Richard Rothstein

View Richard Rothstein's biography and publications on epi.org

Is poverty a mindset?

This post originally appeared on the NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s Medium page.

This week, New York Magazine and ProPublica published a scathing article by Alec MacGillis titled, “Is anyone home at HUD?”. Multiple sources — current and former, career, and political staff — described a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in disarray, with severe lack of direction from a Secretary who has said he believes poverty is a mindset. Here, Richard Rothstein digs into the socio-economic conditions that lead to poverty for many low-income children, which policymakers like Secretary Carson would do well to consider.

Ben Carson, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, told an interviewer recently that poverty results from “the wrong mindset:” low-income persons with strong motivation can escape poverty while those with negative attitudes remain poor.

His own life story seems to illustrate this. Poor children with ambition and self-discipline can occasionally climb the socioeconomic ladder. Luck figures, too, but a child must be on the lookout for it to benefit. Children expecting defeat may never seize opportunities within reach.

Yet as a scientist, Dr. Carson should realize that it’s always dangerous to jump from anecdotes about exceptional cases to generalizations about entire groups. Every human condition has variability. Only some children in Flint got lead poisoning, although all drank the same poisoned water. Even native intelligence is distributed: in any demographic group, some have above average I.Q.s, some are below it, and most are average, around 100.

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Brown v. Board is 63 years old. Was the Supreme Court’s school desegregation ruling a failure?

Sixty-three years ago on Wednesday, the Supreme Court prohibited school segregation. In the South, Brown v. Board of Education was enforced slowly and fitfully for two decades; then progress ground to a halt. Nationwide, black students are now less likely to attend schools with whites than they were half a century ago. Was Brown a failure?

Not if we consider the boost it gave to a percolating civil rights movement. The progeny of Brown include desegregation of public accommodations and the mostly unhindered right of African Americans to compete for jobs, to vote, and to purchase or rent homes. Brown’s greatest accomplishment was its enduring imprint on the national ethos: the idea of second-class citizenship for African Americans, indeed for any minority group, is now universally condemned as a violation of the Constitution and of American values. None of these transformations came easily, and none are complete, but none would have happened were it not for Brown.

Yet the decision could not accomplish its stated purpose. Today, nearly half of all black students attend majority black schools, with over 70 percent in high-poverty school districts. New York is the most segregated state: two-thirds of its black students attend schools that are less than 10 percent white. A growing number are “integrated” with low-income Hispanics and other recent immigrants, but still isolated from the mainstream.

Because schools remain segregated, we have little chance to substantially boost the achievement of black children, especially those from low-income families. Of course, some children will always surmount their disadvantages and excel. But when separate schools concentrate students who are in poorer health and more frequently absent, who may be homeless or in unstable housing, and whose parents are less-educated, achievement lags when teachers are overwhelmed by non-academic challenges.

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Criminal justice policy is education policy

In a new report, Mass Incarceration and Children’s Outcomes, we argue that criminal justice policy is education policy, and should be high on educators’ lists of concerns.

Several police killings of young men in African American neighborhoods, as well as the national racial polarization exposed in the recent presidential campaign, have called increased attention to our unresolved racial inequalities, including the disproportionate numbers of African American men who are in jail or prison. In the last months of his administration, President Obama responded to excessive federal prison sentences with a stepped up rate of commutations.

President-elect Trump, in contrast, has advocated a nationwide policy of “stop-and-frisk,” a police practice concentrated in low-income minority neighborhoods that invariably leads to the arrest and eventual imprisonment of men, African American men in particular, for non-violent victimless crimes.

“Stop and frisk,” as well as excessive sentencing for minor crimes, are not primarily federal policies, and once in office, Mr. Trump will have little influence over them. These are policies and practices of local and state governments, and reform is no less realistic or urgent now than it was before the presidential election.

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We can’t meaningfully integrate schools without desegregating neighborhoods

This article first appeared on the NAACP Legal Defense Fund‘s website.

A bill introduced in the New York City Council proposes to establish “an office of school diversity within the human rights commission dedicated to studying the prevalence and causes of racial segregation in public schools and developing recommendations for remedying such segregation.”

But it is not reasonable, indeed it is misleading, to study school segregation in New York City without simultaneously studying residential segregation. The two cannot be separated.

School segregation is primarily a problem of neighborhoods, not schools. Schools are segregated because the neighborhoods in which they are located are segregated. Some school segregation can be ameliorated by adjusting school attendance boundaries or controlling school choice, but these devices are limited and mostly inapplicable to elementary school children, for whom long travel to school is neither feasible nor desirable. We have adopted a national myth that neighborhoods are segregated “de facto;” i.e., because of income differences, individual preferences, a history of private discrimination, etc. In fact, neighborhoods in NYC are segregated primarily because of a 20th century history of deliberate public policy to separate the races residentially, implemented by the city, state, and federal governments. Just a few examples:

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What Ben Carson should learn about housing segregation

President-elect Donald Trump proposes to nominate Ben Carson to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Mr. Carson has expressed opposition to the Obama administration’s new HUD requirement that cities and suburbs develop plans to end their segregation or face possible loss of federal funds. He calls this “social engineering,” and says that such well-intentioned programs have unintended consequences that their proponents later come to regret. Instead, he says, emphasis should be placed on revitalizing distressed minority neighborhoods in central cities.

