate high levels of civic and communal responsibility. The acknowledgement of such benefits, both real and intangible, should be firmly embedded in our ideal of public education.

But how long has it been since we explicitly asked our public schools to perform these functions? In an era of standards and accountability, have we lost sight of another purpose of schooling: the development of our citizenry?

To meet our challenges we must test the old thinking and come to new and fresh ideas together. In the battle for desegregation, we forgot about the dream of true integration, espoused by Dr. Martin Luther King, where “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.” That dream is articulated today by civil rights advocate john powell who writes, “True integration moves beyond means bringing students together under conditions of equality, enhancing common goals, and deemphasizing interpersonal competition…true integration is transformative rather than assimilative.”

Maybe we need to find new words for this concept of true integration, in case we pick the scabs off phrases like “desegregation,” “forced busing,” “mandatory student assignment” and “white flight.” Maybe we call it Justice. Harmony. Peace. Whatever our terminology, it is time to turn towards this task. It is a tremendous one. It will take district student assignment policies that bring students together in the same building to the classroom level, where students from diverse backgrounds can have the opportunity to work cooperatively towards shared goals and aspirations.

To begin, we need a new definition of integration, one that takes into account our growing diversity, and with that, we must seek knowledge about what integration should entail in this century of changing demography. We must also recognize that the powerful link between residential and school segregation continues to make wide-scale student assignment plans necessary. To ease the reliance on school desegregation strategies, integrative housing and school policies must be coordinated. Commitment to truly enforcing fair housing laws - combined with neighborhood efforts to market diversity as an attractive and important feature of community schools – is vital to breaking the cycle of residential and school segregation.  Promoting true integration will also require serious and intense training for our teachers, the vast majority of whom are white and attended racially isolated schools themselves. And our increasingly urgent need for regional cooperation and interdependence—in the form of either district consolidation or other strategies to bridge jurisdictional boundaries—could provide us with new opportunities to create healthier schools and regions.

Out of these first steps, may a movement grow.

Portions of this article/posting (or whatever you call submissions to TSJ) were excerpted from: Siegel-Hawley, G. (2010). Reviving Brown: The Role of Local School Boards.American School Boards Journal.

National figures related to school segregation are based on a forthcoming report from the UCLA Civil Rights Project ( Prior statistics are available at:

Genevieve Siegel-Hawley is an assistant professor in the Department of Education Leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Education. Her research focuses on examining the impact of segregation and resegregation in American schools, along with exploring policy options for a more integrated society.  She is a graduate of Richmond City Schools.

Richmond Teachers for Social Justice Position Statement Against High Stakes Testing

Virginians have been told that the only way to improve our schools is to measure success using standardized tests, called SOLs. This seemed to be simple common sense. If the teacher teaches, the kids learn, and the test scores will be fine. If scores are bad, then bad consequences will follow. For kids, bad consequences can be getting left back, being placed in a low-track, or not graduating high-school. Principals and teachers can be fired if the students under their care do poorly. To avoid the bad consequences, everyone will work harder to improve learning.

If only it was this simple.

Richmond Teachers for Social Justice opposes the current uses of standardized tests in our schools. We believe that the emphasis on testing hurts the people it is supposed to help. Testing costs too much, narrows curricula and undermines good education by encouraging students and educators to game the system rather than focus on learning.

The Co$t of Testing
Testing has many costs. Some are obvious, some are more hidden.

Testing is costing our schools a lot of money, both in cash and in the hours that it takes people to do the work associated with testing. Virginia districts pay a lot of money to private corporations for the SOL exams, and for supplemental materials that are designed to boost scores, but aren’t very useful for teachers. The cost can also be measured in the hours spent by teachers, by central office people, and by administrators as they create, grade, report on, and discuss test scores. This is time that could be spent on figuring out how to make learning more interesting for our children.

