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Author Q&A: Clayton Hurd, Confronting Suburban School Resegregation in California

15263The next installment of our author Q&As is with Clayton Hurd. His book, Confronting Suburban School Resegregation in California, investigates the struggles in a central California school district, where a predominantly white residential community recently undertook a decade-long campaign to "secede" from an increasingly Latino-attended school district. Drawing on years of ethnographic research, Hurd explores the core issues at stake in resegregation campaigns as well as the resistance against them mobilized by the working-class Latino community. From the emotionally charged narratives of local students, parents, teachers, school administrators, and community activists emerges a compelling portrait of competing visions for equitable and quality education, shared control, and social and racial justice.

(Click here to see every Fall 2014 Author Q&A post.)

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Penn Press: What precipitated the shift in national education policy from an “inputs-based” to “outputs-based” focus? 

Clayton Hurd: The increased emphasis on schooling “outputs” at the national level goes back to the mid-1960s and the release of the Coleman Report, whose findings were interpreted to suggest the need to shift equal educational opportunity reform from a primary focus on providing equal learning facilities for all students to a focus on the effects of school in terms of student achievement as measured in standardized test scores. This shift was further institutionalized in the early 1980s with the Reagan-appointed federal commission report entitled A Nation at Risk, whichwhile ungrounded in any systematic analysis of school policy or practice—argued that if the United States was to maintain a position of dominance in the global economy, it would need to institute a strict standards-based, “back to basics” program, which would include, among other key elements, a more rigorous traditional curriculum and an enhanced standardized testing system for monitoring and evaluating student performance and ability. This focus on standards, combined with a growing concern about the achievement gap, reflects a profound shift in equity-based school reform policy since Brown v Board of Education, from a primary focus on public education inputs, such as equal spending and integration, to a primary focus on outputs—outcomes or assessments related to how students learn, regardless of who their classmates are. The consequence of this shift is that what was a broadly-defined equity issue under Brown is now primarily an issue of “results” based on very specific indicators of what constitutes educational success. In fact, in much of the current educational reform language, striving toward equal educational opportunity is about closing the achievement gap, period.

An educator recently captured current reform thinking well in stating his feeling that “while integration was an issue then, the achievement gap and low performing schools are definitely the issue now.” Yet this notion that “the achievement gap is the new segregation” rests on the rather naive assumption that racial segregation on the one hand, and differential patterns of student achievement along racial lines on the other, are separate and somewhat disconnected concerns. It ignores that the achievement gap is an historical vestige of the “old” segregation—a phenomenon resulting from decades of experience in inferior schools, patterns of White suburban flight from high poverty areas, and a long history of “refusal, resistance, and renegotiation,” in the words of historian George Lipsitz, to follow mandates for school integration. This dichotomous logic also fails to acknowledge that the achievement gap is an on-going consequence of the qualitative difference between low and high poverty schools. What is more, the focus on the achievement gap over, and often at the expense of, integration strategies works rhetorically to separate the potential advantages of integration from practical efforts to improve academic performance and opportunity across racial and socioeconomic differences in public schools.

To what extent is classroom instruction incidental to the overall quantitative performance of a group of students, compared to other factors such as income and language? 

I would not call it incidental; it clearly matters a great deal. However, I recall the words of an educator I talked with several years ago who, reflecting on the Brown v. Board of Education mandate to end school segregation, called it historically significant but essentially passé as a school reform strategy. “It used to be about moving students from a low performing school to a high performing school,” he said. “Now we know it’s all about improving instruction. Too much time is spent on integration; not enough is spent on insuring all children a quality education.” His opinion underscores a broader sentiment in equity-based educational reform circles today: that improving education is primarily a function of instructional design, and that classroom instruction is an unmediated conduit to academic achievement. While efforts to improve instructional resources and classroom teaching methods to engage diverse learners are essential for effective equity-based school reform, a near-exclusive focus on formal instruction as the main conduit for learning, and of the classroom as the primary context of learning, ignores decades of educational research identifying a broad range of sociocultural and contextual factors, often powerfully at play outside the formal classroom setting, that mediate student learning, motivation, engagement, and success in school. Newer research on the nature of learning from disciplinary traditions as diverse as social psychology, cultural anthropology, sociolinguistic theory and the cognitive sciences have demonstrated that learning is not a simple process of knowledge transmission from teacher to students but rather a multidimensional social practice in which learning is supported through various forms of apprenticeship and co-learning accomplished through on-going social activities in and outside of the classroom. This work has brought into question fundamental beliefs about how learning happens and the way in which cultural resources and social context mediate the nature and quality of what students learn in school. In this sense, the quality of classroom instruction to which children have access is indeed important, but so are the nature and quality of students’ interactions with one another and with teachers and staff in the school’s multiple learning contexts. Take, for example, the case of working-class immigrant students from Mexico who may enter US secondary schools lacking English-language proficiency and knowledge of the skills and habits necessary to be successful in school. The issue of where and with whom they learn—and the places they are able to occupy within the school—can influence to a large extent what access they have to information and resources that will help facilitate their school engagement and academic success. This is because the social relationships that students develop with adults and peers, both within and outside of the classroom, help anchor them to school and connect them to informational resources and networks of support that aid in social adjustment and facilitate academic success.