What Mr. Carson’s view ignores is that the racial segregation of every metropolitan area in the nation is also the result of “social engineering”—the purposeful efforts of federal, state, and local governments to create and enforce the residential separation of the races. What the Obama administration has begun are plans to undo this social engineering. Failing to continue these plans doesn’t avoid social engineering—it perpetuates it.

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Race tax harms African Americans

In Quartz, I described a rarely noticed but devastating development that is undermining African American working and middle class families—a racially disparate property tax system that, in many cities, extorts a premium from African American homeowners. This premium can be so large that families lose homes when cities foreclose on properties where taxes have become unaffordable.

This discriminatory race tax has arisen because homes in African American neighborhoods that lost value following the housing price bubble collapse in 2008 have, in the subsequent recovery, been slower to recover value than properties in white neighborhoods. In most cities, assessors are required to re-assess properties on a regular basis, but when they have failed to do so, homeowners in African American neighborhoods wind up paying more tax relative to their home values than homeowners in white neighborhoods.

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GAO report on segregation misses the bigger picture

Last week, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a misleading report on school segregation, which I discussed with NAACP Legal Defense Fund President Sherrilyn Ifill and others on the Diane Rehm Show.

The takeaway line of the GAO report was:

From school years 2000-01 to 2013-14, the percentage of all K-12 public schools that had high percentages of poor and Black or Hispanic students grew from 9 to 16 percent.

(When the GAO referred to “poor” students, it was not really speaking of poor students, but rather of those from families with incomes less than nearly twice the poverty line and who are eligible for subsidized lunches in schools.)

Not by coincidence, the GAO report was released on Tuesday, May 17, the 62nd anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision banning school segregation. So it was not unreasonable for those who did not read the GAO report very carefully to conclude that it described a dramatic increase in racial segregation over the last 13 years.

But it did not, and could not.

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Housing segregation undergirds the nation’s racial inequities

In June, the Supreme Court rescued the Fair Housing Act from a claim that it prohibited only overt discrimination—where a government body announces that it is enacting a housing policy for racially discriminatory reasons. Instead, Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinion concluded that housing policies that have the effect of reinforcing segregation must be avoided, regardless of policymakers’ provable intent, unless an agency enacting such a policy can show that there was no reasonable alternative to segregation as a way to accomplish legitimate housing objectives.1

These days, when few public officials are so incautious as to announce they are racists, a different Court decision would have hamstrung efforts to desegregate housing nationwide.

Justice Kennedy based his ruling, in part, on a brief submitted by “Housing Scholars” organized by the Haas Institute and the Economic Policy Institute.2 The brief recounted the long history of government sponsorship of racial segregation that had established the nation’s racial housing patterns. The Housing Scholars argued that, because of entrenched patterns attributable to government policy, seemingly race-neutral policies could have the effect of reinforcing the segregation that government had helped put in place.

Now, a federal appeals court based in California, again relying in part on the Housing Scholars brief, has developed Justice Kennedy’s theory further. The case arose from the refusal of the City of Yuma, Arizona to permit construction of moderate-cost single family homes adjacent to a neighborhood where homes were more expensive.3 Although opponents of the development never said openly that their objection was based on race, they attacked the proposal using code words alleging that the development would bring crime into the neighborhood, that some of the homes might be purchased by single-parent families, and that “unattended children would roam the streets.” (The appeals court observed that where whites are involved, it is called “letting children play in the neighborhood.”) The court said that a reasonable jury could interpret such objections as racially motivated.

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On renaming the Woodrow Wilson School: The standards of his time, and ours

Last week, the Princeton University trustees announced they were rejecting student protester demands that “Woodrow Wilson” be removed from the names of the university’s School of Public and International Affairs and a residential undergraduate college.

The protesters objected to honoring Wilson because he participated in and, as president of the United States, helped lead a national wave of reaction against the progress towards equality that African Americans had made in the decades after emancipation. In particular, Wilson segregated, for the first time, the federal civil service.

The trustees agreed that Wilson’s racial policies, both as president of the university (where he refused to admit African American students) and as president of the United States were a serious blemish on his record. They recommended greater efforts to recruit African American students, programs to better incorporate those students into university life, and “a much more multi-faceted understanding and representation of Wilson on our campus, especially at the school and the college where his name is commemorated.” They made no specific proposals in this regard, but it would seem reasonable to install a prominent plaque at the entrances of these buildings that describe Wilson’s contributions to segregating American society, and distribute a pamphlet to each student at the school and college that describes the origins of segregation and Woodrow Wilson’s contribution to it.

