Children of the Dream: Why School Integration Works

In Children of the Dream, economist Rucker C. Johnson, with an able journalistic assist from Alexander Nazaryan, summarizes academic research that “points incontrovertibly to three powerful cures to unequal educational opportunity: (1) integration, (2) equitable school funding, and (3) high-quality preschool investments.”

Children of the Dream

“In most places and times, these policies were advanced one at a time, unevenly and inconsistently” and that variation across districts, they explain, “is exactly what offers us a rare testing ground.” Comparing outcomes in kids who did and didn’t have these initiatives rolled out during their school years allowed Johnson and his team of researchers to tease out the independent value offered by all three. That includes desegregation, which turns out to have been “such a powerful force that its beneficial impacts persist to influence the outcomes of the next generation.”

But the most impressive data Johnson offers up shows “significant positive synergistic effects” between these policies. For example, “[f]or poor children, the combined benefits of growing up in districts with both greater Head Start spending and greater K-12 per-pupil spending were significantly greater than the sum of the independent effects of the two investments in isolation.”

Why then is integration viewed as a noble but failed experiment? Why is the conventional wisdom that Head Start provides little to no benefit, just the opportunity for fraud? What explains the lack of popularity of funding formulas that offer more assistance to schools that need it more?

Part of the problem, they say, is spin. In the segregation context, for example, “even outside the Deep South recalcitrant whites manipulated and marshaled public will in a way that allowed opponents of integration to appear not to be racists. They resorted to powerful code words—like neighborhood schools, local control, and forced busing, to summon profound, if rarely spoken, racial fears.… This strategy worked, and it contains a devilish dilemma: even as researchers … have shown that integration works, much of the public has been erroneously convinced of the very opposite.” 

Part of it is “our collective impatience, an unwillingness to see measures through, a willingness to abandon anything and everything that does not show immediate results.” Here, Johnson points a finger at both policymakers and other researchers:

Education reform often proceeds by a kind of punctuated equilibrium. We implement some new whiz-bang reform, let it run its course for a little while, but then become impatient because things haven’t improved as much as we wanted them too: test scores haven’t jumped, for example. Studies are published to confirm that, yes, indeed, X reform failed to achieve Y effect…. New fixes are tried, reversed, and then new fixes are tried again…. Too often, we take the pan out of the oven far too early, only to find the result woefully undercooked…. Other [academics take] snapshots of school funding reform efforts [that may provide] some clarity, but only about a strictly limited period of time. Our study sought to take something closer to a time-lapsed video, looking at the effect of school funding reform over decades. 

With a long view, Johnson’s work (the intricacies of which can be found in the endnotes) proves that Head Start and school funding reform have worked. What’s more, “[c]ontrary to popular wisdom, integration has benefited—and continues to benefit—African Americans, whether that benefit is translated into educational attainment, earnings, social stability, or incarceration rates. Whites, meanwhile, lose nothing from opening their classrooms to others.” 

Throughout, the authors’ writing is clear and as close to conversational as academic discourse can be. They even produce some truly stunning prose, for example, “segregation is not only about separation of people, but it is segregations—hoarding, in fact—of opportunity” and “[l]ike many poor people, both then and now, she understood the value of education but didn’t have the tools to extract that value for her own children.”

Children of the Dream ends with a forceful call to action that is as optimistic as it is stark: “How much longer will we bemoan the state of affairs while lamenting that nothing can be done? Much can be done…. We have tools that are, in some cases, decades old, but that nevertheless have the capacity to drastically correct some of the gravest inequalities in American society … that have flummoxed policymakers for decades…. [Realizing this potential] will require an extraordinary coordination of resources and effort, but every solution proffered in these pages is fully within the realm of possibility.”

Johnson and Nazaryan conclude, “We believe that the American project is not so much imperfect as it is not yet fully realized.” Their book, however, is—and I highly recommend it to anyone who cares about education or inequality.

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