This attention to the interpersonal dimensions of learning is not meant to suggest that individual differences in learning ability are inconsequential to academic achievement, or that the quality of academic support students receive at home is insignificant as it relates to school success. Indeed, both matter, but the obstacles students face are as often a consequence of school structures and practices as they are of allegedly-deviant individual characteristics or “deficient” home situations. In a reframing that challenges popular educational reform logic, educational anthropologist Ray McDermott has suggested that instead of asking what individuals learn or don’t learn in school, we should be asking what learning is made possible by social arrangement in schools, and view differential patterns of academic success along racial and class lines as institutionalized, social events rather than as a one-by-one failure in psychological development. In this sense, we’d benefit from a re-imagining of the pursuit for “quality education” from one that seeks to promote a near exclusive focus on improving classroom instruction to one that seeks to address how schools, as whole institutions, may structure success and failure for particular groups of students. In other words, in what ways do schools provide opportunities for the type of social relations among students, and between students, teachers, and support staff—that facilitate success for groups of students who traditionally have not done well in school?

Are there alternatives to No Child Left Behind (NCLB) that you feel would be more effective in bringing about positive change in the public school system? 

Well, there’s certainly not a single, simple answer to that question. The highly consequential nature of standardized test scores under NCLB—informing decisions that range from student graduation and promotion, to the amount of funding schools in need may receive, to what support programs may exist—has certainly been problematic. The significant problem with standards-based school reform measures like NCLB is their requirement of equalization of achievement among White and minority students without the requirement to equalize what are very unequal schooling opportunities—in effect, insisting on equal outcomes from patently unequal schools highly segregated by race and poverty, through a system of sanctions that disproportionally penalize minority schools and teachers. Reform strategies like NCLB, which have tended to punish high poverty, minority-segregated schools and their students for lower relative levels of academic achievement, fail to take into account the full complexity of inequalities inherent in situations of double/triple segregation and the strong negative impacts on students who are isolated in high poverty, largely minority schools.

We need to take better advantage of the diverse and growing range of evidence-based educational practices specifically designed to promote effective, shared learning in socioeconomically and racially mixed school settings. There are a variety of curricular models for engaging students in academic learning across politicized differences, as well as a wealth of strategies for socially organizing students within schools and classrooms in manners that promote more equal status, respect, and shared engagement in curricular and co-curricular activities—all of which are basic prerequisites for effective schooling in socio-economically and ethno-racially-mixed school settings. Outside of the school setting, I think there is a need to engage working class and racial minority parents in schooling politics in more diverse and sensible ways then are currently being pursued. For example, there have long been calls for working class and immigrant parents to “get more involved” in PTA and school site council activities, often with intentional accommodations made to encourage their inclusion. When such efforts fail to significantly increase parent participation, it becomes easy to conclude that they must not really care about their children’s education. However, in my research, an important strategy for empowering working class Latino parents to become active participants in schooling politics has been to support, or provide room for, “safe spaces” where Latino immigrant and non-immigrant parents can meet, talk, and organize around shared cultural experience and struggle. Such critical organizing spaces—which are sometimes best located outside of formal school settings where normative forces of class and race privilege can limit critical conversations—can provide a context for marginalized citizens to collectively examine experiences of oppression, cultivate a critical awareness of the larger political system in which their lives are located and the skills and voice to participate in it, and to develop new leadership skills, knowledge, and aspirations. This way, rather than simply being expected to “get involved” in existing school site activities that they may perceive as hostile or alienating, working class Latino parents are provided with the opportunity to tell stories and participate in a shared process of empowerment in line with their own goals of self-realization and transformation, with the means and space to develop a sense of resiliency and mutual support to collectively navigate cultural, linguistic, and institutional borders, and to participate in schooling politics with a sense of power and in ways that sustain them as cultural beings. It is in this spirit of creating more shared control, equal respect, and equal status that we can expect to see more full and inclusive participation of parents—and students for that matter—and the creation of educational environments in which all parents feel entitled to partake and students feel empowered to learn. The relative availability of such institutional spaces should be as important an indicator of school health as aggregate student performance on any number of standardized tests. It would certainly make for better places in which to teach. To create such education environments requires not just providing equal access to school resources for all, but also a commitment to helping assure that all students and parents have the ability to share in the choices that define and redefine the school’s community of collective interests.

