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News from EPI Education Goals of the March on Washington Not Yet Met: Proposals That Ignore Segregation and Inequality Are Doomed to Fail

The goal of racially integrated schools of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom has yet to be met. As a result, national efforts to raise the achievement of the most disadvantaged African American students have been impeded. In For Public Schools, Segregation Then, Segregation Since: Education and the Unfinished March, EPI Research Associate Richard Rothstein observes that the isolation of socially and economically disadvantaged African American students is increasing. Yet policymakers, Rothstein said, “have abandoned integration as a goal despite abundant evidence that it continues to be essential for closing the gap between white and black student achievement.”

As of 2010, African American students typically attend schools that are only 29 percent white, a decline from 1970 when African American students typically attended schools that were 32 percent white. As more lower-middle-class and middle-class African Americans move to suburbs, low-income African Americans are more likely to attend heavily African American and low-income schools, with damaging consequences for their lifelong opportunities. On average, African American students in segregated cities perform below nearly two-thirds of African American students nationwide and below nearly all white students nationwide.

Despite continued school segregation, African American student achievement has been rising steadily over the last 40 years, according to data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The achievement gap persists because the same social and instructional forces that have caused black student achievement to rise have apparently also caused white student achievement to rise.

The striking and steady improvement in disadvantaged students’ performance is inconsistent with the conventional claims of reformers that teachers of such students are poorly trained, have low expectations, and fail to exert their best efforts. However, Rothstein argues, African American children will never achieve educational equality unless we remedy their economic inequality and segregation. Attempting to substantially improve achievement, without economic equality and integration, is an impossible task.

“Organizers of the March on Washington were correct to stress how critical integration was to education improvement,” said Rothstein. “It is tragic that education reformers fail to see the disastrous impact school isolation is having on African American students, while they persist in futile denunciations of failing schools.”