Such an approach would be preferable to removing his name. Preserving the identity of the school and college should be a provocation for ongoing discussion of this history. Sanitizing the names, in contrast, could ensure that future generations of Princeton students will be as little challenged by that history as previous generations have been.

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Fisher II—Could a Surprise be in Store?

This post originally appeared on SCOTUSblog, as part of a symposium on Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, the challenge to the university’s use of affirmative action in its undergraduate admissions process. 

The Supreme Court’s affirmative action decisions have been suffused with hypocrisy. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg called them out, with barely more gentle phrasing, in her lone dissent to the seven-to-one majority opinion the first time Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin (2013) was before the Court. “Only an ostrich,” she observed, “could regard the supposedly neutral alternatives as race unconscious,” and only a (contorted) legal mind “could conclude that an admissions plan designed to produce racial diversity is not race conscious.”

The “diversity” standard in college admissions has gained great popularity because advocates of race-based affirmative action, stymied by the Court since Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, latched onto it as an alternative that could satisfy strict scrutiny. Many proponents have since persuaded themselves that diversity is, after all, a better approach than race-based affirmative action and that if the Court had not required it, we would have had to invent it. Yet while diversity in college classes is certainly an important educational and social goal, its elevation nonetheless dodges the nation’s racial legacy and avoids our constitutional and moral obligation to remedy the effects of centuries of slavery and legally sanctioned segregation. Without acknowledging we were doing so, we have engaged in a legal sleight of hand, substituting enriching the educational experience for remedying past injustice in designing affirmative action policy.

Underlying all this has been the Court majority’s conviction, most recently in Fisher I, that university officials have not identified specific Fourteenth Amendment violations for which their policies are a remedy, and therefore their consideration of race injects, without constitutional justification, a discriminatory racial consideration into the admissions process. The paucity of African Americans at the University of Texas reflects no de jure exclusion, the Fisher I majority believed, but only de factosocial inequality for which there is no race-conscious constitutional remedy. Therefore, including racial diversity in a scheme of skill-based, interest-based, or economic diversity is suspect, requiring very strict scrutiny. Indeed, the conditions set by the Fisher I majority opinion suggest a scrutiny that is strict in theory but fatal in fact. (I discuss the Fisher cases here only as they relate to the treatment of African Americans in affirmative action plans, not to that of other national or ethnic minorities or of disadvantaged economic groups; each has a different history and status, requires different opportunities to succeed, and raises different social policy and constitutional concerns).

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Supreme Court: Fair Housing Act Bars Policies that Segregate, even if Segregation is not Intentional

In June, Supreme Court decisions on Obamacare and same-sex marriage overshadowed another important decision, this one on housing discrimination, confirming that the Fair Housing Act not only prohibits actions or policies that are intentionally bigoted, but also those that have the effect of disadvantaging minorities, even where no racist intent can be proven.

The decision, whose background and implications I have discussed in more detail for The American Prospect in “The Supreme Court’s Challenge to Housing Segregation,” was widely interpreted as a civil rights victory, but yesterday a New York Times editorial disagreed. Supreme Court experts on Scotusblog, the excellent independent journalistic enterprise devoted to covering the court and its decisions, had in the moments after the court’s opinion was handed down, also denied that the decision was an advance for civil rights. On closer examination, however, the Times/Scotusblog theory doesn’t hold up.

“This might seem to be a ‘liberal’ result”, the Times wrote, “except that 11 federal appeals courts had agreed on this reading for decades. There was no legal dispute, in other words, only the persistent efforts of some justices to reverse accepted law because they didn’t like it.” The Scotusblog experts also noted that although Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion endorsed a prohibition on policies that have a discriminatory effect, it also described so many conditions required for proof of discriminatory effects that it seemed to make it more difficult to win cases where only such effects, not intent, have been proven. In sum, the argument went, the fact that this case was heard at all was a civil rights defeat–it is quite unusual for the court to take up a case where all lower courts are in agreement–and although the civil rights opponents lost the case, it gave these opponents tools to narrow, if not eviscerate, the power of the Fair Housing Act.

Justice Kennedy’s warnings about the narrow circumstances in which policies can be prohibited because of their effects, without provable intent, were generally warnings that were already present in appellate and previous Supreme Court decisions–for example, that a policy does not violate civil rights laws simply because there are statistical differences in how it impacts minorities; it also must be “arbitrary, artificial, and unnecessary”.

In important ways, Justice Kennedy’s opinion may have breathed life into the Fair Housing Law that the law had not previously possessed. The opinion did so by effectively acknowledging that the “Fair Housing Act” is a euphemism–it is not really about “fair” housing, whatever that may mean, but about desegregated housing, which is what the Act was intended to roll back when it was adopted in 1968.