To what extent has the Brown ruling itself created obstacles to successful integration? 

As I talk about in the book, a significant limitation of the Brown decision and the integration agenda that followed it was the incomplete understanding of racism and race relations on which the decision was based, and the limited view of racial domination and justice that it appeared to reflect. The agenda of the Brown court was primarily to root out pathological manifestations of racist behaviors and attitudes, treating the problem of racism largely as a problem of psychology. In doing so, little attention was given to how racism has operated in an historical context related to centuries of unequal distribution of social, economic, and political opportunities. In other words, Brown failed to acknowledge or address that the deeper sources of racial inequality have never been located solely or even primarily within individual actions and prejudices, but in a racialized social order sustained through enduring systems of hierarchically organized racial inequality that include de facto occupational, residential, and school segregation. Given the focus on individual prejudice, the educational solution was viewed in terms of creating an objectively defined and “colorblind” form of racially-integrated education that would depend on neutral standards of professionalism and universal testing as a means of effectively measuring schooling equality and individual ability, respectively. The call for neutrality and colorblindness in schooling meant that school integration would be assimilative in nature—that is, all children would be expected to assimilate to “American culture” by conforming to normative cultural and language practices and to concede the use of non-standard or native linguistic and cultural practices.

At the time of the Brown deliberations, Black Nationalist leaders were quick to resist this approach to integration, not by rejecting the notion of integration per se, but the particular assimilationist terms on which school integration was expected to take place. They denied that an “ideal” form of objective, neutral, skills-oriented quality education was possible, considering it instead the arbitrary establishment of middle-class Anglo-American culture as the preferred and awarded norms of behavior, learning, and interaction within schools. And indeed, what is dangerous about an approach to integrated schooling that dismisses as irrelevant—or even as inferior—the cultural and linguistic resources, skills, and experiences of the non-White, non-middle class, is the manner in which it can serve to promote the supposition that cultural deficits explain low achievement, an assumption that can be used to justify lowered expectations for working-class racial and ethnic minority students. The fear was that assimilative integration, in practice, would serve as a subterfuge for White supremacy, whereby “successfully” desegregated environments would become settings for resegregation due to tracking practices, ability grouping, and expectations of Anglo conformity for equal access, participation, and respect in important schooling activities. Unfortunately, such concerns about the dangers of assimilative integration have been realized in many desegregated schools today. In my book, I discuss a few particular cases where discourses and practices of “colorblindness” have led to subtle forms of discrimination and privilege that have aided in the production of unequal schooling conditions for Mexican-descent students.

Are all pushes for “local control” in education policy actually veiled attempts to combat integration?

No, definitely not. Local control has been important in some cases; in others it has served as justification for re-segregation. The increasing efforts to re-establish “local control” of schools reflect a string of US Supreme Court decisions since the late 1970s that have suggested a growing legal and political interest in abandoning the goal of integrating children and moving back toward the idea of the “neighborhood school” and arrangements favoring parental choice. While this tendency to support residential-level control of schooling can be potentially liberating for both majority and minority population in some areas of the country, it has provided, in others, tacit support for the efforts of affluent White populations to re-segregate on the basis of class-based interests. In some cases, such as the one in California that I highlight in my book, public school re-segregation has become an active process, undertaken by concerned citizens and elected school board collaborators whose proclaimed interests are to reorganize school districts in ways that best meet the alleged “needs” of all children. Such movements take the form of grassroots “district reorganization” campaigns led predominantly by White, middle class residential communities who justify their actions as anything other than racially, culturally, or socio-economically motivated. These citizen movements, and the policy decisions their activism inspires, are typically couched in language such as promoting quality education, meeting the linguistic and academic needs of diverse students, holding all students accountable to basic educational standards, bridging the achievement gap, exercising local control, or assuring the integrity and benefits derived from “neighborhood schools.” Despite the avowed good intentions and clear democratic appeals, the outcomes of these efforts are often the increased isolation of Latino students in high poverty schools with fewer resources, less experienced teachers, and fewer social networks that cross lines of racial, class, and ethnic difference.

