chalk talk

Race and education in Nashville: Author Ansley Erickson on the hidden policy choices that sustain inequality

PHOTO: Special Collections at the Nashville Public Library
Grace McKinley escorts her daughter Linda Gail and a friend to Fehr Elementary School in Nashville in September 1957 amid Nashvillians protesting desegregation of the city's schools.

In her new book Making the Unequal Metropolis, Ansley Erickson describes the desegregation and subsequent resegregation of Nashville’s public schools, carefully tracing the path of today’s educational inequalities to their roots.

Ansley Erickson
PHOTO: Columbia University
Ansley Erickson

Erickson, a Georgia native and professor of history at Columbia University’s Teachers College, describes how the city did better than most districts across America in achieving “statistical desegregation,” or getting black and white students to attend school with one another. But having white and black students in the same building is not enough, Erickson argues. The inequalities from the Jim Crow era were carried over into the city’s desegregated schools in different forms: black students bore the brunt of the district’s ambitious busing program and often faced inferior academic instruction once they reached their integrated school.

Today, many Nashville schools have resegregated, although black students in Nashville are joined in their high-poverty schools by an increasing number of immigrants and refugees — groups not present during the initial battle over racial equality in schooling.

Erickson’s book is not a warning against desegregation. Far from it. Instead, she hopes that communities will look toward growing research that suggests desegregation is necessary for equitable schooling. And she hopes that they will use Nashville’s story as a guide on how to get it right — and what pitfalls to avoid.

Chalkbeat talked with Erickson about what test scores do and don’t say about equality, school choice, how Nashville’s schools resegregated, and how they might desegregate again.

Why did you choose to focus on Nashville?

My husband’s job brought us to Nashville for one year (in 2003). I was a high school teacher in New York City, and I taught in the South Bronx, and before that in Central Harlem. Both of the schools I taught in were segregated by race and class. Before moving to Nashville, I started doing some reading about the city in the Harvard Civil Rights Reports (now at UCLA.) They listed Nashville as one of the more desegregated school systems historically. I was interested in Nashville’s story because it seemed so strikingly different than (the segregation) I saw in the Bronx. I had a small grant to do some documentary video work, so I did a lot of the interviews with Nashville residents who had various experiences with the beginning of busing. Once I finished it, I realized I had more fundamental historical questions I hadn’t been able to answer. I knew this would be the project I returned to in my doctoral work.

Until relatively recently, Nashville was considered a best-case scenario for school desegregation, and yet many of its schools have since resegregated. What caused resegregation to happen so swiftly in the late 1990s and early 2000s, even in cities considered socially progressive?

Until 1998, the school system had achieved greater levels of what I call statistical desegregation —  because I want to recognize that desegregation isn’t a sufficient measure for full equality — at levels higher than almost any other American school system. Starting in the early 1990s, a group of local community advocates — more fairly described as a group of local business and civic leaders — began to explore what could be done to end court supervision. Mayor Phil Bredesen was a big part of this conversation. So was the Chamber of Commerce. There was a view that … the state of Nashville schools … was hampering economic growth. And the rhetoric was that (schools would improve) if they lifted the court order. The impetus was largely from white elites, but there was also frustration and dwindling satisfaction in desegregation from many African-Americans in Nashville. And so those two parties worked together to end the desegregation phase. The deal they cut was to return to neighborhood schools, and those schools quickly became very resegregated.

In the years of peak desegregation, test scores for black students reached historic heights. White students also saw improvements in scores, or at worse, their scores stayed the same. Desegregation therefore was successful in beginning to close the oft-discussed achievement gap. And yet, inequalities still persisted. What is lost in almost exclusively framing of discussions about education in terms of achievement? How can we add nuance to these conversations?

First off, from our very test-score focused moment, it’s quite striking to think of desegregation as an achievement gap-closing mechanism. In the big narrative we have of desegregation as a failure, it’s important that we see national data supporting the fact that the achievement gap closed.

"Desegregation ... had benefits that aren't going to be captured in tests."

In terms of examples of inequalities that persisted even as test scores rose, one of Nashville’s stories is the return to vocational education at the same time busing begins. Historically, (vocational education) has been more of a site for perpetuating racial and class inequality than a challenge to those inequalities. In Nashville, that pattern continued. As high schools got more diverse racially, students were channeled into unequal tracking. I heard stories from students and teachers that adults in schools made judgments about where they thought kids were going to end up, and that those judgments restricted opportunities they had in schools.

Desegregation also had benefits that aren’t going to be captured in tests. And some of those benefits relate to the fundamental questions about how kids see the world, whether they have the opportunity to be in neighborhoods new to them and in conversations with people who have different experiences of the world. For a couple of decades, lots of kids in Nashville had those kinds of experiences.

You take great pain to differentiate statistical desegregation, in which schools demographically are desegregated, from true integration, where students truly receive equal educational opportunities. What needs to happen for the latter to happen?

