This week U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan took on a subject – ever so briefly – that has virtually fallen off the nation’s education reform agenda: integrating its public schools.
His comments came against a backdrop of increasing racial and ethnic segregation in the nation’s schools, including in California, as I wrote in this commentary on the 50th anniversary on the March on Washington last month.
Asked on a “Back to School” program Sept. 4 on the Diane Rehm Show on WAMU about a racial integration lawsuit in Louisiana, Duncan emphasized the positive impact of attending racially diverse schools on students, especially white ones like himself. He said he could not have done his job as secretary of education without that experience. “You want children to grow comfortable and confident with other people who come from different backgrounds from them,” he said.
Here are Duncan’s complete comments on the issue:
I fundamentally think the need for integration and more integrative schools is very real, and there are things that we can do. Obviously, there are housing patterns that present challenges.… But I was fortunate to go to an integrated school, you know, all the way through K-12.
And I don’t think I could do a job like this was I not, you know, didn’t have that kind of opportunity. And far too many children today are denied that opportunity. So, yes, we want to do everything to make sure they’re, you know, getting rigorous course work and have great teachers and are academically prepared for college. But you want children to grow up comfortable and confident with other people who come from different backgrounds from them.
And if they don’t have those opportunities – not that you can’t learn it as an adult, but it’s much harder. So whatever we can do to continue to increase integration in a voluntary way – I don’t think you could force these kinds of things – we want to be very, very thoughtful and to try to do more in that area quite frankly.
But Duncan’s comments drew a stinging written response from a fellow guest on the program, Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute, published two days later on his organization’s website. Rothstein took issue mainly with Duncan’s failure to point out that the main point of desegregating schools is to improve the academic outcomes of black, as well as Latino students.
Social science research for a half century has documented the benefits of racial integration for black student achievement, with no corresponding harm to whites. When low-income black students attend integrated schools that are mostly populated by middle class white students, achievement improves and the test score gap narrows. By offering only a ‘diversity’ rationale for racial integration, Secretary Duncan indicated that he is either unfamiliar with this research or chooses to ignore it.
As to Duncan’s comments that racial integration must be voluntary, Rothstein said that Duncan in particular has been exceptionally successful in forcing schools to carry out any number of “voluntary” policies in return for federal support, citing both the adoption by dozens of states of teacher evaluation systems based at least in part on student test scores, as well as adopting the Common Core State Standards.
No education secretary has been as deft as Arne Duncan in creating incentives – both carrots and sticks – to get states to follow his favored policies that are technically voluntary.
But when it comes to trying to do something about the increasing isolation of black and Latino students in under-resourced schools, Duncan has been missing in action, writes Rothstein.
Only in this area, apparently, does Secretary Duncan believe that progress must be entirely voluntary, unforced by carrots and sticks, and he has ignored opportunities to promote racial integration.
Rothstein said that it is “hard to fault” Duncan for thinking that integration is desirable only because it is good for students to experience diversity.
His views on racial matters only reflect conventional thinking, including that of most liberal policymakers. As a society, much as we celebrate the achievements of the civil rights movement 50 years ago, we have abandoned racial integration as a goal and not only maintain segregation but have taken steps towards re-segregating children and communities.
Read Rothstein’s full response to Duncan’s remarks published by the Economic Policy Institute published on September 6, 2013.