Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Connecting the spots

The Star Tribune reports today:

Minnesota's students are near the top of the country when it comes to reading tests, but the state's achievement gap hasn't budged in almost 20 years, according to new national test results released today.

The article continues:

But what will be of significant concern to Minnesota educators is that the gap in performance between white and black students hasn't budged since 1992. The achievement gap between students who receive "free and reduced-price lunch," a common indicator of poverty, and those who don't, has also not changed since 1998, the earliest time it was measured.

This got me to thinking about some other statistics, by Myron Orfield, quoted earlier here, about the resegregation of Minnesota’s schools and its effects during the same time period:

The title of the article [about Professor Orfield in the current issue of the University of Minnesota Alumni magazine], written by Kate Tyler, is Segregated . . . Again. According to the article:

Racial segregation is increasing in all of the 25 largest U.S. metros, Orfield says, but it’s happening at a much faster clip in the 16th largest, the Twin Cities. Neighborhoods and schools have remained more stubbornly segregated here, those once integrated have resegregated at alarming rates, and segregation is pushing steadily outward from cities to suburbs.

The causes of these trends are complex, says Orfield, a national authority on metropolitan growth. Segregation’s prime drivers include racial prejudice, housing-market discrimination, and misguided public planning and tax policies. And in the Twin Cities, Orfield says, segregation is exacerbated by mind-boggling government fragmentation that was once, but is no longer, well-managed by a muscular Metropolitan Council.

Professor Orfield is quoted in the article as saying:

It’s absolutely the wrong solution to hunker down within neighborhood boundaries. The idea that we can close the achievement gap without desegregating is simply wrong.

The statistics on resegregation are startling:

Orfield says the area’s growing diversity does not account for its nation-leading segregation spikes over the last decade. Resegregation has been especially fierce, he says: 56 percent of the neighborhoods that were integrated in 1980 became segregated in 2000 (compared with 43 percent in the 25 largest U.S. metropolitan areas). And of the region’s neighborhoods that were segregated in 1980, 83 percent were still segregated two decades later (compared to 69 percent nationally).

Yet if segregation in the Twin Cities today is worse than that of yesterday, “it also looks significantly different than it used to,” says Orfield. As racial diversity has expanded in the Twin Cities, fewer neighborhoods and schools qualify as “white segregated,” having more than 50 percent of students white, Orfield explains. At the same time, different communities of color are mixing with each other as never before. “But not with whites,” he says. “This is the new face of segregation: the mushrooming of multiethnic, nonwhite segregated schools and communities.”

According to Orfield, in 1992 the Twin Cities had nine nonwhite segregated schools, representing 1.5 percent of elementary students. By 2008, the metro area had 108 nonwhite segregated schools, representing 22 percent of the area’s elementary students.

The article draws some conclusion about the effects on schools:

Economist Samuel Myers, the University’s Roy Wilkins Professor of Human Relations and Social Justice, confirms that segregation is not the result of people choosing neighborhoods aligned with their incomes and preferences or of “bad credit.” It’s the result of racial disparities in lending, discrimination in housing, and little enforcement of fair housing laws.

Segregation is, Orfield emphasizes, “about a fundamental divide in who has access to opportunity—jobs, decent housing, safe streets, good schools. Where you live determines your basic prospects in life. It’s hard to overestimate how devastating it is for families and children to be trapped in failing communities and struggling schools. Or how much it undermines the quality of life, competitive edge, and vitality of the entire region.”

Segregated schools are particularly harmful, Orfield says. Research has proven that high-poverty schools are overwhelmingly low-performing ones and that an “achievement gap” exists between students from impoverished backgrounds and those from more middle-class ones. Children in poor communities start out with fewer of the assets that boost achievement (from high-literacy homes to good health care). And their schools usually suffer from limited resources and inexperienced teachers. [italics are mine]

The writer of the Strib article says the achievement gap will be of “significant concern to Minnesota educators.” Of course it’s of concern to educators.

But it ought to be of even greater concern to policy makers who ought to be looking at the systemic and societal problems in play here, instead of trying to find new and creative ways to blame the teachers.

It would be really nice if the media prompted policy makers to do that, too. Instead of just dumping the problem in educators’ laps.

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