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From Ferguson to Baltimore: The Fruits of Government-Sponsored Segregation

In Baltimore in 1910, a black Yale law school graduate purchased a home in a previously all-white neighborhood. The Baltimore city government reacted by adopting a residential segregation ordinance, restricting African Americans to designated blocks. Explaining the policy, Baltimore’s mayor proclaimed, “Blacks should be quarantined in isolated slums in order to reduce the incidence of civil disturbance, to prevent the spread of communicable disease into the nearby White neighborhoods, and to protect property values among the White majority.”

Thus began a century of federal, state, and local policies to quarantine Baltimore’s black population in isolated slums—policies that continue to the present day, as federal housing subsidy policies still disproportionately direct low-income black families to segregated neighborhoods and away from middle class suburbs.

Whenever young black men riot in response to police brutality or murder, as they have done in Baltimore this week, we’re tempted to think we can address the problem by improving police quality—training officers not to use excessive force, implementing community policing, encouraging police to be more sensitive, prohibiting racial profiling, and so on. These are all good, necessary, and important things to do. But such proposals ignore the obvious reality that the protests are not really (or primarily) about policing.

In 1968, following hundreds of similar riots nationwide, a commission appointed by President Lyndon Johnson concluded that “[o]ur nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal” and that “[s]egregation and poverty have created in the racial ghetto a destructive environment totally unknown to most white Americans.” The Kerner Commission (headed by Illinois Governor Otto Kerner) added that “[w]hat white Americans have never fully understood—but what the Negro can never forget—is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”

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Taking the Fall in Atlanta

Eleven Atlanta educators, convicted and imprisoned, have taken the fall for systematic cheating on standardized tests in American education. Such cheating is widespread, as is similar corruption in any institution—whether health care, criminal justice, the Veterans Administration, or others—where top policymakers try to manage their institutions with simple quantitative measures that distort the institution’s goals. This corruption is especially inevitable when out-of-touch policymakers set impossible-to-achieve goals and expect that success will nonetheless follow if only underlings are held accountable for measurable results.

There was little doubt, even before the jury’s decision, that Atlanta teachers and administrators had changed answers on student test booklets to increase scores. There was also little doubt that Atlanta’s late superintendent, Beverly Hall, was partly responsible because she had, as a state investigation revealed, “created a culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation” that had permitted “cheating—at all levels—to go unchecked for years.”

What the trial did not explore was whether Dr. Hall herself was reacting to a culture of fear, intimidation, and retaliation that her board, state education officials, and the Bush and Obama administrations had created. Just as her principals’ jobs were in jeopardy if test scores didn’t rise, her tenure, too, was dependent on ever rising test scores.

Holding educators accountable for student test results makes sense if the tests are reasonable reflections of teacher performance. But if they are not, and if educators are being held accountable for meeting standards that are impossible to achieve, then the only way to meet fanciful goals imposed from above—according to federal law, that all children will make adequate yearly progress towards full proficiency in 2014—is to cheat, using illegal or barely legal devices. It is not surprising that educators do just that.

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Should We Force Integration on Those Who Don’t Want It?, and Other Commonplace Questions about Race Relations

Last week, Stuart Butler and Jonathan Grabinsky of the Brookings Institution published a web-memorandum describing “Segregation and Concentrated Poverty in the Nation’s Capital.” It showed that racial segregation has not diminished in Washington, D.C. over the last 20 years and that few blacks in the city live in low-poverty neighborhoods, while most whites in the city do so. It noted that such segregation blocks economic mobility for African Americans.

I write here not so much to discuss their memorandum as the comments that followed it on the memo’s web page. One asked,

“Who is forcing this segregation? Could it just maybe be a voluntary choice of the individuals involved? Could it be basic human nature to be with those more like yourself??? Do you think we should force integration on all Americans regardless of what they want???… Why is it the business of government to decide who lives where??”

Another observed that African Americans in the Washington metropolitan area are

“…moving to segregated areas of Maryland which does not help the situation. Even though mandating a move [to integrated neighborhoods] might be a good social engineering experiment I’m sure it will be quickly looked on as gerrymandering.”

And another said that it is obvious that

“there are negative consequences to a person’s decision NOT to invest in their own human capital, to develop marketable skills or to become educated… [L]et’s not get fooled by the notion that “segregation” is a cause. We are all self-educated! It’s just that some of us decided not to participate in that effort. … I don’t have a whole lot of sympathy for anybody that decides to follow that path – nor do I think the rest of us should have to pay for it!”

These are very commonplace reactions to discussions of racial segregation, by those who are relatively well-informed and those who are not, and by liberals and conservatives alike. These issues deserve to be aired, explored, and resolved.

The first commenter asks, reasonably, “Why is it the business of government to decide who lives where?” Perhaps it is not, but the commenter fails to realize that it was government that decided that blacks should live in ghettos. We should think of efforts to desegregate as only a demand that government undo the enduring effects of its previous unconstitutional decisions about who should live where. The second commenter is partly correct that desegregation policy would be “social engineering.” What she fails to realize is that it would only be reverse social engineering, attempting to undo the harm previously committed by government’s successful and multi-faceted efforts to engineer segregation.Read more

Will the Supreme Court Annihilate One of the Most Effective Tools for Battling Racial Segregation in Housing?