I analyze one such campaign in depth in the book, and in doing so, I retain opponents’ use of the politicized language of schooling “secession” because I believe that this particular case—and other citizen-led, suburban school district reorganization efforts like it across the country—can be related to other, largely middle class movements to “secede from responsibility” in a political opportunity structure made possible by the reigning influence of economic neoliberalism, the increase of suburban privatization, and the combined role they have played in reshaping US political and economic life. Suburban school secession movements can be viewed in relation to similar kinds of phenomena emerging not just in the United States, but on a global scale, including territorial secession efforts—like those in Los Angeles in the 1990s—and the increased construction of gated communities and walled cities about which there is an interesting and growing body of ethnographic literature. What suburban school secession campaigns share with these territorial and community-fortification counterparts is their status as mostly class-based and strongly racialized movements of social separation couched in political terms—that is, articulated in a language of civil rights and liberalism. In other words, they tend to utilize a common set of arguments to justify their actions, including an expressed desire for local control, an expectation of greater return on tax dollars locally, a fear of bureaucracy and big government, and a sense that they, as privileged members of the suburban middle class, are not getting a fair share of what they deserve. Moreover, citizen groups see themselves as fair players, claiming that they—as well as the regions from which they seek separation—will be better off in a divorce. More difficult to ascertain, from a democratic point of view, is how proponents of school district secessionism find it possible to cast and imagine themselves as fair players despite often-compelling empirical evidence suggesting high levels of negative fiscal and educational impact on communities from which they seek separation—communities which, in many cases, are made up of working class immigrants and people of color. For these reasons, all pushes for local control of schooling ought to be critically interrogated.

Are the problems related to segregation in public schools institutional rather than simply political? 

Well, I think it is important here to distinguish between our willingness to establish desegregated schools—that is, schools which allow for the coexistence of students from different racial and ethnic groups within the same institutional space—and the willingness and commitment to effectively sustain integrated schooling conditions, which requires intentional, well-informed, and often courageous efforts to establish intellectual and social engagement, shared control, and relationships of equal status across lines of racial, ethnic, and socio-economic difference, in settings both inside and outside of the formal classroom. A major aim of mine in this book is to draw out the nexus of political and institutional processes that have contributed to a failure of integration in a desegregated school setting, and to identify the dimensions of shared responsibility for the conditions of educational inequality that continue to exist between middle-class Whites and working-class Latinos in the area, as a result. To this end, I provide attention to multiple levels of the schooling process, including district-level politics and policies; the activism of community-related groups around schooling-related issues; the attitudes and practices of staff at the school level; the social organization of students with the school; and students’ particular responses to school structures and programs. This multi-level strategy proved useful as an investigative lens, and I am inclined to believe it could be employed as a means of monitoring and guiding local equity-based school policy and reform as well.

What is your personal history with the public school system?

I am the product of K–12 public schools experiences beginning in rural southeastern Michigan and ending in a working-class metropolitan area of Connecticut. My first experience in a private school environment was as a college student in Hartford, Connecticut, and I can tell you, in retrospect, I would have much preferred to stay in the public school system. After finishing college, I spent nearly two years in South America researching bilingual, intercultural public education programs in rural, indigenous areas of Guatemala, Ecuador, and Bolivia. I returned from that experience with a commitment to educational justice issues in the United States, and began graduate school work at UC Santa Cruz, to pursue a degree in cultural anthropology and begin several years of volunteerism and qualitative research in public high schools along the central coast of California, in settings such as Migrant Education, Advancement via Individual Determination (AVID), and English as a Second Language classrooms. It is these combined experiences that led me to the topic and field work that is the subject of this book.

