Sarah Garland is a staff writer at the Hechinger Report. She has written for the New York Times, Washington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, Chicago Tribune, American Prospect, New York Sun, Newsweek, Washington Monthly, Newsday, New York, and Marie Claire, among other publications. She was a 2009 recipient of the Spencer Fellowship in Education Reporting at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
Garland grew up in a middle-class suburb and was bused to an inner-city elementary school in Louisville, Kentucky. In 2007, a case brought by African American parents in Louisville brought to a close the era of school desegregation, and Garland examines the circumstances around this case in her new book, Divided We Fail. We asked her three questions about the book for our blog.
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The traditional narrative of desegregation paints a picture of heroic children like Ruby Bridges marching past angry whites opposed to integrated schools. We don't hear much beyond those first, contentious post-Brown v. Board of Education days. How does this simplification gloss over the achievements and problems of desegregation?
Desegregation of the schools was a major achievement—and one that was long fought. But in celebrating that history, the story of black civil rights heroes and their white antagonists often obscures what some in the black community saw as very unfortunate side effects: the closure of traditionally black schools, the firing of black teachers, and a loss of power for black communities in overseeing their schools. No one wanted to go back to the era of Jim Crow, but people were frustrated that in the process of desegregating schools, whites maintained the upper hand and black students still faced many inequities. That’s not to undermine what was achieved with Brown v. Board of Education, but to suggest that desegregation didn’t live up to the hopes many people had for it.
Are contemporary school reform movements—charter schools, Race to the Top, focusing on "accountability"—achieving better results than desegregation in closing the racial gap in education?
In a word, no. There is still not a lot of research on how new reform ideas like Race to the Top are impacting schools, and what research there is on charter suggests that while some charters are succeeding in closing the achievement gap, most are not. Desegregation, by contrast, corresponded with the most rapid shrinking of the achievement gap for black children yet. It was not the only factor contributing to those gains, but research suggests it had a hand, and also that diverse environments can be very positive for minority student achievement. That said, the gap didn’t fully close during desegregation (possibly because of the continued inequities perpetuated in the new systems).
I think reformers today can look back at what worked and what didn’t and learn something. Already some are. Recently, there’s been something of a resurgence of support for integration: Some charter operators are trying to create diverse student bodies and a handful of school superintendents are rethinking the role of racial and economic diversity in schools.
How did your experiences as a student bused to an integrated school inform your research and writing?
Busing was a formative experience for me. Probably for all of us who went through it. I loved my school, which was near downtown Louisville amid some of the poorest housing projects in the city. I had good teachers and great memories of frequent field trips—we would walk in a line through those inner city streets to get to the museums downtown. I think the experience made the persistence of poverty and inequality in our society vividly real to me. But even though my school was diverse and in this neighborhood very different from my own suburban enclave, my days were spent with classmates who looked just like me. We were divided inside the school into advanced, honors and regular classes, and all but a couple of students in the advanced classes were white and middle class. That disparity also stayed with me, and was one of the main reasons I decided to write the book.
Examines why school desegregation, despite its success in closing the achievement gap, was never embraced wholeheartedly in the black community as a remedy for racial inequality
In 2007, a court case originally filed in Louisville, Kentucky, was argued before the Supreme Court and officially ended the era of school desegregation, changing how schools across America handle race and undermining the most important civil rights cases of the last century. This was not the first federal lawsuit that challenged school desegregation, but it was the first-and only-brought by African Americans.
In this unique in-depth examination of the Louisville case, journalist Sarah Garland returns to her hometown to understand why black families in the most racially integrated school system in America led the charge against desegregation. Weaving together the voices of parents, students, and teachers who fought for and against desegregation, Garland's eye-opening narrative upends assumptions about the history of busing and its aftermath.