That is in some ways the question of 21st-century education. The lack of quality desegregation (in the past) can point to ways we can do more today. What does it mean for diverse schools to support and recognize the multiple communities their students come from? Desegregation in Nashville did not do that, by closing elementary schools in black Nashville and reasserting that white suburban Nashville communities had more of a claim on neighborhood schools than black communities did. Any numbers of ways adults interact with kids and parents needs to consciously and intently value the communities from which students come. I think when you look at the desegregation story, you see the absence of that, although you do see some instances in Nashville history, like holding PTO meetings not just at the school but in neighborhoods that serve the school. I’m sure there are efforts under way in this direction in Nashville already. They’re crucial and they need to be intentional.

Another broader way to think about this comes back to the way we think about vocational education. Certainly, in the ’80s and ’90s, there were huge disparities in the labor market by race. Schools run the risk of reproducing inequalities existing in that labor market. A robust vision of diverse but equitable schools would have to be one in which either classes that focus on preparing students for work are quite directly targeting inequality in the labor market, or aren’t just preparing students for work, but preparing them to be citizens. That might be a better pathway in education.

In many ways, Nashville illustrates the falseness of the dichotomy at the center of education politics right now: that schools can be the engine to lift children from poverty, and that with enough dedication, the challenges faced by poor children of color in other facets of society are no excuse for low achievement; or that schools can’t solve anything, because the rest of society is so messed up. What does Nashville’s story say about either side of this dichotomy?

It doesn’t work to suggest that schools alone can address every issue they face in terms of student poverty, student mobility, any number of things. But (Nashville shows that) it’s also incomplete to suggest schools play no role in addressing these challenges because historically they have at times encouraged opportunities for kids, and at times they’ve limited opportunity for kids, via tracking, via segregation, even via desegregation. What schools do really matters, but what they do will never be enough.

A lot of the alleged opposition to busing, particularly from white families, though they were least affected, was literally the time students spent on the bus. Today in Nashville, school choice means many students — perhaps especially white students in certain parts of Nashville — don’t go to their neighborhood schools, and instead, attend schools across the city. Schools in Nashville’s most “diverse” neighborhoods are still segregated. What does this mean? Can choice be harnessed to desegregate schools?

The whole concept of the neighborhood school is one that’s important to understand as much more of an imagined thing than a real thing. It’s almost always used to advocate for a particular kind of neighborhood privilege. When folks argued for a return to neighborhood schools, often what they were implicitly or explicitly calling for was fewer African-American students. At the same time, there were African-American voices starting in the ’80s and through the ’90s who were aware of the historic separation of their schools and their communities (and wanted to change that). So they encouraged neighborhood schools, and that encouraged resegregation.

"Choice in many contexts has operated to exacerbate resegregation ..."

The American story of school desegregation happened in a period where “urban” was associated with black. That ended up making it easy for white people to resist segregation in terms of resisting places. People could say, ‘I’m fine with desegregation, but I don’t want my kid to travel to that neighborhood.’ From the perspective of 2016, it’s really striking how the cultural associations with urban spaces have changed. We have ample segregation, but if you look at a (gentrifying neighborhood), which was historically black, they’re now (becoming white and middle class). In some contexts, those are exactly the communities that would have argued for neighborhood schools. Choice in many contexts has operated to exacerbate resegregation, and that works in a whole host of ways. One of those might be to facilitate white, middle-class folks from placing students in local school.

There are lots of potential challenges to the reinvestment in urban spaces. For folks interested in desegregation, it’s important to notice that desegregation happened when the idea was schools should be in suburbs. With the new embrace of urban spaces, it’s interesting to think about opportunities for desegregation now.


Editor’s Note: Periodically, Chalkbeat conducts our Chalk Talk interviews with a leader, innovator, influential thinker or hero across Tennessee’s education community. We invite our readers to contact Chalkbeat with your suggestions for future subjects.

going viral

With a late-night tweet, Carranza steps into emotional and divisive Upper West Side desegregation fight

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Chancellor Richard Carranza greeted families outside Concourse Village Elementary School in the Bronx on his first official school visit.

If there were any doubt that new New York City schools chief Richard Carranza would take a stronger stand on segregation than his predecessor, he shut it down with a tweet overnight.

Just before 1 a.m. Friday morning, Carranza tweeted a viral version of the NY1 video that shows Upper West Side parents angrily pushing back against a city proposal that could result in their children going to middle school with lower-scoring classmates.

Carranza didn’t add any commentary of his own to the message generated automatically by the site that amplified the NY1 video, Raw Story. He didn’t have to for his Twitter followers to see an endorsement of the site’s characterization of the video — “Wealthy white Manhattan parents angrily rant against plan to bring more black kids to their schools.”

Parents and educators began responding as the city stirred awake this morning. Here’s one response from a high school principal:

And another from a middle school math teacher and founder of Educolor, an advocacy group for teachers of color:

Since taking the chancellorship, Carranza has signaled that he believes the education department has a central role to play in desegregating schools — offering a contrast to the chancellor he replaced, Carmen Fariña. She called school diversity a priority but argued that integration efforts should happen “organically” and be driven by school leaders and local communities, not department officials.