The most troubling cost is felt by our children who lose up to a third of the school year to testing. Teachers must stop teaching for weeks at a time to review what has already been taught, and to administer standardized benchmark tests every 9 weeks! In many districts teachers stop teaching new material and focus entirely on SOL test preparation by early April. The SOLs are given in May, so little gets accomplished in June. That’s 3 months of potential learning that students lose in the spring alone.

Narrowing Curricula
What gets tested gets taught. This sounds sensible, but lots of things that we care about don’t get tested. Things like art, music, creative writing, history, physical education and science are not tested every year. When they aren’t tested, teachers are told to ignore them because they take time away from what is tested. Tests affect the kinds of materials that kids are exposed to. They read boring passages, like the ones that appear on the SOL, rather than good literature. They spend little time doing science, because they must spend too much time learning science facts. Teachers and kids lose out when they aren’t exposed to interesting curricula.

Gaming the System
We have been told that it is common sense that if you make a test really count, people will work harder to do well. It is also common sense that if you make one measure the most important thing in peoples’ lives, they will do what they have to do to get good scores. In some cases that means gaming the system.

For example, gaming can be spending a lot of time teaching the kids how to do well on a English Language Arts SOL, rather than really teaching them how to read. In some cases around the country, such as in Atlanta and Washington DC, students and even educators have been caught cheating.  Kids cheat because they don’t want to get left back.  Some grown-ups cheat because they don’t want to lose their jobs.

Gaming the system and cheating creates the illusion of improvement. Many adults are happy with this illusion. It makes politicians look like they are doing a good job fixing education.  That illusion disappears when our young people enter college or work without the skills they need to be successful. They haven’t actually learned much other than how to game a test.

Hurting the People it is Supposed to Help
Testing was supposed to force teachers to work harder, and pay closer attention to our children, especially the children who have long been ignored: those who are poor and of color. Unfortunately, this is not what has happened in practice.  Testing has not kept more kids in school.  It has encouraged many to drop out because they feel that they have no chance of being successful. Worse, it has led some schools to push kids out by encouraging them to get GEDs, by classifying them as special education, and by taking them out of SOL classes and putting them in classes where they don’t even have the chance to take the test. Why? Because by keeping some kids from taking tests, the pass rate for the school will improve.  All of these immoral moves are necessary because scores on a test at the end of the year count more than anything else.

Learning is hard: it takes time, it takes practice and it isn’t always fun. Time is something that teachers have less of now because of testing. Time that could be spent on interesting projects is lost because every 9 weeks everything stops for three weeks in order to review and give the benchmark tests.  Benchmark tests are created by the school district.  They are supposed to help teachers see which students are not doing well and what they haven’t learned.  The idea is that they will spend time re-teaching what hasn’t been learned.  BUT, they have another benchmark test on new material in 9 more weeks, so they don’t have time to re-teach anything.  They have to move forward.

What to do about High-Stakes Testing

Speak up about Testing
One of the most important actions we can take is to speak up about this critical issue.  For too long students, parents, teachers, administrators and politicians have remained silent as high-stakes testing has come to dominate and corrupt our public system of education.  Stories need to be told and arguments need to be made that illustrate the damaging effects of these policies.  Speaking out means discussing the situation with people you know at every possible opportunity.  It also means writing letters to elected officials and school administrators as well as speaking up at PTA meetings and local school board meetings. 

Organize against Testing
Another step we can all take is to join or form organizations that resist high-stakes tests.  Richmond Teachers for Social Justice is one, but there are other local, state-level, and national-level groups that have been fighting this battle.  These groups can organize public forums, sponsor rallies and direct action, disseminate critical information, and build alliances that can ultimately affect public opinion and policy.  One excellent resource for learning more about the movement against high-stakes tests is FAIR TEST.  Check out their website:

Learn more about the OPT OUT movement
If you are a parent or a student, you might want to learn more about the growing opt out movement.  Opting out is about asking the question, “what happens if a student doesn’t take the test?”  Some states have a clause that allows parents to exempt their children from testing just by notifying the authorities.  Across the country there are groups forming that are helping get information out about the rules and regulations in each state and school division.  You can learn more about the national and local opt out movement at

Create consciousness: How do you facilitate lessons on race and racism in a classroom?

