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How do we solve stubborn segregation in schools?

January 7, 2016 at 6:25 PM EDT
Despite a historic Supreme Court ruling outlawing segregated schools, today huge numbers of students remain in separate and unequal schools, most in inner cities. Special correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault talks with Pedro Noguera of the University of California, Los Angeles, about the consequences of such inequality and what can be done.

GWEN IFILL: As the Supreme Court considers yet another major affirmative action case, tonight’s Race Matters conversation focuses on what happens before students get to college when they grow up in mostly segregated inner-city schools.

PBS NewsHour special correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault is reporting a year-long series on solutions to the questions raised by race.

Tonight, she talks with Pedro Noguera, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who has found what can work.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Despite an historic Supreme Court ruling some 61 years ago outlawing segregated schools, today, huge numbers of students remain in separate and unequal schools, most in inner cities.

But it doesn’t have to be that way, says Pedro Noguera, director of the Center for Study of School Transformation at UCLA. I met him in New York, where he was about to speak with a group of educators.

Professor Noguera, thank you so much for joining us.

Sixty-one years after separate and unequal was ruled illegal, you say it’s still happening. Why?

PEDRO NOGUERA, University of California, Los Angeles: Well, it’s happening because the courts have basically made it very difficult to continue to pursue integration.

And that’s after we made quite a bit of progress in this country, especially in the South, but now we know that schools in the North and the West are more segregated now than they were 30 years ago. So, we now find ourselves in a situation where not only are schools increasingly racially separate, but we’re also concentrating the poorest children in schools that have the fewest resources.


PEDRO NOGUERA: I would say it’s a combination of lack of investment in schools that serve poor children and the fact that we have no longer the political will.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But you have argued that separate schools play a role in perpetuating inequality, not just in the schools, but in general.


They do, because separate has still been unequal in education. The racially separate schools, even when the schools do a good job, the learning opportunities you have a child will influence the kind of college you go into, the kind of profession you have access to, the kind of income you earn.

And so if we really are interested in creating a society that’s more equal and less characterized by racial divisions, then we need to put more investment in education and leveling the playing field and integrating our schools.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: There have been schools that have started that are supposed to be making up for these disparities, like the charter schools and magnet schools.

What impact are those kinds of schools having, though, on public education?

PEDRO NOGUERA: Well, in fact, many of the charter schools are even more segregated than the public schools.

Middle-class families, particularly middle-class African-American families, want integrated schools for their kids.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Not long ago, Professor Raj Chetty told me about an experiment that took young people out of segregated communities into more integrated communities. But even he said that, while those were successful, you needed to fix those within the community.

Now, you have some solutions and some examples where that works.

PEDRO NOGUERA: Yes, and — because we do have examples.

Tulsa, Oklahoma, for example, here, you have a city, a very red state, the best high school in the city, Booker T. Washington, is 50 percent black, and it is a school that the entire city looks up to. That should be a model for the country.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But why is it a school that everybody looks up to?

PEDRO NOGUERA: Because of the quality of education provided.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: You just said that there wasn’t the will in these communities. So what happens in that case?

PEDRO NOGUERA: Well, Tulsa — it’s interesting, because Tulsa has a very ugly history. In 1924, there was the race riots there, where the black community was burned to the ground, Greenwood.

And there has been an effort, though, in Tulsa to invest in early childhood education. Every child gets quality early childhood education. Every school is a community school.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: How did it get to that point?

PEDRO NOGUERA: Good question.

John Hope Franklin, a great historian, was a leader in the effort in promoting the idea of reparations for black folks in Tulsa. After he died, his students…

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: He was a pre-Ta-Nehisi Coates?


PEDRO NOGUERA: That’s right.

And his students, white students from Duke University, took up the effort to rebuild Greenwood after he died. There is a big monument in Tulsa to John Hope Franklin built by his former students, most of whom are affluent whites in Tulsa.

So, this is an important part of the history too. It’s, we make our greatest advances when it’s not just African-Americans that are pushing the issue, when whites, when Latinos, when Asians, when the mosaic of America recognizes that we can be a better nation if we are working together, if we are serving each other’s interests.

And, you know, there are others like it in other parts of the country that are showing us that you don’t have to wait until we solve the problem of poverty or inequality. You can do a lot in education now that would help to move our society forward.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But one of the things you have talked about is how there are needs beyond just the basic education, particularly for urban students, and I guess you mean predominantly African-American or children of color.

PEDRO NOGUERA: Well, absolutely.

There are many children in this country — because we have the highest child poverty rates of all advanced nations; 22 percent of kids in this country come from families at or below the poverty level. So, we have a lot of kids coming to school who are hungry, who don’t have adequate housing, whose have basic needs not being met.

Schools serving those children need other resources. They need social workers. They need psychologists. They might need a food program. They might need health workers on site in order for those kids to be able to concentrate on education and for their teachers to concentrate on teaching them.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Brockton, Massachusetts, you gave an example.

PEDRO NOGUERA: What Brockton shows us — it’s the largest high school in the state, 4,200 students — that by focusing on the student needs, you can, even without moving them, create a school that’s the pride of the community.

Brockton is one of the only urban high schools in the state of Massachusetts that gets a level one rating. And that’s because over one-third of their senior class gets the highest possible test score in the state. And the demographics of the kids who get that score match the demographics of the school.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And how did it get that way?

PEDRO NOGUERA: They focus on literacy.


PEDRO NOGUERA: The school. They make sure that every teacher, regardless of the subject they teach, is a teacher of literacy, whether it be science, or math, or art, or music. Literacy is what’s promoted, because they understand that strong literacy skills, reading, writing, speaking, is the key to a strong education.

And they have stuck with that for the last 15 years or more. And it shows in the results.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: How committed do you think America is to maintaining public education?

PEDRO NOGUERA: I think we’re at a crossroads.

But I try to remind people the public education system is the only system that accepts all children. If we don’t educate our children well, we’re all in trouble. The retirees — and we have a growing number of retirees in America, most of whom are white — are going to be increasingly dependent on a younger, more diverse work force to support them in their retirement.

So, even if they really care about the kids, if they just care about themselves, they should be concerned about the future of public education. People who are concerned about their property values should be concerned about public education, because the quality of the schools affects the value of your property.

So we’re all in this together. And that’s what it takes, is, we need leadership that gets people to see it’s in our interests as a country to invest in our children, to invest in our schools. And we haven’t had that for many years.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Except in the places you mentioned.

PEDRO NOGUERA: Yes. At the local level you, see it.


PEDRO NOGUERA: It’s doable. It is absolutely doable.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And you’re optimistic?

PEDRO NOGUERA: Cautiously optimistic.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Professor Noguera, thank you for joining us.

PEDRO NOGUERA: Thank you, Charlayne.