The U.S. Supreme Court could be on the verge of issuing a major setback to racial integration efforts. In two weeks, it will hear oral arguments regarding whether the federal government and states should be permitted to pursue policies that perpetuate or exacerbate racial segregation in housing—even where no intent to segregate is proven.

The segregation of low-income minority families into economic and racial ghettos is one cause of the ongoing achievement gap in American education. Students from families with less literacy come to school less prepared to take advantage of good instruction. If they live in more distressed neighborhoods with more crime and violence, they come to school under stress that interferes with learning. When such students are concentrated in classrooms, even the best of teachers must spend more time on remediation and less on grade-level instruction.

The Economic Policy Institute, together with the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at the University of California, have organized a large group of housing scholars—historians and other social scientists—to sign a friend-of-the-court brief urging that housing policies perpetuating segregation should be banned.

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Education Policy is Civil Rights Policy

In an article just published in the journal Race and Social Policy, I reviewed why education policy is inseparable from civil rights policy. Failure to recognize this connection is the greatest impediment to improving the academic performance of disadvantaged African American and other minority and low-income children.

For years now, education policymakers and advocates have attempted to close the black-white achievement gap by reforming schools. The primary vehicles have been greater accountability for schools and teachers, higher expectations for students, deregulation and semi-privatization by charter schools, and more recently, curricular reform with the Common Core.

All efforts, however, have come up short. The racial achievement gap remains.

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What Led Us to the Troubles in Ferguson?

I’ve spent several years studying the evolution of residential segregation nationwide, motivated in part by convictions that the black-white achievement gap cannot be closed while low-income black children are isolated in segregated schools, that schools cannot be integrated unless neighborhoods are integrated, and that neighborhoods cannot be integrated unless we remedy the public policies that have created and support neighborhood segregation.

When Ferguson, Missouri, erupted in August, I suspected that federal, state and local policy had purposefully segregated St. Louis County, because this had occurred in so many other metropolises. After looking into the history of Ferguson, St. Louis, and the city’s other suburbs, I confirmed these were no different. In The Making of Ferguson: Public Policies at the Root of its Troubles, the Economic Policy Institute has now published a report documenting the basis for this conclusion, and The American Prospect has published a summary in an article in the current issue.

Since a Ferguson policeman shot and killed an unarmed black teenager, we’ve paid considerable attention to that town. If we’ve not been looking closely at our evolving demographic patterns, we were surprised to see ghetto conditions we had come to associate with inner cities now duplicated in almost every respect in a formerly white suburban community: racially segregated neighborhoods with high poverty and unemployment, poor student achievement in overwhelmingly black schools, oppressive policing, abandoned homes, and community powerlessness.

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Should Race-Based Affirmative Action be Replaced by Race-Neutral Preferences for Low-Income Students? The Discussion Continues

The Supreme Court has nearly abolished the obligation of selective colleges and universities to give an advantage in admissions to African Americans, as a way to compensate for centuries of racially discriminatory public policy. According to the Court, such “affirmative action” violates the Constitution, which requires public universities to be “colorblind”—equally resistant to discriminating against African Americans as to favoring them to undo the effects of past discrimination.

The only race-conscious admissions programs the Court continues to permit is the pursuit of “diversity.”  Universities may seek to ensure that their entering classes include a few violinists, jai-alai players, modern dancers, chess whizzes, computer nerds and, oh yes, some African Americans as well. This is a very small hoop through which admissions officers can jump.

In response, many liberals have attempted to develop a proxy for affirmative action—policy to increase the admission of African Americans by selecting characteristics that are not specifically black, but that in practice heavily favor blacks. The most common proxy is favoring the admission of low-income students of all races, or the admission of students of all races who live in low-income communities. As Justice Ginsburg has observed, “only an ostrich” can pretend that such policy is colorblind, because everyone knows that its true purpose is to evade the Court’s prohibition of affirmative action for African Americans.

But so far, the subterfuge has worked. The academic top-tier public universities in Texas, California, and Florida have guaranteed admission to graduates with the best grade-point averages from each high school in their states. Because large numbers of African Americans in these states are trapped in segregated low-income neighborhoods, the top students from ghetto high schools are guaranteed university admission, even if their academic qualifications are weaker than those of students who are not guaranteed admission but who attend high schools in middle class communities. Some private colleges have also developed policies that favor low-income students and these, too, necessarily enroll a disproportionate number of African Americans.

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History Teaches Us We Need Race-Conscious Policies

In the current issue of The American Prospect, I charge that many liberals and civil rights advocates have been too quick to accommodate to a reactionary Supreme Court plurality that considers the nation’s racial problems to be solved or beyond remedy. The Court now says that institutions of higher education must be “colorblind” in their admissions procedures, because racial preferences are unacceptable unless designed as a remedy for specific state-sponsored acts to discriminate against African Americans. And such acts, the Court says, are no longer responsible for African Americans’ disadvantages.