Troy Davis at his high school graduation.
By Katie Whelan, ESL teacher, Highland Springs High School
Race and ethnicity is a confusing topic demonstrated in the Standards for the Classification of Federal Data on Race and Ethnicity where the federal government still struggles with those categories. Race may be a construct but racism is real.  Teachers need to be knowledgeable of history and have vocabulary for dialogue in the classroom.  As educators we need to have this awareness to understand oppressive systems affecting our students.  We must give students the vocabulary to discuss what they already experience or we become part of a system that still divides and categorizes humans as inferior and superior. 
When teaching about systemic issues, the root causes must be identified before understanding of current states of oppression can happen. This is not a “black and white” concept; it is important to understand racism is multidimensional and often intertwined with class and gender.  Students should also know race was and is purposely divisive and that we are all a part of a system in place before our birth.  Should we perpetuate this division of consciousness and solutions?  Each project should include some connection for change even if very small.  I use this interactive from  PBSRace-The Power of an Illusion to build our background knowledge before we begin anything.
These are a few projects from my high school class this year.  Note my class is below grade level in a struggling school.  Students of all backgrounds can have lessons that require higher order thought even if they aren’t passing the state tests!  When you teach, focus on content, comprehension and communication before grammar and syntax. Data collection and research papers can be scaffolded to accommodate lower literacy.  I include text, video, film, poetry, current events, music and that so scary CIA World Fact Book.  
It is very important that lower literacy students be given tools to research with purpose because this is a lesson in self education. Self education is self advocacy, a life skill. 
      Early in the year I taught Troy Davis.”  In class, we followed a capital murder case with a date for execution in the near future. We wove issues into the research project such as felonies and the vote, mass incarceration, the death penalty, and the connections of race and economics including immigrant detention. In our class we also looked at the demographics of incarceration within their own area which directly impacted their neighborhoods and, of course, their lives. Kids searched on their own the night of the execution and found Democracy Now coverage. 
      Research global education: “Are all children born equal?” is our theme in class right now. First they watch a documentary series on global education, then they will compare and contrast countries through data collection and establishing conclusions based on their findings. This project demonstrates global issues of gender, race, economics and violence.  The class will identify one issue to create a project for a change.
      We follow Arizona throughout the year.  They read reports on the banned ethnic studies program and student walk outs. Most of my kids had never even heard of an ethnic studies class.  They were very interested in the idea of history from a variety of perspectives..even women! These kinds of current issues including Jeremy Lin for example can be quick lessons.  Create critical questioning by giving a two-sided issue with for example this report on ending black history month.  Add a variety of reports on the same subject, and ask them how different news media communicates the same issues.  Can media be biased and how does this influence perspectives?
      Finally, always address inappropriate classroom commentary and establish expectations.  It is important to catch these situations; kids for whom they are directed will internalize offensive comments …forever!  Once acknowledged that it will not be accepted, students will begin to open up about school wide issues for which they are often silent. Frequently kids are unconscious of the impact of their own actions and say things for attention.  Addressing this will create an aware environment…some change ya’ll.

A Predictable Disaster

by Gabriel A. Reich, Assistant Professor, Virginia Commonwealth University, Department of Teaching and Learning.

