“I favor integration for integration’s sake,” Bob Herbert wrote in one of his last columns for The New York Times, on what we supposedly need to make poor black students learn more in school. What poisonous words those actually were, in their way, despite the adulatory flood of letters the column predictably attracted from readers taught something too rarely dismissed as the soft bigotry that it is: that when human beings are black American and poor, we cannot expect them to learn in the same room.
The idea is that what poor black kids need in school is for the kids next to them to be middle class, by which Herbert effectively means white. Herbert, like so many, had it that “years of evidence” show the truth in this idea that when black kids from The Wire meet white kids from Malcolm in the Middle, that takes care of the black-white testing gap.
Herbert’s demonstration piece was a study by the Century Foundation showing that poor black kids from housing projects in Montgomery County, Maryland performed better after spending their elementary school years in better-funded school districts. But the study itself puts into question Herbert’s implication that the problem is merely one of a heartless America refusing to consider a solution that has become “a political no-no” (i.e. touching a third rail of NIMBY-infused racism). These students came out of sixth grade having made a mere one-third’s difference in the black-white reading gap. This is the kind of “years of evidence” that makes the argument for integration such a supposedly open-and-shut case?
Meanwhile, what about the “years of evidence” of what these Montgomery County kids were in for on their way to further “integration”? The classic formulation is Claude Steele’s idea that black students surrounded by white ones suffer from “stereotype threat,” haunted by the idea that black kids are less bright and subconsciously hindered in their scholarly performance (this idea is now encapsulated in Steele’s newish book). As Matthew McKnight warned us recently in these pages, a new variation on this is Gregory Walton and Jeffrey Cohen’s 2007 study of “belonging uncertainty,” according to which:
In academic and professional settings, members of socially stigmatized groups are more uncertain of the quality of their social bonds, and thus more sensitive to issues of social belonging. We call this state belonging uncertainty, and suggest that it contributes to racial disparities in achievement.
And what about findings such as in this article by Karolyn Tyson, Domini Castellino and William Darity, which despite media reports implying that it “disproved” the idea that black teens often deride nerdy peers as “acting white,” showed that the “acting white” accusation was not only alive and well but most common in integrated schools?
I certainly observed this in middle school. In fifth grade, the black kids in my private school class, reinforced by a few who were of lower-income families, began socializing mostly together as racial identity started to develop. Alone, that was fine, but it came along with a starkly diminished valuation of schoolwork—this was now, although never put in so many words, what it was to be really “black.” I watched two kids’ grades go down as a price for social inclusion in that group.
Work by scholars like Steele and Walton & Cohen is warmly received with vague notions as to how black students ought be made to feel “more comfortable.” However, just what that means is unclear and few seem to genuinely care. The driving impulse would seem to be for good people to show that they “acknowledge” the discomfort in question, out of a general unfocused dismay that America isn’t post-racial. But what about entertaining the possibility that these studies suggest we reexamine our dutiful recoil at, well, lots of black kids in the same room with books?
It is a moral stain on this nation’s thinking class that a piece like Herbert’s is considered noble wisdom while one such as the article in The Atlantic last year on what Teach for America has learned from twenty years of teaching data goes by like scenery watched from a train. Teaching poor (black) kids is, we learn in a book based on the findings, “neither mysterious nor magical. It is neither a function of dynamic personality nor dramatic performance.” Rather, what has worked year after year are accessible, sensible and teachable things like routine, constant checking for understanding (and really checking, not just saying “Get it?”), constant revision of lesson plans with a concrete goal in mind, and perseverance. Notably, a master’s degree in education shows no benefit.
There are plenty of inspiring examples of techniques that have improved learning outcomes, none of which have anything to do with integration. As I have written, we know how to teach poor black kids to read, and have for decades. Siegfried Engelmann’s Project Follow Through, and specifically its Direct Instruction technique—a clever phonics-based method of learning sounds, syllables, and rhyming—had slam-dunk results over all other programs tested with it back in the 1970s, on 75,000 children from kindergarten through third grade. It has continued to, where occasionally allowed to show its mettle. Yet a perusal of Engelmann’s Teaching Needy Kids in Our Backward System shows a callous dismissal of his findings by the Ford Foundation, National Institute of Education and Department of Health, Education and Welfare, on premises so shoddy they recall the endless submission of Rearden Metal to “further tests” in Atlas Shrugged. For example, Direct Instruction happened to far outscore various other components of Project Follow Through—but because the aggregate score of Direct Instruction and these other components did not surpass good old-fashioned disastrous Title I-funded teaching methods, the National Institute of Education ignored Direct Instruction, refusing to incorporate it into nationally recommended curricula.
By Englemann’s account, “the drowning was a complete success.” The drowning, we must understand, included that of the now sadly defunct idea that being poor and black does not mean that you can’t learn among other people like you. The current impression otherwise would have baffled black community leaders before roughly 1965. We cheer to hear someone say poor black kids need white classmates to learn, and then cheer again when we read about the same kids suffering from stereotype threat when among exactly those white kids—and then stick a finger down our throats when someone suggests that we work on ways for poor black students to learn together. It won’t do, especially when none of us would be caught dead calling a humble all-black college “segregated.”
We have gone from opposing segregation in the proper meaning of the term to calling it “segregation” when a schoolroom has only black kids in it, and pretending that our ethical response must be the same as it would be to a crumbling all-black one-room schoolhouse in a Mississippi hamlet in 1923 whose leaders refuse to allot it any funds or resources and distrust “colored” kids even learning to read at all. It is laudable that many of us want to show that we understand what institutional racism is. Yet, doing that does not always help the people undergoing the effects of institutional racism. Sometimes, what actually does is a little bit of, yes, segregation.
John McWhorter is a contributing editor at The New Republic.