It may well be pragmatically necessary for universities to operate within the confines of Court rulings by substituting recruitment of low-income students for African Americans and by seeking “diversity” in incoming classes. But necessary though these policies may be in the short term, they are flawed because the descendants of American slaves and the victims of government-sponsored Jim Crow rules, in the North as much as in the South, remain uniquely entitled to affirmative action. And while students from low-income families are easy to identify, it is much more difficult to remain colorblind while continuing to identify working and middle-class African American students who are the most deserving of university admission assistance.

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Unemployment, Schools, Wages, and the Mythical Skills Gap

Conventional wisdom holds that the American workforce lacks the specialized skills that employers are looking for, and that this “skills gap” is the main, if not the only, explanation for our persistently high unemployment rate—especially our long-term unemployment rate. Paul Krugman helpfully exploded this idea in his New York Times column on Monday, making these key points:

  • The ratio of unfilled jobs to unemployed workers today is quite low by historical standards. There are always unfilled jobs, because workers leave and employers have not yet had time or opportunity to hire replacements. This is a frictional, not structural, phenomenon. There are very few, if any, jobs today that remain unfilled because employers cannot find workers with the needed skills.
  • Today’s long term unemployed have skills comparable to those of recently laid-off workers “who quickly find new jobs.” The long-term unemployed face a shortage of demand for their labor, not skill requirements beyond their education and training.
  • If there really were a skills shortage, we would expect to see wages increasing in job categories where skills are allegedly in short supply. But such wages are not increasing.

Nor have wages increased for quite a while. It is especially telling that wages of college graduates, not just those of non-college educated workers, have been flat for a decade, and that young college graduates have been faring poorly, even prior to the 2008 recession. According to a recent report of the New York Federal Reserve Board, the percentage of recent college graduates “who are unemployed or ‘underemployed’—working in a job that typically does not require a bachelor’s degree—has risen, particularly since the 2001 recession. Moreover, the quality of the jobs held by the underemployed has declined, with today’s recent graduates increasingly accepting low-wage jobs or working part-time.” In other words, “skills gaps” are responsible for neither our unemployment problems nor our wage problems.

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Socioeconomic School Integration Is a Worthy Goal, but Racial Segregation Presents Added Challenges

Are African Americans disadvantaged—for example, having lower school achievement—because they have lower family incomes, on average, than whites, or because they continue to suffer from an American caste system based on race?

Both are involved. Certainly, in a color-blind society, African American students would have lower average achievement simply because a higher proportion of African American than white students have income and other socioeconomic disadvantages that depress their ability to take full advantage of schooling.

Therefore, policies that attempt to offset the disadvantages that impede the success of all lower class children, regardless of race or ethnicity, can benefit black children disproportionately. But we should not delude ourselves that by narrowing socioeconomic inequality, we have also significantly addressed racial subjugation, the continuing American dilemma.

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A Strong Precedent for a Better Accountability System

Education policy in both the Bush and Obama administrations has suffered from failure to acknowledge a critical principle of performance evaluation in all fields, public and private—if an institution has multiple goals but is held accountable only for some, its agents, acting rationally, will increase attention paid to goals for which they are evaluated, and diminish attention to those, perhaps equally important, for which they are not evaluated.

When law and policy hold schools accountable primarily for their students’ math and reading test scores, educators inevitably, and rationally, devote less instructional resources to history, the sciences, the arts and music, citizenship, physical and emotional health, social skills, a work ethic and other curricular areas.

Over the last decade, racial minority and socio-economically disadvantaged students have suffered the most from this curricular narrowing. As those with the lowest math and reading scores, theirs are the teachers and schools who are under the most pressure to devote greater time to test prep, and less to the other subjects of a balanced instructional program.

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African American Poverty: Concentrated and Multi-Generational

In the current issue of The American Prospect, I review Patrick Sharkey’s Stuck in Place, a 2013 book that helps explain the persistent failure of educational policy to spur the upward mobility of low-income African American youth.

It is now well understood that many characteristics of children from low-income families—poor health, housing instability, inadequate pre-literacy experiences when young and inadequate after-school enrichment opportunities when older—make it difficult to take advantage of even the best classroom instruction. A quarter of a century ago, William Julius Wilson’s The Truly Disadvantaged showed that the harm is magnified when children with these disadvantages are concentrated in urban ghettos where jobs have vanished, violence, drugs, and stress are commonplace, and there are few adult role models of academic success.

Building on Wilson’s work, Sharkey demonstrates that the harm is exacerbated when families live in such low-income neighborhoods for multiple generations. Indeed, a child’s chance of success may be harmed as much or more by having a mother who grew up in a poor neighborhood than by growing up in a poor neighborhood him or herself. And, Sharkey shows, between black and white children who live in poor neighborhoods, blacks are more likely to have done so for multiple generations.

