“Integrated” or “segregated” public schools? Given the evidence, a case could be made on either side. After almost 30 years in urban public education, we have to respond to this question by spotlighting what has shown to be as critical as material resources: teacher beliefs and expectations about student ability.
We live in a society with deeply held beliefs about ability and intelligence, and an educational system that is organized to sort and separate those who are perceived as talented and smart from those who are perceived as lacking those qualities. Institutional belief systems play out both in “segregated” and “integrated” school settings.
What is it that happens in a “segregated” school setting where students attend school in their home communities? At the risk of stereotyping, our experience shows that these schools have higher numbers of inexperienced teachers, many of whom are underprepared in pedagogy and content knowledge in their subject field. In these “segregated” school settings there is a culture of low expectations and remediation. From primary grades on, students are labeled and tracked. At the secondary level, very few college preparatory classes are offered and few students have access to information about opportunities for higher education. These schools remain separate and unequal.
The obvious alternative would seem to be an “integrated” school, where ample resources are available and the test scores are higher, right? Well, not likely.
What are students finding at the end of the bus ride? Something that the plaintiffs in Brown vs. Board of Education could never have foreseen. Because these students come from less desirable schools and are presumed to be less capable, regardless of their real potential, they often are “re-segregated”into the same kinds of remedial curriculum that characterize their home schools. In elementary school, they are placed in groups for “slow learners.” When they reach high school, they are automatically programmed into the low-level track. Their courses are usually taught by the least prepared teachers. Obviously, they are still not viewed as “college material” and don’t get access to college prep courses or information about higher education. Educators defend the placement of these students in slow tracks according to what they consider “objective criteria.” However, actual practice is to the contrary.
Since math is the gatekeeper subject, we asked teachers and counselors in many “integrated” schools why there were so few students of color in algebra, the first stepping stone toward college. They explained that students are placed through a fair system of using standardized math test scores, and those who scored above the 60th percentile were enrolled in algebra. However, when disaggregated by race, the data revealed that even when African American and Latino students score in the top 25th percentile, only 51% and 42%, respectively, are programmed into algebra, compared to 100% Asians and 87.5% of Whites.
The struggle for racial integration of schools meant fighting for access and equity to have quality education nationwide, regardless of setting. In essence, this was an attempt to level the playing field. However, without ad-dressing the beliefs held about African American, Latino, Native American and low-income students, this does .Little to change the educational outcomes. The real question is how do we get all schools, whether “integrated” or “segregated,” to hold high expectations for all students? There are success stories in both settings, but only when educators and communities decide that educational equity must be central to a reform agenda and that a system that groups, sorts and tracks students on “perceived” ability serves no one well.
There is no magic bullet of reform. We have to ask ourselves: Do we have the will to see every child in this society educated? If so, then we must invest in making the necessary changes to fundamentally overhaul our schools from a culture of low expectations and remediation to one of high expectations and a belief that all children, especially those who have been underserved historically, need and deserve the highest quality education.