Are there outstanding examples, positive or negative, of particular cases of state or local reform that have taken more radical approaches to the general problem of segregation, and which you feel can stand for larger trends?

There are a number of well-tested school integration options still available, with model programs operating more or less sustainably throughout the United States. Berkeley, California, and Jefferson County, Kentucky, provide useful examples. More broadly, such efforts are being maintained through a diverse, and necessarily shifting, array of models and strategies including magnet programs and dual immersion schools; the use of intra-district zoning (rather than the creation of new school districts); the development of school reassignment, open enrollment, and inter-district transfer policies that encourage and facilitate both socio-economic and racial diversity in schools; housing policies that encourage development of racially and socioeconomically integrated neighborhoods; and through attention to race implications in the construction of new schools and in the redrawing of school and school district boundaries. There has been some concern that the Supreme Court’s 2007 decision in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 (aka PICS) has constituted a death knell for integration mandates of the kind proffered in the Brown v. Board of Education decision. And, indeed, the PICS decision is significant in that it has limited how race can be used by school districts in decisions about student assignments—specifically, by mandating that individual students cannot be classified solely by their race in the school assignment process. However, the PICS decision also reaffirmed the idea that school districts have a “compelling interest” in promoting racial diversity and in avoiding racial isolation in schools. And contrary to some popular interpretations of the decision, race-conscious measures for assigning students to schools are still permitted; in fact, such measures explicitly endorsed in PICS include the strategic selection of new school sites; the drawing of attendance zones with general recognition of the racial demographics of neighborhoods; the allocation of resources for special programs, the recruitment of students and faculty in a targeted manner; and the tracking of enrollment, performance, and other statistics by race.

Yet the ability to protect, sustain or even expand school integration programs more broadly in the United States will require a broad-based political will to fight for inclusive, equitable, and high quality integrated education that is difficult to imagine, politically, in the current era. However, with the rapid increase of racial and socio-economic diversity in US suburban areas, the challenge of doing so would seem all the more timely and critical. In the book, I look specifically at where there seems to be some hope: in grassroots social activism, led primarily by working-class Latino populations, to speak out against unjust educational conditions and offer alternative visions of public schooling that emphasize the importance of racial justice and a fundamental entitlement to shared, high quality education for all children, regardless of background. In this particular case in central California, the success of Latino-led organizing groups in fighting off efforts to resegregate the school district were made possible by the formation of diverse, community-based spaces for working class Latino parents and youth to see themselves—and be recognized—as change agents capable of speaking up against disadvantaging educational conditions. What they were able to accomplish in this respect was not insignificant; it was a popular shift, on a regional level, in assumptions about what constitutes quality education and who is entitled to it. They managed to effectively de-center privilege by fighting against the institutional production of middle class meritocratic assumptions that some children are more deserving of access to the benefits of low-poverty, middle-class schools than are others. In this case, the groups’ collective organizing activities led to a reconfiguration of the district’s school board to reflect, for the first time in its history, a progressive majority outspoken in its commitment to the social justice tenets of equal educational opportunity and about the need to challenge long-standing norms of racial and class entitlement in the schooling process. But even here, the ability to sustain momentum will depend, in great measure, on continuing to enlist support from White middle-class residents, which will, in turn, rely on generating more widely-shared convictions about the usefulness and viability of integrated schooling, including a belief among parents that they are not being asked to choose between “diversity” and “excellence” because there are compelling academic and social benefits associated with integrated education. It will also require a broad, shared understanding that high quality, integrated education is both a desirable option (rather than a threatening imposition) and a moral imperative.

Despite the challenges associated with sustaining effective integrated schooling environments, I would argue that if equal educational opportunity is to remain an essential value and true concern for public schools in the United States, the current dilemma cannot be reduced to a question of whether increased segregation is more or less desirable, because any move toward re-segregation and “separate but equal” schooling is likely only to create new barriers to equal opportunity for working-class Mexican-descent communities. Returning to “separate but equal schools” will be anything but equal for such communities, particularly in high poverty contexts where students will be left to suffer in conditions of triple segregation (linguistic, ethnoracial, and socioeconomic) and in schools of concentrated disadvantage.

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Clayton A. Hurd is Director of Public Service Research at the Haas Center for Public Service and lecturer in the Program on Urban Studies at Stanford University. Confronting Suburban School Resegregation in California is available now.