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What the History of School Integration Has to Teach Us

The Little Rock Nine Memorial pays homage to the students who integrated Little Rock Central High School in 1957.

The Little Rock Nine Memorial pays homage to the students who integrated Little Rock Central High School in 1957.

Back when Nikole Hannah-Jones was a student in the 1980s and 90s, many towns and cities had programs in place to integrate their public schools. Her parents chose to enroll Hannah-Jones in their Iowa district’s voluntary desegregation program, which allowed some black students to attend wealthier, mostly white schools across town.

“I have no doubt my parents’ decision to pull me out of my segregated neighborhood school made the possibility of my getting from there to here—staff writer for The New York Times Magazine—more likely,” Hannah-Jones writes in a feature article for that publication published Sunday.

Many studies have shown that integrated schools improve outcomes for minority students. When minority students attend integrated schools they learn more, earn more over their lifetimes, and significantly reduce the achievement gap.

Hannah-Jones’ years in school marked the height of school integration efforts in the United States.

In 1988, nationwide, 45 percent of black students attended majority white schools. That year the score gap between black and white middle and high school students on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)—often known as the nation’s report card—was also the smallest it’s ever been since the test was first administered in the early 1970s.

Unfortunately, in the years since, the nation has backslid on integration.

Instead of focusing on integrating schools, the country has now chosen to fixate on test-based accountability measures—as though the right yard stick is all we need to close the test-score gap between poor minority students and their wealthy white peers.

Hannah-Jones writes,

“When Ronald Reagan became president in 1981, he promoted the notion that using race to integrate schools was just as bad as using race to segregate them. He urged the nation to focus on improving segregated schools by holding them to strict standards, a tacit return to the ‘separate but equal’ doctrine that was roundly rejected in Brown. His administration emphasized that busing and other desegregation programs discriminated against white students. Reagan eliminated federal dollars earmarked to help desegregation and pushed to end hundreds of school-desegregation court orders. Yet this was the very period when the benefits of integration were becoming most apparent.”

Read the entire New York Times Magazine article, Choosing a School for My Daughter in a Segregated City.

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