Since the Reagan administration, Americans have listened to a steady drumbeat decrying the failure of our public schools. We demand action and politicians respond requiring administrators, teachers, and students to be held accountable for results. No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was designed to make accountability in education national policy. It requires states to test all children in math and literacy, and to attach high-stakes sanctions for those who fail to make the grade. The most unpopular aspect of NCLB is the stipulation that schools be judged “failing” if too many students do poorly on tests. Schools around the country, even highly respected ones, are caught in a bind because the percentage of students who must pass increases every year. In 2014, the goal set by NCLB is that 100% of students will be “proficient” in math and literacy or their schools will be labeled failing. As the law approaches this statistically impossible end, the Obama Administration and the Commonwealth of Virginia have decided to shift focus of accountability away from schools to individual teachers. This shift will exacerbate rather than ameliorate the problems caused by NCLB.
To hold teachers accountable for results, and thus improve teaching and learning in the Commonwealth, the Virginia Department of Education has required all districts to devise a method for evaluating the effectiveness of teachers. These evaluations will be used to make decisions about which teachers will be awarded an annual cash bonus. Evaluations must base 40% of a teacher’s effectiveness score on the results of “standard measures,” i.e. SOL exams.
The failure of this policy is predictable because it is based on two ideas that are completely divorced from reality. The first is the idea that standardized-test scores are so accurate we can base judgments about the effectiveness of individual teachers and the learning of individual students on them. The second delusional idea is that top-down accountability policies will improve the state of teaching and learning.
Americans’ faith in what standardized tests can accurately measure is completely out of proportion to what they were designed to measure. Standardized tests rely overwhelmingly on multiple-choice questions, a technology that is cheap and efficient but produces inaccurate results. Second, even a well constructed test produces more useful information at the aggregate level, such as a school, a district, or a state, than at the level of individual students and their teachers. Thus, a third grade SOL reading test might provide useful information for comparing Henrico County elementary schools to those in Hanover County, but they are fairly useless for comparing how “good” at literacy your child is compared to another. This is why the American Psychological Association and the American Educational Research Association both have position papers against imposing high-stakes on the test results of students and their teachers.
Faith in testing underwrites an equally damaging belief in “accountabilism.” Accountabilism is the belief that institutions, such as schools, will improve only if you demand that everyone in them prove that they are doing what they are supposed to do. Accountabilism assumes that all the necessary tasks in an institution can be identified, and that there is a single best way to accomplish each of these tasks. The kind of surveillance needed to ensure that all these things are being done the right way is massive, if not impossible. Thus, policy makers look for proxy measures for these complicated processes and use them to make decisions about whether people have done a good job or not. For example, it is both expensive and time consuming to train enough inspectors to visit every teacher a couple of times a year to see how good their pedagogy is. It is much cheaper to use standardized tests, which taxpayers have already paid for, as a proxy for everything that happens in schools. This is akin to licensing drivers using only a multiple choice test. The test might correlate very highly with people’s driving ability, meaning good drivers tend to get higher scores than bad drivers, but I for one would not feel safer on the road knowing this.
Accountabilism may make logical sense in the abstract, but it falls apart when faced with the reality of “Campbell’s Law.” Campbell’s Law states that as the stakes tied to a quantitative measure are increased so is the likelihood that stakeholders will game the system in order to appear effective. These actions produce inaccurate results and corrupt the phenomenon being measured. This is why cheating scandals have increased along with the popularity of test-based accountability. Cheating is a fool-proof method of achieving the goal that has been set out for you – improving test scores in a short period of time.
As Virginia’s teacher-merit-pay policy is enacted, Campbell’s Law will inevitably kick in further distorting the work of teachers. As has been shown in the districts that have adopted value-added systems, the use of test-score growth to measure teacher effectiveness is unreliable, leading to seemingly random results, lower teacher morale and an exodus of people from the profession. Statistically, test score growth is most likely for those who teach middling, middle-class students. Those teaching poor, low-achieving, disabled and gifted children will be denied cash bonuses no matter how well or how hard they work because these populations are less likely to show a raise in scores on standardized tests from year to year. Even more damaging, is the way this policy will pervert the relationships between teachers and their students. Students will hold a new power over their teachers through their test scores, and teachers will be in a position where they are likely to resent their students for not making the gains needed to earn a bonus. The policy will make school-wide improvement less likely because it provides a disincentive for teachers to work together in teams to improve their practice.
What is not inevitable is that teachers, parents and taxpayers will blindly accept so wrongheaded a policy.