The 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.
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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, which—while 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.