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Truth As Well As Reconciliation

In the last week, we’ve paid great attention to Nelson Mandela’s call for forgiveness and reconciliation between South Africa’s former white rulers and its exploited black majority. But we’ve paid less attention to the condition that Mandela insisted must underlie reconciliation—truth. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission that Mandela established, and that Bishop Desmond Tutu chaired, was designed to contribute to cleansing wounds of the country’s racist history by exposing it to a disinfecting bright light. As for those Afrikaners who committed even the worst acts of violence against blacks, they could be forgiven and move on only if they acknowledged the full details of their crimes.

In the current issue of the School Administrator, I write that we do a much worse job of facing up to our racial history in the United States, leading us to make less progress than necessary in remedying racial inequality. We have many celebrations of the civil rights movement and its heroes, but we do very little to explain to young people why that movement was so necessary. Earlier this week, the New York Times described how the Alabama Historical Association has placed many commemorative markers around Montgomery to commemorate civil rights heroes like Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rosa Parks, but declined—because of “the potential for controversy”—to call attention to the city’s slave markets and their role in the spread of slavery before the Civil War. Throughout our nation, this fear of confronting the past makes it more difficult to address and remedy the ongoing existence of urban ghettos, the persistence of the black-white achievement gap, and the continued under-representation of African Americans in higher education and better-paying jobs.

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“PISA Day”—An Ideological and Hyperventilated Exercise

National average scores of students on the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) will be released Tuesday, and we urge commentators and education policymakers to avoid jumping to quick conclusions from a superficial “horse race” examination of these scores.

Typically, The U.S. Department of Education (ED) is given an advance look at test score data by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and issues press releases with conclusions based on its preliminary review of the results. The OECD itself also provides a publicized interpretation of the results. This year, ED and the OECD are planning a highly orchestrated event, “PISA Day,” to manipulate coverage of this release.

It is usual practice for research organizations (and in some cases, the government) to provide advance copies of their reports to objective journalists. That way, journalists have an opportunity to review the data and can write about them in a more informed fashion. Sometimes, journalists are permitted to share this embargoed information with diverse experts who can help the journalists understand possibly alternative interpretations.

In this case, however, the OECD and ED have instead given their PISA report to selected advocacy groups that can be counted on, for the most part, to echo official interpretations and participate as a chorus in the official release.1 These are groups whose interpretation of the data has typically been aligned with that of the OECD and ED—that American schools are in decline and that international test scores portend an economic disaster for the United States, unless the school reform programs favored by the administration are followed.

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Responding to an Uninformed Critique

Earlier this year, we published an analysis of international test score data in which we showed that these data hide many complex issues, and that glib conclusions regarding the meaning and policy implications of international test data should be avoided. We showed that it is more appropriate to compare student performance across countries by comparing students with similar social class backgrounds, and we showed that comparative information is more useful if it includes test data trends over time as well as levels in the current year. We also presented apparent anomalies in test data (for example, periods in which performance on one international test goes up but performance on another international test, purporting to measure the same subject, goes down, or carelessness in sampling methodology) that should caution analysts from relying too heavily on test score data.

Upon the release of our report, we were attacked by several promoters of the conventional idea that international test data show that American schools are in collapse and are threatening our economic security. Prominent among these was Marc Tucker, president of one of the leading education-scold organizations, the National Center on Education and the Economy. Tucker attacked our report without having bothered to read it, and was subsequently forced to issue an apology for misrepresenting our findings (“We misstated the conclusions presented by Martin Carnoy and Richard Rothstein in the report described in this newsletter. We believe we have stated those conclusions accurately here, and apologize to the authors for the error”).

He apparently didn’t learn anything from this embarrassing episode, because now, two weeks before release of new international test score data, he has again attacked our earlier report, again based on his own misrepresentations of what the report actually says. The occasion of his current critique is Valerie Strauss’ Answer Sheet blog at The Washington Post.

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EPI Submits Amicus Brief on Civil Rights Case to SCOTUS

The Supreme Court has accepted a case in which the relevance of “disparate impact” evidence in discrimination cases brought under the Fair Housing Act is being challenged. The Economic Policy Institute, in collaboration with the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy at the University of California School of Law, and with the U.C. Berkeley Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society,  has submitted an Amicus Curiae brief to the Court in this case.

Our brief argues that entrenched patterns of residential segregation, established substantially by government policy, structure the housing opportunities of African Americans into the present time. In a case like that considered by the Court, a redevelopment project that displaces African Americans could violate the Fair Housing Act if provision is not made for the relocation of displaced residents into integrated middle-class communities nearby.

Many distinguished scholars have joined us as amici in this brief, including Elizabeth Anderson, John Brittain, Nancy Denton, Christopher Edley, Jr., James Kushner, Ira Katznelson, James Loewen, Myron Orfield, Jr., John Powell, Gregory Squires, and many others.

