- The Washington Times - Friday, May 29, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

WHY THERE ARE NO BAD SCHOOLS IN RALEIGH

By Gerald Grant

Harvard University Press, $25.95, 191 pages

Reviewed by Phil Brand

Mr. Suburbanite, tear down this wall! That’s the message Gerald Grant heralds in his book “Hope and Despair in the American City.” Mr. Grant is referring to the “invisible wall” that severs city from suburb - the policy of separate school districts. It’s a policy that concentrates poor and minority students in city schools, with tragic results for students and ultimately for the inner cities in which they live.

The challenge of fixing failed urban schools has frustrated parents, educators and politicians for decades. When schools aren’t safe and children don’t learn, the problems of neighborhoods are exacerbated - broken homes, unemployment, a culture of low expectations - and produce more educational dysfunction. It’s a vicious cycle. However, in studying the school policies implemented in Wake County, N.C. (Raleigh), Mr. Grant, a professor of education and sociology at Syracuse University, thinks he sees a way out.

Raleigh buses high-achieving students from wealthier families to schools with low-performing students from poorer families, and vice-versa. The goal is that “individual schools reflect a free and reduced lunch ratio no greater than 40 percent of its student population and an achievement level of less than 25 percent of students below grade level.” In other words, Raleigh uses busing to achieve socioeconomic integration in its schools, mixing high- and low-achieving students.

Busing in Raleigh began in belated response to the Supreme Court’s 1954 desegregation mandate in Brown v. Board of Education. Raleigh bused black children to white schools and white children to black schools. In hindsight, it’s easy to see how that policy backfired. Forced busing spurred white flight, and it hindered rather than helped the cause of integration. Think of the protests that roiled Boston schools for years. Busing was a tried-and-failed policy when it focused on race. Why then, when the policy is focused on class, does Mr. Grant consider it the hope for revitalizing inner cities and their schools?

Despite past bungles, Mr. Grant argues that busing is not inherently flawed. Rather, the flaw is in allowing parents to buy “quasi-private schooling” for their children by moving to the suburbs. Raleigh pre-empted that concern by merging the city school district with suburban ones to become one unified, countywide district.

The logic behind busing derives from an influential 1966 study of the determinants of student achievement called the Coleman Report, and Mr. Grant draws heavily on it. The report found that a child’s classmates influence achievement more than any other school factor. Mr. Grant writes, “The norms of a good school are shaped more by the children who come through the door than the dollars spent on books, buildings, laboratories, teacher salaries, or other traditional measures of school quality.”

Students from middle-class families bring with them a set of expectations, support networks and attitudes - what Mr. Grant calls “social capital” - that is conducive to learning. “Social capital is the yeast that makes a good school rise.”

Wake County is using busing policy to redistribute students by socioeconomic class. As a result, it is achieving what Mr. Grant variously terms “the right balance,” a “healthy balance” and a “workable balance” of race and class in each school. The equitable redistribution of children, Mr. Grant asserts, means there are “no bad schools in Raleigh.”

He says this is a win-win proposition, but his discussions with the district’s teachers tell a different story. “A major redistribution of teaching resources to better serve low-performing students,” Mr. Grant writes, caused most teachers to make “significant changes in how they taught.” One teacher is quoted as saying he spent more time “teaching strategies that are going to work for these lower-level kids” and asked questions in a way that “works lower-level students into it.” In effect, by shifting their limited time and resources from one priority to another, Raleigh teachers create their own winners and losers, a reality Mr. Grant glosses over.

More important, forced busing leaves parents feeling powerless. Rapid increases in the number of poor students means nearly a third of Raleigh schools exceed the cap on poor children in a given school. As the district uses busing to redress the demographic imbalances, many parents have concluded that their children are used as pawns in a grand egalitarian chess match. They are forming protest groups with names like Take Wake Schools Back and Wake Schools Community Alliance.

“Hope and Despair” is refreshingly free of professorial jargon. The author blends his personal experiences with wide-ranging interviews and a dash of research to provide a largely sound analysis of the state of urban education. His investigation of the benefits of a community that transcends our individual differences may elicit nods of agreement even as readers recognize that we form communities through interests and ideas that we hold in common. Mr. Grant’s brief for redistribution will not find favor with many unpersuaded readers.

Phil Brand is director of Education Watch at the Capital Research Center.

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