About Our Schools

In the article from Commentary Magazine (11/2004) Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom refer to findings by Gary Orfield et al. “that the level of “segregation” in the nation’s schools has returned to that of 1968. For America’s minorities, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream of equality has become, it would seem, a “nightmare” from our racist past.”
The Thernstroms point out that, “Today, a third of all American students are black or Latino, and they are concentrated in our big cities. To call schools “segregated” because they reflect these demographic facts, thereby suggesting no difference between New York in 2004 and Mississippi in 1960, is an egregious misuse of the term.”
Furthermore the Thernstroms say, “it is only natural that people should sort themselves out in urban space along lines of race as well as of religion and social class.”
Also, lest we believe that the Blacks are still confined to urban Ghettoes, “as a proportion of the total suburban population, the black share has nearly doubled over these years, and now stands at almost 9 percent—surprisingly close to proportionality for a group that constitutes only 12 percent of the American population.”
The Thernstroms insist that, “there is nothing wrong with racial and ethnic enclaves— indeed, there is much that is right with them—so long as blacks are no longer barred from neighborhoods in which they would prefer to live,” and that labeling schools with few whites as ‘segregated’ is not helpful in that it implies that learning in such schools is likely to be compromised, which is not necessarily true, although “it hardly needs saying that all is not well in the schools that black and Hispanic children attend, whether in inner cities or in affluent suburbs.”
So if it is not segregation that is most at fault for the failure of our large public schools in our largest cities, in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Detroit, Miami,et al. whose student bodies are in fact 17% or less white, what is at fault, and what should we be looking at in order to improve the education of our inner city, largely minority students? It seems to me that the answer is obvious. Poverty is the culprit, but poverty not only in the sense of low family income, but a general poverty of resources, a lack of emotional, mental, spiritual, and physical support systems, as well as a paucity of positive relationships and role models. We need to increase the numbers of these resources in the lives of these children in our inner cities if we would improve their learning, and stop many of them, which is now the case, from dropping out of school before graduation. (See, A Framework for Understanding Poverty, by Ruby K. Payne, 2003) The Thernstroms have, not satisfactorily I believe, addressed this problem in their book, No Excuses.

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