If you are a scholar in this field, and we neglected to invite you to join these amici, please understand that it was an oversight under serious time-pressure to submit this brief by the Court’s deadline.

Does “Poverty” Cause Low Achievement?

On her “Bridging Differences” blog, educator Deborah Meier began a discussion with Mike Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, on whether urging disadvantaged women to defer childbearing until they had sufficient income (whether from work or marriage) to adequately support their offspring would result in better outcomes for those children. This, in turn, led to an extended discussion (not on the blog, but widely circulated among some education policy experts and commentators by e-mail) about whether alleviating poverty would raise student achievement, whether alleviating poverty through tax reform or income redistribution might be effective for that purpose, whether poor children in the United States have worse outcomes than poor children in other countries, what the best way might be to calculate poverty levels across countries, and whether school reform in the absence of alleviating poverty can be significantly effective.

The shortcoming of this discussion is that because Americans are averse to acknowledging the concept of social class and hold to a widely shared myth of unrestricted mobility (that is less and less reflective of reality), we tend to use the term “poverty” as a proxy for lower social class status. This shortcut causes great mischief in educational policy. Lower class children are not only characterized by having families with low current money income; they also have a collection of interacting characteristics, each of which affects the ability to learn.

Years ago, the Heritage Foundation published a report called No Excuses, by Samuel Casey Carter. Among others, one school it found enrolled a majority of children who were eligible for subsidized lunches yet who still had high achievement. According to the report, this (along with other, equally flawed examples) proved that poverty is no bar to high achievement. The school in question was in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and it turned out that the students mostly had parents who were graduate students at Harvard or MIT, whose stipends were low enough that their children were eligible for the lunch program.

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Flawed Diagnoses and Inappropriate Cures in Education

I don’t mean to pick on Joel Klein, the former New York City schools chancellor, but he has made himself such a caricature of self-styled school reformers who are undermining American public education that it would be a mistake not to respond to the claims on which he bases his efforts.

Last year, I addressed Mr. Klein’s conclusion that public education must be failing because he himself grew up in public housing as a “kid of the streets,” yet owed his success to great public schools; and if only children from public housing projects today had schools as good as his, they too would be successful.

The analysis, it turned out, was misleading. The New York City public housing in which the Klein family lived in the 1950s was segregated, constructed for white middle class two-parent households where the husband had a stable employment history and where market rents were charged with no public subsidy. Such housing projects no longer exist, and the conditions in which Joel Klein grew up bear no resemblance to those from which minority children in impoverished families come to school today.

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How Much We Have Backslid

The nation has made great progress in race relations in the last 50 years. But in some respects, we’ve gone backwards, and we continue to do so.

A case in point is a Wednesday interview with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on NPR’s Diane Rehm Show.

Host Susan Page asked the secretary about his views on racial integration. I was a panelist on the program, and was asked to comment.

Ms. Page’s specific question concerned a lawsuit in Louisiana. This is what Secretary Duncan said about the broader issue of racial integration:

“I fundamentally think the need for integration and more integrative schools is very real, and there are things that we can do. Obviously, there are housing patterns that present challenges.… But I was fortunate to go to an integrated school, you know, all the way through K-12.

And I don’t think I could do a job like this was I not, you know, didn’t have that kind of opportunity. And far too many children today are denied that opportunity. So, yes, we want to do everything to make sure they’re, you know, getting rigorous course work and have great teachers and are academically prepared for college. But you want children to grow up comfortable and confident with other people who come from different backgrounds from them.

And if they don’t have those opportunities—not that you can’t learn it as an adult, but it’s much harder. So whatever we can do to continue to increase integration in a voluntary way—I don’t think you could force these kinds of things—we want to be very, very thoughtful and to try to do more in that area quite frankly.”

It was a shocking statement in two respects, but typical of how even many liberals who claim to support racial justice today think of integration.

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EPI research by Richard Rothstein

  • The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America

    2017 | By Richard Rothstein | Book
  • How does our discriminatory criminal justice system affect children?: Black children are six times as likely as white children to have a parent who’s been incarcerated

    December 21, 2016 | By Leila Morsy and Richard Rothstein | Economic Snapshot
  • Mass incarceration and children’s outcomes: Criminal justice policy is education policy

    December 15, 2016 | By Leila Morsy and Richard Rothstein | Report
  • Parents’ Non-Standard Work Schedules Make Adequate Childrearing Difficult: Reforming Labor Market Practices Can Improve Children’s Cognitive and Behavioral Outcomes

    August 6, 2015 | By Leila Morsy and Richard Rothstein | Report
  • The Supreme Court’s Challenge to Housing Segregation

    July 7, 2015 | By Richard Rothstein | Commentary
  • Five Social Disadvantages That Depress Student Performance: Why Schools Alone Can’t Close Achievement Gaps

    June 10, 2015 | By Leila Morsy and Richard Rothstein | Report