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School Segregation and Teacher Quality


Education Week's Debra Viadero highlights a depressing new study out of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district in North Carolina. In 2002, the 137,000-student district ended its 30-year busing program. In effect, it de-desegregated its schools. The results were quick and depressing: As low-income African-American students streamed into the schools nearer to their homes, high-quality teachers streamed out. The American Prospect's Dana Goldstein comments:

This research, by Cornell labor economist C. Kirabo Jackson, is significant because it links the problem of teacher quality to the problem of school segregation. If you are an education reformer who believes teacher quality is the single biggest factor affecting student achievement, here is compelling evidence that you should also actively support existing desegregation programs. According to Kirabo's study, the best teachers -- those with higher test scores on licensing exams and a track record of improving their students' academic performance -- showed a clear preference for racially and socioeconomically integrated schools over schools overwhelmed by the challenges of poverty.

Some would say the solution is as simple as paying teachers much more to teach in disadvantaged schools. And while that is one option, it ignores the other positive effects of integration, ranging from increased tolerance of diversity to allowing poor kids to share in the fruits of having actively involved, middle-class parents advocating for their schools. In short, the more we learn about the myriad factors affecting educational outcomes, the more it seems that there is a natural synthesis between free market edu-reformers, who are focused on improving teacher quality, and more traditional education liberals, who tend to worry more about student poverty and segregation.

Meanwhile, recent studies show that American schools are becoming more, not less, segregated. Which we can guess means that the quality of their teachers is getting worse.

(Chart credit: "Racial Transformation and the Changing Nature of Segregation," a report out of UCLA's Civil Rights Project.)

By Ezra Klein  |  May 29, 2009; 4:08 PM ET
Categories:  Education  
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I think this has profound implications for anyone interested in better education policies in America as a national issue. And since it shows up every four years as a major (rhetorical) part of presidential campaigns, it is safe to assume that means we all believe the issue is important.

It is also profound, because it illustrates the intractability of race in almost every important aspect of American life. To not address it, make believe that "its all over" or to try to will it away, at somelevel is just not intellectually honest.

Think of Jeffrey Toobin's recent New Yorker profile of John Roberts first few terms on the Supreme Court.....that is a guy for whom the perspective offered by this post would cause his brain to melt....The faux righteous indignation of the seattle/Louisville school case last year reads like a parody when seen in the light of information like this ....You may recall, Roberts' chief insight there was to state at oral argument: "The way to stop discrimination in education is to stop discriminating in education!" wow, ...I mean, what do say to that? (besides: "Are you serious?")

It is one reason why it is frustrating to be liberal ....I find myself asking infuriating questions like: "Doesn't anyone at the supreme court know anyone with a subscription to Education Week!! ???"

Posted by: teacher508a | May 30, 2009 2:24 AM | Report abuse

As a teacher who is finishing his 3rd year at a low SES school, I always find the argument of "teacher quality" as a primary indicator of student success perplexing. Of course, I have a personal stake in the matter - it has direct bearing on whether I personally am a "quality teacher"! But trying to be objective, I still have issues with the metric used to measure just what that "quality" is. Understand me, there are TERRIBLE teachers and AMAZING teachers, with a broad spectrum between. But eliminating variables and honing in on specific, objective measures is very difficult.

For instance, the two measures Goldstein cited - those with higher test scores on licensing exams and a track record of improving their students' academic performance - aren't very reliable. Licensing exams generally measure one's knowledge of content, and to a lesser degree teaching pedagogy. One could easily score high on both, but when in an actual classroom, be an absolute failure.

In a perfect world, establishing an accurate picture of a teacher's record of improving student performance would be straightforward - test the students knowledge and measure improvement. But in the real world, many variable conspire to detract from the validity of test scores.

To start, when a student takes a test, he may or may not be trying his best on any given day. For a variety of reasons, from lack of sleep, stress response, emotional life-events, etc. his presence of mind - including his desire to even bother answering to his best ability - effect performance. Low-SES students tend to have much poorer attitudes towards learning than upper-SES peers, so from the start, poor performing schools already have a good deal of inaccuracy built in to their results.

Once these variables are taken into account, you get a much larger margin of error. What this then does is water down the picture of quality teaching. The only clear picture you will get is the outliers - the very best and worst results. In my experience, the great majority of teachers fall within this nebulous middle spectrum. It is unfair then to draw large-scale conclusions, except at the most generalized level.

One last thing to note is the larger statement that "the best teachers....showed a clear preference for racially and socioeconomically integrated schools over schools overwhelmed by the challenges of poverty." This a very interesting statement, yet unfortunately not expanded upon. Why would they prefer a less challenging environment any more than other, inferior teachers? If anything, one would think inferior teachers more inclined to enjoy a less challenging environment - for the simple reason that they would have a higher chance of success!

Posted by: eeeeeeeli | May 30, 2009 12:50 PM | Report abuse

Aren't you overstating the results of the study quite a bit? Nothing like "As low-income African-American students streamed into the schools nearer to their homes, high-quality teachers streamed out." is mentioned anywhere in these papers. I really like the quote from the teacher wondering what the possible explanations for these moves are. There's a lot of data that we aren't seeing with these wild conclusions you draw.

I think most people agree that people making decisions on the basis of race is a bad thing. You apparently do not.

I also think that most parents want their children to go to a school which offers the appropriate level of education for them. If you want to use the public school, you move to the right zone. Many parents I know have moved from houses to apartments to get close to good schools for their children. If you have a kid that is about to enter kindergarten already reading at a third grade and doing math, to send her to a kindergarten where most kids are learning to write their alphabet is cruel.

If you want a fair method to move students out of their local schools, select students by their ability, not the color of their skin.

Posted by: staticvars | May 31, 2009 12:03 AM | Report abuse

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