Tuesday, May 20, 2014


The 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education has renewed interest in the persistent lack of diversity and achievement gaps in public school populations.

Claims are often made that cite lack of diversity as the cause of low achievement among underperforming groups.  A couple days ago I read this refrain again in an Ed  Source article by the ED of the California School Board Association. A topic of much research for a number of decades, there remains scant evidence to positively correlate diversity and  achievement.  US Supreme Court decisions have noted the inherent racism implicit in the notion that education is precluded by lack of diversity - that is,  it is a fundamentally racist idea that students of color won't learn sufficiently unless they are in multiracial classroom settings, assuming  that other instructional resources are equal (and that's a large assumption).

Yet proponents of the SFUSD assignment system continue to maintain that increased diversity results in increased achievement regardless of the paucity of available data. Where is the requisite evidence to support public policy? Most data on the subject shows a persistence achievement gap both in more and less diversified  schools in SFUSD and elsewhere. This achievement gap  is partially the result of not watching the ball. We have policies and  board resolutions about any number of issues  but rarely about achievement,  Commissioner Haney's recent interest in hats and headwear at schools notwithstanding.
It goes without saying, diversity is a good unto itself as an integrated society is a cohesive nation. We don't need a proven link to improved student outcome for diversity to be part of assignment policy. At the same time efforts to end geographic segregation shouldn't divert us from the core purpose of education, which by all accounts is academic achievement. After all, the purpose of public schools is education. Integration came as a secondary purpose.

I understand that some might say  that schools should not be examples of segregation - that socialization is an equally important component of public education - that the schools should be the flowerbed of an integrated society.  I can't deny the truth in that. There's obviously a compelling reason for schools to be integrated, but schools should not spend their dollars on costly efforts at undoing the residential patterns that drive segregated schools,  then cite as the cause of academic failure the lack of integration when, at the same time, money is being diverted from instructional improvement for expensive assignment policies. The day to day task of education needs to proceed unfettered by policies that use vast amounts  of education dollars for purposes other than for raising achievement. The best way to integrate society is to raise the level of education among all segments of society and the best way to do that is to focus on achievement.
A majority of  school districts have ethnic communities separated geographically by neighborhood and diversifying schools requires engineering of demographics in ways that cause a great deal of family stress and public discontent. There is no clear answer for these problems as they represent a wide range of attitudes and situations, a fact borne out by years of failed diversity-first assignment systems and similar court-ordered policies. Some of those attitudes are prejudicial, no doubt,  and that's true among all subgroups. But should students be held hostage to ending racism before they can get an education? Should school districts hold up their diversity policies as the defining issue of public education when so many students are failing? 

Debate over these issues continues unabated with each side dug in due to the significance that education holds in family life.  But race relations holds an even higher station in public life and public figures hold more sway over policy in Sacramento than parents and children do over it at the dinner table. However, we can change educational attitudes more easily than racial attitudes. We should focus on the individual as all learning starts in the home. Our policies should focus on providing opportunity.
It is time to learn the lessons of the past,  to move the debate beyond the diversity-above-all-else agenda and to focus our efforts on achievement gains for all groups, especially those who need it the most. This is neither sanctioning a separate-but-equal policy or  rejecting diversity objectives in student assignment. It simply coming to the realization that cultural change is  gradual and educational needs are immediate. We need to assure that funding is matched to need and put our energies into doing the best for children in the society in which we live today. Race-based education politics have diverted our attentions from tackling the real challenges involved in creating schools which encourage  student participation and adoption of a positive educational outlook.  Right now in San Francisco diversity-driven policies are made in lieu of creating community schools, carving out more school time and tutoring and making retention of qualified teachers top priorities - reforms that are contrary to the union status-quo. 

SFUSD is an example of the dead end of diversity politics and policy.  Any one following the local scene has witnessed the monumental loss of human and monetary capital as a result of assignment system and the drain it has wrought on this district and its communities.  Decades into it we are now no less segregated than we were many years ago and our achievement gap continues to be the largest in the state. This is energy not spent on policies specifically aimed at increasing student effort, improving instructional quality and, in the end, graduating students with the best chance of succeeding in life and, hopefully, going to college.

The fight for racial equality in society at large should continue unabated and in the meantime while we should use our schools to their best advantage to deliver the kind of instructional experience in which student can succeed. This is the best chance for developing a truly integrated society.