Richard Rothstein and Mark Santow: The Cost of Living Apart

Roundup: Historians' Take

Richard Rothstein is a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute and senior fellow at the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy at U.C. Berkeley. Mark Santow is an associate professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth.

Politicians and experts typically refer to schools as “failing” if they are filled with low-income children with low test scores. Faced with enormous challenges, such schools may be doing as well as they possibly can, though. African American children from low-income urban families often suffer from health problems that lead to school absences; from frequent or sustained parental unemployment that provokes family crises; from rent or mortgage defaults causing household moves that entail changes of teachers and schools, with a resulting loss of instructional continuity; and from living in communities with high levels of crime and disorder, where schools spend more time on discipline and less on instruction and where stress interferes with academic achievement. With school segregation continuing to increase, these children are often isolated from the positive peer influences of middle-class children who were regularly read to when young, whose homes are filled with books, whose environment includes many college-educated professional role models, and whose parents have greater educational experience and the motivation such experience brings as well as the time, confidence, and ability to monitor schools for academic quality.

We have little chance of substantially narrowing the achievement gap without breaking up heavy concentrations of low-income minority children in urban schools, giving these children opportunities to attend majority middle-class schools outside their distressed neighborhoods. 

Busing poor black children out of neighborhoods with accumulating disadvantages is not only politically inconceivable but practically impossible—the distances are now simply too great. Yet without integrated education, we have little hope of remedying the educational struggles of the “truly disadvantaged” (sociologist William Julius Wilson coined the term a generation ago). Without integrating residential neighborhoods, we have little hope of integrating education. Residential integration is now also beyond the pale politically and perhaps inconceivable practically as well. But it was not always so; we should give the policy a second look....

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