“Why does everything have to be about race?”
That’s what Sloan Oliver asked during a community forum about race and Bibb County schools on Jan. 24.
The short answer? When it comes to school quality and educational outcomes, a large volume of scholarly research shows how race matters.
Experts who study the issue say that racial diversity in schools has broad educational and societal benefits, and that poor students of color do better when they are not heavily concentrated with each other in schools.
Schools that overwhelmingly serve low-income black and/or Hispanic students tend to have less-qualified teachers, less funding, less parental involvement and more students in need of special help.
The research may shed light on the Bibb school district, where the proportion of schools that are predominantly populated with low-income students of color increased from 59 percent in 2000-01 to 66 percent in 2013-14, the last school year for which income data is available.
While experts debate the value of standardized test scores in rating student achievement, one metric — Bibb’s graduate rate — lags well behind the national average. Superintendent Curtis Jones has set a goal of raising the 2015-16 rate of 72 percent to 90 percent by 2025.
Understanding the relationship between school diversity and educational success may be key to understanding the trajectory of Bibb schools and how students’ education — and futures — can be improved.
Bibb schools resegregating
A Jan. 13 Telegraph article revealed that de facto segregation of Bibb County schools has gotten worse over the past 20 years, with the proportion of white students attending public schools declining by more than 40 percent while the black student population has held steady.
Really, I don't care if my kid goes to a black or white school. I want them to get a good education where there's discipline.
forum participant Sloan Oliver
Of the 4,483 white students in Bibb public schools as of the 2016-2017 school year, nearly a quarter are clustered in one charter school — the Academy for Classical Education — where white students outnumber black students by nearly 5 to 1. At the same time, most of the district’s 17,364 black public school students attend schools where they greatly outnumber white students.
The local numbers are in line with a national trend, where the proportion of public schools that are overwhelmingly populated with low-income black and/or Hispanic students nearly doubled between 2001 and 2014, according to a 2016 congressional study.
Oliver brought a copy of the earlier Telegraph article with him to the January forum at the Buck Melton Community Center, a session organized by Mercer University’s Center for Collaborative Journalism and its partners, The Telegraph and Georgia Public Broadcasting.
“I am one of those white (people) lost from Bibb County over the last 20 years,” Oliver said. “We picked Monroe County so that our grandkids could go to Mary Persons High School.”
Oliver said his family left Bibb County searching for higher performing schools, not whiter schools (Mary Persons, as of 2016, was just over 70 percent white). He took issue with a discussion question posed for the evening: How important is it to you that your children attend racially and economically diverse schools?
“Why does everything have to be about race?” he asked. “Really, I don’t care if my kid goes to a black or white school. I want them to get a good education where there’s discipline.”
The achievement gap
“The research evidence is fairly cohesive in terms of the positive effects of school desegregation, when done well,” said Janelle Scott, an associate professor at the University of California, Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education and African American Studies Department.
Scott emphasized the key phrase: “when done well.”
“Many parents of color whose children have experienced efforts to desegregate schools have often launched very legitimate critiques about the treatment of black children in schools where teachers are hostile to their presence, where they are tracked within the school into low level courses,” she said.
For example, a 2009 national study by Notre Dame sociology professor Sean Kelly found that black students are much more likely to be enrolled in lower level math classes by 10th grade, that the disparity is most significant at schools where black students are in the minority, and that it can’t be entirely accounted for by black students’ academic ability or socioeconomic status.
But for the most part, studies show that integration is good for students of color.
Diversity tends to be important to black people or minorities because we need diversity in order to get what we deserve.
forum participant Sierra Martin
A 2015 study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics examined the black-white achievement gap among eighth-graders as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress math test. Researchers compared test results at schools with at least 60 percent black students (most of which were located in the South) against schools with proportionally larger white populations.
When comparing students of similar socioeconomic status, the researchers found that white students’ scores were essentially the same regardless of the racial composition of their schools, but that black students’ scores were significantly higher in schools with low percentages of black students.
The phenomenon was particularly pronounced among males. The overall black-white achievement gap of 31 percent on the test narrowed to 17 percent for black males attending schools in which no more than 20 percent of students were black.
The potential benefits of integration for black students are not limited to test scores.
In a 2015 study, economist Rucker Johnson, a colleague of Scott’s at UC Berkeley, examined the lives of black children born between 1945 and 1968 who attended court-ordered desegregated schools. Compared to their peers who attended segregated schools, those black children turned out to have measurably better lives in almost every respect: They lived longer, made more money, were less likely to go to jail and more likely to go to college.
Other research by education scholar Gary Orfield, director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, showed that achievement gaps between white and black students narrowed significantly during the 1970s and ‘80s — when school integration efforts were at their peak nationally — and then widened again as the trend reversed toward resegregation.
