You all probably know that the Supreme Court effectively put an end to the practice of busing to integrate schools last year. As the clouds of judicial action formed over busing proponents over the last few years, many looked to Raleigh, NC for inspiration. The Wake County public school system -- which is actually among the 30 or so largest school districts in the nation -- saw the writing on the wall and changed their official rationale for busing. Rather than achieve racial balance, the new goal was to ensure socioeconomic diversity -- a mix of rich and poor children in all schools, be they in the inner-city or the suburbs.
The Wake County plan may be constitutional, but it turned out to be incredibly unpopular. In a school board election this week, a slate of anti-busing candidates swept into office, tilting the majority on the board. It turns out that busing was opposed not only by a huge majority of Republicans, but about half of Democrats and half of African-Americans as well. This comes from a poll conducted by busing proponents, who conveniently buried the results until after the election.
The small but vocal minority supporting the busing plan laments that the end of the plan will mean a dramatic widening of the achievement gap, whether between rich and poor or black and white. As it turns out, I've done a bit of work looking at this subject. The consequences may not be so dire after all.
There are a couple of simple facts that make school segregation look like a very bad thing. The state with the greatest amount of school segregation (Michigan) also has the widest black-white test score gap. Over the past 50 years, periods of school integration have also been periods of gap-narrowing, and vice versa.
As I say over and over to my students, though, correlation does not prove causality. Are the African-American students in Michigan disadvantaged because they don't share schools with whites, or because they are concentrated in famously dysfunctional Detroit? Is the widening of the test score gap between the mid-80s and the mid-00s a function of segregation, or of widening inequality among kids' parents?
Ultimately, we just don't have very good information about the impact of school segregation on test score gaps. The best information we have comes from simple case studies: tracking the aftermath of sudden changes in busing policy.
The case of Charlotte-Mecklenburg came up very frequently in the Wake County debates. Charlotte stopped busing, under court order, around 2002. Has the test score gap exploded since then? That's not too hard to assess. Anybody can go online to the National Assessment of Education Progress and check out test scores for Charlotte's public school students.
The answer: yes, the test score gap has widened a bit in Charlotte between 2003 and 2007 (that's as far back as the NAEP data go). But here's the thing: the test scores of African-American students in Charlotte have actually improved. It's just that the scores of White students have increased more.
This brings up one little pet peeve of mine. There is much hand-wringing about the achievement gap these days. But there are two ways to close a gap: to bring the bottom up or to push the top down. Should we congratulate ourselves for closing the racial achievement gap if everybody's scores went down in the process? Of course not! If you are concerned about equity in education (and who isn't?) the goal should be to improve performance, not to close the achievement gap per se.