White America's flight to educational quality

Increased racial integration of pupils is finally being achieved by raising standards in schools for both black and white

America has failed repeatedly over the decades in its attempts to integrate schools, and some of the more spectacular of those failures have taken place in Arkansas.

It was Arkansas where Orval Faubus, the flamboyant governor, called out the National Guard to block nine black students from entering Little Rock Central High in the late 1950s. And it was Arkansas where court-ordered desegregation led to riots and "white flight" into private schools during the early 1970s.

All the more interesting, then, that Arkansas is the setting for a school that is fast becoming a new national model of integration. The school is Portland Elementary, located in poor, catfish farm country on the Mississippi Delta. For years, Portland Elementary fitted the stereotype of the public school that would not integrate: Ernest Smith, its principal, was one of Governor Faubus's old guardsmen. Yet these days Mr Smith turns down three to five applications a month to join his school, most of them from white families.

Nor is Portland Elementary the only school to achieve the wonder of reverse white flight. From Houston, Texas, to Cambridge, Massachusetts, there are now a number of public schools achieving a similar shift.

The reason for this change can be summed up in a single word - standards. For the schools share a common trait: their students score above average, or higher, on standardised reading and maths tests. Failure is not tolerated; weak students must attend summer school or repeat a grade. Now state governments are seeking to broaden such success with tough standards laws.

That such an obvious goal - high performance by students - should turn out to be a key to progress in America's integration effort tells us something about previous campaigns to achieve educational equality. Those efforts, from America's grand experiment with school busing onward, were based on two premises: that black or Hispanic kids could not compete at white levels, and that whites needed to be forced to study side-by-side with minorities.

The popularity of the standards schools suggests that neither is true - at least not anymore. "Today, most parents are happy to have racially integrated classrooms," says Abigail Thernstrom, a race relations scholar. "But they want a disciplined atmosphere and they want high academic standards."

To understand the drama of this shift, it helps to look at a school such as Portland Elementary. "This used to be like many other towns," recalls Mr Smith. "There was a little white school and a little black school." In the 1970s, when the courts ordered integration, white families moved their children out. Some parents sent their children 45 miles away to school, across the border to Mississippi and Louisiana.

As for Portland Elementary, its largely black pupils languished; only five years ago its students' performance was in the 38th percentile nationally. Nor did Mr Smith expect much different. "My family had a sharecropping property with black tenants," he recalls, "and it was racist here. I just didn't think my little black guys could do what my little white guys could do." Though Mr Smith's racial attitudes changed along with the times, the school's record did not.

Then Mr Smith looked at a reading and phonics program that was yielding results in other low-income areas, and decided to demand more of his own pupils. He introduced rigorous maths and reading programmes; failures stayed behind to improve. The switch raised average reading scores to the 72nd percentile on the national test. "Suddenly, some of the white people said 'gosh, here is a free school' they could send their children to," he says. "Now I have every white family that lives in my attendance zone." His school is now 70 per cent white, although his town's racial make-up is divided equally.

The standards approach was also picked up by other public schools with low-income students and yielded similar gains, according to "No Excuses", a campaign on school standards organised by the Heritage Foundation. Kipp Academy in Houston won acclaim because 10-year-old entrants who had averaged a 50 per cent pass rate on state tests achieved a 90 per cent pass rate after a year at the school. In Cambridge, the long-shunned Morse Elementary also found that strict standards and high performance by students attracted white middle-class families.

To be sure, the standards push alone did not work this miracle. As Mr Smith's story shows, Americans are far more tolerant of racial integration than they were even in the 1970s. The economic growth of the 1990s has also been so powerful that even poor families have grown in confidence that their children can compete and succeed.

Nor do many blacks and whites any longer have patience for the patronising view that society should expect less of minority-dominated schools. The standards campaign can also backfire. New York City's school system is in the throes of a school standards scandal after some teachers faked results.

Still, the change is notable. It has convinced everyone involved that minority pupils can perform well, and that the problem with some previous integration efforts was that they expected too little, and not too much, of black or poor children. "Half of my top quartile are black students," says Mr Smith. "My granddaddy would turn in his grave if he saw that."

The lesson resonates, particularly because of what it shows about the difference between the US as it is often described, and the more varied story that it is in reality. Many in the media and politics still present skin colour and cultural background as so divisive that they must determine school policy. Yet the standards story suggests than an obsessive focus on such matters may actually be setting children back.

From Financial Times, London Edition

© Copyright 2000 Financial Times

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