The overall effect of integration in narrowing the achievement gap has been questioned by Eric Hanushek, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. In a 2016 article for Education Next, Hanushek compared standardized reading and math scores from 1965 and 2013 and called the progress “disappointing,” though with one major exception: the South, where the black-white achievement gap in reading scores in 2013 was two-thirds of what it was in 1965.
Regardless of how much the gap is changing, researchers generally attribute its existence to two related factors: a vast and growing wealth disparity between white and black Americans, and poorer educational opportunities at schools serving largely black student bodies.
Race and poverty
“To me, race is a red herring,” Monya Rutland said at a second community forum held Jan. 26 at the Museum of Arts and Sciences.
“It’s more about economics,” said Rutland, co-founder of Macon Charter Academy, a majority-black charter school that closed in 2016 amid financial struggles and scrutiny from state education officials.
Race and economics are greatly intertwined, though.
According to a 2014 Pew Research Center analysis, the median net worth of black households in 2013 was $11,000, while the median among white households was $141,900 — 13 times greater. That disparity was the highest it had been since the late 1980s.
“All you have to do is look and see” the racial disparities in wealth in Macon, said Ashley Murray, a former Mercer University education professor whose doctoral dissertation was about racial segregation in Bibb schools. “Look who is in the private schools. Look who is in the public schools. Look who has money. Look who is living in the projects.”
Poverty greatly reduces children’s readiness to learn at school, said Richard Rothstein, a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute and fellow of the Thurgood Marshall Institute of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. He’s the author of several books and reports on racial disparities and education.
“If a child comes to school from a family where parents are poorly educated, and that child has not been read to frequently at home before school starts, that child is going to be more difficult to educate than a child who’s been read to a lot before the child comes to school,” Rothstein said in an interview.
Likewise, he said, children are less able to learn when they are stressed due to poor health, neighborhood violence and family disruptions — all of which happen disproportionately among low-income people.
Children facing those kinds of challenges can get the extra help they need at schools where most other students are not similarly disadvantaged, Rothstein said, “but if you have a school where every child has those kinds of problems, every child can’t get special attention. The level of instruction has to decrease. … More and more resources and attention have to be devoted to discipline.”
“Diversity tends to be important to black people or minorities because we need diversity in order to get what we deserve,” said Sierra Martin, a black woman who spoke at the January forum at the Museum of Arts and Sciences.
“Often it’s not necessary for white people to be in school with black people to get the education that they deserve, but it is that way the other way around,” she said.
Research generally backs up Martin’s assertion.
The lack of resources in schools populated with majority low-income students, as cited by many experts, may be exacerbated by school funding systems based on local property taxes, in which more valuable property owned by higher-income people generates more taxes for schools.
In Georgia, the system of local property tax funding is supplemented by state “equalization” funds. According to a 2016 analysis by National Public Radio and Education Week, annual per-pupil spending in Bibb County was $10,183. That was lower than the national average of $11,841, but comparable to neighboring Monroe and Houston counties, which generally boast better academic outcomes than Bibb.
Even within Bibb County, there is relatively little variation in the average cost budgeted per student between schools, regardless of neighborhood, according to the school system’s fiscal 2017 budget.
However, such raw dollar figures are deceptive, said Scott, the UC Berkeley professor.
For one thing, students from highly disadvantaged family backgrounds naturally need more resources than their more privileged counterparts to achieve the same outcomes, she said. Also, schools that serve better-off families enjoy revenue streams that are not reflected in per-pupil expenditures.
“In the largely white, wealthier neighborhoods, what’s not being accounted for is how much money parents are raising” through PTAs and direct donations, Scott said. “And it’s not just in terms of hard dollars. Parents can volunteer, so there’s a lot of in-kind resources that aren’t being accounted for.”
If children only go to school with others like themselves, they're not going to be prepared for a diverse workforce when they graduate from school.
Richard Rothstein, research associate at the Economic Policy Institute
Diversity may benefit everyone
Apart from achieving equity for low-income students of color, greater school-level integration offers social and cognitive benefits for all students, Rothstein said.
“If children only go to school with others like themselves, they’re not going to be prepared for a diverse workforce when they graduate from school,” he said.
He added, “One of the findings of social psychology research is that decision making is much better and more effective in diverse groups, because in homogenous groups — where everybody has the same kind of background — people are much more likely to go along with the consensus rather than think for themselves.”
Beyond such practical considerations, Scott said she sees philosophical questions at the heart of the issue of school segregation: “What sort of society do we want to live in? Do we want to live in a society marked by deep social divisions whose hallmarks are racial? Is that the kind of democratic society we want?” she asked.
“I think that’s the core question that this country has had to ask itself over and over again.”
Race and Schools: Macon is Not Alone
When: 6:30 p.m. Monday. Reception to follow keynote speech and panel discussion.
Where: Mercer Medical School Auditorium, 1550 College St., Macon