One early exchange on Twitter in response to Carranza suggested that any moves to desegregate schools could face resistance — and that he also would have support.

Carranza’s tweet came hours after Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that his city budget would include $23 million for “anti-bias training” for school staff, something that some parent activists and some elected officials have been demanding.

It also came hours before he’s scheduled to visit a Harlem middle school, Hamilton Grange, that wouldn’t be part of the academic integration proposal because it is part of District 6, not nearby District 3 where the idea is under consideration.

Such a proposal would likely look different there, because just 28 percent of fifth-graders in District 6 — which includes some parts of Harlem as well as Washington Heights and Inwood — met the state’s standards in math last year, compared to 57 percent in District 3. The gap was similar in reading.

the right mix

How to integrate Manhattan middle schools? This parent says make them enroll a mix of low- and high-achievers

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Parents weigh in on a proposal to integrate District 2 middle schools by making them enroll students with a range of academic abilities.

In Manhattan’s vast District 2, students can choose which middle schools to apply to — but many of the schools get to choose which students to accept. As a result, some schools wind up with many high-achieving, privileged students, while others serve many needy, struggling students.

One parent has a plan to fix that: Require each middle school in the district, which stretches from Lower Manhattan through Chinatown to the Upper East Side, to enroll a mix of struggling, average, and high-achieving students. Shino Tanikawa, a member of the district’s Community Education Council, presented her idea at a committee meeting on Wednesday.

“We need an admissions system that does not judge students or value some students more than others,” she said.

Tanikawa is part of a small but growing group of advocates across the city who are trying to combat segregation by reforming how students are assigned to schools — a grassroots effort that the de Blasio administration has encouraged and, in one district, turned into official policy.

But the administration has so far only been willing to act on plans that have local support. That could present a challenge for Tanikawa’s proposal in District 2, where parents are used to competing for spots at selective middle schools. While most families support classroom diversity in theory, many also want their own children surrounded by students with similar skill levels.

“There is research that shows that just as some kids at the lower end need support,” said Debra Freeman, a parent at Wednesday’s meeting, “there are kids who are at a higher end who will be very bored and can have issues if they’re not sufficiently challenged.”

District 2 families can enroll at middle schools near where they live, or apply to others across the district. Eighteen programs at the district’s 24 middle schools are “screened,” meaning they rank applicants based on factors including test scores, grades, interviews and other factors. Most schools consider students’ attendance records in admissions decisions — a screen the education council has proposed to eliminate based on research showing that poor students are more likely to miss school.

Critics say that screening applicants by ability exacerbates school segregation, since academic achievement is closely linked to students’ socioeconomic status. In District 2, schools are largely divided along race and class lines: Among schools with middle-school grades, the student-poverty rate ranges from a high of 70 percent to a low of 3 percent, according to data collected by Tanikawa.

“These are public schools,” said Robin Broshi, a member of the education council who supports the proposal to mix students with different academic abilities. “There’s no reason why one segment of a population should have a systematic advantage over another segment of the population to public schools.”

Tanikawa’s plan is based on the so-called educational option, or “ed opt,” admissions system used by some of the city’s high schools. Designed to promote integration, schools using that model aim to enroll students along a range of different academic levels. However, many have struggled to attract enough high performers because they compete for those students with the most selective schools.

To prevent the same thing from happening in District 2, Tanikawa’s plan calls for all the middle schools to use the ed-opt model. Tanikawa said the district should also adopt recruitment practices to attract a diverse mix of applicants to each school, and better ways to share information about schools with parents. She would pair those changes with efforts to attract more teachers of color to the district and ensure that classroom instruction reflects all cultures.

But getting families to apply to middle schools that currently serve more needy students is likely to be an uphill battle, with a school’s selectivity often equated with its quality. Parents who listened to Tanikawa’s proposal said that some of the district’s middle schools offer advanced courses and are known for sending students to elite high schools — while others are not.

“Work has to be done around these middle schools because there are disparities,” said Tunisia K. Riley, a parent in the district.

Other districts that have tried to adjust their middle-school admissions policies to promote integration have faced pushback.

When the superintendent in neighboring District 3 floated a plan to integrate Upper West Side middle schools by reserving some seats for low-income students, some parents rebelled and the idea was shelved. An outcry also ensued at Medgar Evers College Preparatory School in Brooklyn when the education department changed admissions there. Parents at the elite school worried academics there would “deteriorate.”

In District 2, a final plan is still a long ways off.

Tanikawa intends to recruit parents, principals and district leaders to come up with specifics for the proposal. While the education council does not have the power to enact it, Tanikawa hopes that if it garners enough local support, the city will make good on its promise to back local integration efforts and sign off on the plan.

That is what happened in District 1, which includes the East Village and Lower East Side. After years of advocacy, parent leaders won city approval for a new admissions system designed to make the district’s elementary schools more diverse. It will be in place for the upcoming school year.

“I’m hoping people will have the courage to change the system in a meaningful way,” Tanikawa said.