John Thompson, historian and retired teacher in Oklahoma, reviews an important recent book. It is ironic that the evidence for the value of integration grows at the same pace as resegregation.


Surely we can agree with Malcolm Forbes on one thing: schools should nurture “the art of thinking individually together.” Can we agree that the path to such a goal requires school integration?

Children of the Dream: Why School Integration Works, by Rucker Johnson and Alexander Nazaryan, cites Forbes’ statement when presenting a powerful case for a new era of desegregation. Johnson and Nazaryan refute the widely held belief that integration and the War on Poverty failed. They offer a compelling, evidence-based vision of equality in education and the economy where diversity is a driving force.

Misconceptions about school desegregation contributed to the contemporary school “reform” movement, which was based on the false premise and glib assertion that our children can’t wait for a victory over racism and poverty, so we must seek individual levers for immediately transforming schools. This simplistic hypothesis morphed into corporate school reform which used the stress of test-driven competition to overcome the stress of poverty, and segregation by choice to overcome the legacies of Jim Crow and de facto segregation.

Reformers have thus imposed a series of disconnected “quick fixes” on schools. Their gambles included: the building of a “better teacher,” who would do “whatever it takes” to end inequities; data-driven, top-down and, supposedly, less expensive mandates; and charter schools. Few reformers bothered to read education history or the social science which Children of the Dream builds on.  Johnson and Nazaryan, however, draw upon experts like the New York Times’ David Shipler who explains, “Every problem magnifies the impact of dollars.” Shipler concludes, “if problems are interlocking, then so must solutions be.”

De jure school segregation was outlawed by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v Topeka decision in 1954. But, only 6% of districts that would be desegregated had been integrated by 1968. Then, Green v County School Board of Kent County did more than order a recomposition of student bodies. It extended desegregation “to every facet of school operations.” Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote to Justice William Brennan that the ruling would mean the “traffic light will have changed from Brown to Green. Amen!”

Only four years later, the South had become more integrated than the rest of the nation. Then, the 1974 Milliken decision built on Green’s comprehensive approach, ruling that compensatory spending could be mandated to address generations of discrimination. And, desegregation led to sharp increases in per student funding and class size reductions for black students.

Johnson and Nazaryan draw upon social science to document the victories achieved by integration when combined with equitable spending on schools, and with high quality early education. Blacks who were not exposed to integration didn’t see increases in education attainment. Similarly, black students with greater exposure to white classmates, but without significant increases in funding, didn’t make gains comparable to those who those who benefited from investments in smaller class size and better paid teachers.

Black students’ gains correlated with years of integration exposure. The estimated effect of integration over all 12 years was the elimination of the white-black achievement gap! Blacks who were desegregated in elementary school had a decline of 22% in the probability of incarceration. A five-year exposure to integration led to a 30% increase in annual earnings, an 11% decline in the annual incidence of poverty, an 11% increase in very good or excellent health, and a 25% increase in family income. A major reason for that gain was that integration correlated with an increase in marital stability.

A 25% increase in funding over all school years could eliminate the achievement gap between low-income and non-poor students.

Integration’s benefits were especially noteworthy when combined with increased spending and early education. A 10% increase in funding for a low-income student’s 12 years in public schools led to 9.6% increase in earnings. When low-income students were exposed to Head Start and the same 12-year increase in funding, their subsequent earnings doubled. The effects of Head Start often washed out, however, when students then attended under-funded K-12 schools.

It should also be stressed that high-quality pre-K was a holistic process that produced a range of longterm benefits. D. Keith Osburn, a founder of Head Start, warned that Head Start should not just be a reading program, but a whole child process. And though worthy, children can’t wait until they are old enough for Head Start or pre-K. One million new neural connections are formed each second in the first years of life, so public school and public sector desegregation work best when integrated with high-quality pre- and post-natal care.

Early school desegregation successes often followed the pattern of hospital desegregation in Mississippi, which led to decline in black mortality rates by 65%, driven in part by infants’ improvements. This outcome was echoed by the reduction of obesity due to early Head Start interventions.

I learned the most from Children of the Dream when it described the successes and failures in expanding diversity. It explains that school integration peaked in late 1980s when almost 45% of black students attended majority-white schools. However, a political counter-attack resulted in resegregation, and lost opportunities.

The New Jersey Abbott case was one of the greatest success stories. The ruling reversed the previous pattern where high income districts received more funding. But, now, N.J. schools have resegregated. My take is that the state’s subsequent high-profile corporate school reforms displaced efforts to desegregate and distracted from integrated, whole child policies.

A similar pattern emerged in Memphis. After Shelby County “flipped” from a Democratic to Republican majority, it became a victim of secession policies, where affluent whites were propelled by racism and/or rightwing ideology to separate from urban districts. Now, 30 states have “explicit secession policies” codified in law.

But, Johnson and Nazaryan also emphasize institutional racism, “white flight” and “black flight” to the suburbs and charters, and mistaken reform policies pushed by some civil rights advocates, including President Barack Obama (who I otherwise support.) It is my understanding that Memphis has had a pretty solid record in more traditional school improvements before the Obama administration incentivized the test and punish, winners and losers, Race to the Top (RttT) mentality. It and Tennessee would become major players in the RttT.

In 2011, President Barack Obama gave the commencement address at Booker T. Washington in Memphis. His market-driven reforms were supposed to be a “curative force” for inequality. Accountability-driven reform was credited with increasing the school’s graduation rate from 55% to 82%.

By 2016, Booker T. Washington was a “poster child” for failed schools. It proved to be easier to fire teachers than staff high-poverty, segregated classrooms. Johnson and Nazaryan explain how students who were taught by one substitute after another were not provided an equal education.

Finally, Children of the Dream explained what worked in Louisville, Ky., Wake County, N.C., and some other districts. These socio-economic integration efforts show how desegregation efforts can learn from each other.  Johnson and Nazaryan described Louisville, for instance, as a “partial blueprint for how diversity in schools can be achieved.” Nearly 90% of parents supported the district’s diversity efforts.

Johnson and Nazaryan also praise the Cincinnati’s campaign to desegregate housing, and those efforts are consistent with that city’s partnership-driven efforts to build full-service community schools. My reading of the narrative is that these interrelated solutions can bring the qualities of integrated communities into high-challenge schools. But, fighting the legacies of generational poverty and racism is difficult enough; it’s even harder to create integrated environments when fighting off corporate reformers and the Tea Party.
Desegregation is a daunting challenge. But, Children of the Dream includes even more case studies that could inform a real commitment to diversity. At minimum, it makes the case that integrated schools must be our goal. Johnson and Nazaryan show that, sooner or later, we must tackle the challenge of integration if we really seek equity.