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Three questions about desegregation for Sarah Garland, author of Divided We Fail

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. 

In honor of Black History Month, you can purchase Divided We Fail along with many other Black History titles for 20% off and free shipping at Beacon.org. Use Promo Code FEB2013 at checkout. Buy two or more titles and get a free King Legacy tote bag. 

0177The 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.