Desegregation corresponded with unprecedented gains in black achievement and economic progress, but in Louisville, those gains often came at a cost: traditionally black schools that had been bastions of community identity and pride faced closure; hundreds of black teachers lost their jobs; parents were helpless as their children's futures were dictated by racial quotas. In illuminating the often overlooked human stories behind this fraught legal struggle, Garland reveals the difficult compromises forced on the black community in the wake of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision.
Divided We Fail is a nuanced and gripping account of one community's struggle that has important lessons for the next generation of education reformers. By taking a close look at where desegregation went wrong, Garland uncovers problems with a new set of education ideas, including school choice, charter schools, and test-based accountability systems. But she also reminds us not to forget desegregation's many successes as we look for ways to close the achievement gap for minority students.
About the author
Sarah Garland is a staff writer at the Hechinger Report. She has written for the New York Times, Washington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, Chicago Tribune, American Prospect, New York Sun, Newsweek, Washington Monthly, Newsday, New York, and Marie Claire, among other publications. She was a 2009 recipient of the Spencer Fellowship in Education Reporting at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Originally from Louisville, Kentucky, Garland now lives in Brooklyn, New York. Follow her on Twitter at @s_garl.
Kirkus: “A useful journalistic examination of a troubling societal phenomenon.”
Publishers Weekly: “…a nuanced and thoroughly researched look at the complicated history of school desegregation in the United States…Garland is unafraid to grapple with hard truths and intimate portraits of the families behind the statistics.”
Booklist: “a compelling look at the complexities of race and class in the continued struggle for racial parity and high-quality education.”
Journalist Sarah Garland grew up in Louisville. Day after day, she left her mostly Caucasian suburban neighborhood on a school bus taking her to a mostly African-American neighborhood, where she became a student in a racial minority. Her experience long ago played a role in her decision to write “Divided We Fail,” which covers the case that found its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. So did the experience of Garland’s grandmother, an Oklahoma teacher who volunteered to join the initial group of Caucasian educators transferred to an all African-American school, where she remained until retirement. Garland relates how her own mother became a social worker splitting time between a mostly African-American school and a mostly Caucasian school in Louisville. Garland’s mother “witnessed firsthand the upheaval and violence that busing wrought in its early years.”
Sarah Garland is a staff writer at The Hechinger Report. She has written about education, crime and immigration for the New York Times, Newsweek, the Atlantic, and the American Prospect, among others. Her first book, Gangs in Garden City, was a runner up for an Investigative Reporters and Editor award. Her second book, Divided We Fail, will be published by Beacon Press in 2013. This post originally appeared at the Hechinger Report blog.
In a New York Times editorial over the weekend, University of California, Berkeley professor David Kirp asks why we’ve turned away from school integration, an education reform that has quite extensive evidence showing it worked:
“Economists’ studies consistently conclude that African-American students who attended integrated schools fared better academically than those left behind in segregated schools. They were more likely to graduate from high school and attend and graduate from college; and, the longer they spent attending integrated schools, the better they did.”
Indeed, during the 1970s and 1980s—the time when desegregation was in full force—the achievement gap closed faster than it ever has before or since. Why did we abandon such a successful intervention? Kirp writes that “desegregation was too often implemented in ham-handed fashion, undermining its effectiveness,” but doesn’t go into detail.
In fact, the “ham-handed” way that busing was done in many cities is part of the reason for its downfall. Black students may have benefited, but there were many sacrifices that came along with busing—and not just long bus rides for black kids. Kirp doesn’t mention how black families viewed desegregation, and the flaws many saw in the way it was framed and then implemented. In reporting I’m doing for a book due out next January, Divided We Fail, I have spent the past few years talking to a group of black families about their views of busing, and why they led a charge against desegregation in their city of Louisville, KY.
The other piece of the puzzle of why desegregation disappeared is the rise of the school choice movement. Others have argued before that the two don’t mix well, and school choice won out.
None of this is to say that desegregation should be considered irrelevant. Quite the opposite. Both its successes and failures have a lot to teach those seeking to reform the public education system today.