I have been reading with some interest, reports on a recent study in the Elementary School Journal on poor reading performance among minority students in grades K-3 who attend ‘segregated schools’ (by which the authors mean schools at which the population of African American or Hispanic students exceeds 75 percent). The report authors, Kristen Kainz and Lynne Vernon-Feagans of the FPG Child Development Institute atUniversity of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, also concluded that having a large number of struggling readers in any one classroom adversely affects the reading progress of the other students.

Lynne Vernon-Feagans, one of the report’s authors, states “These findings support policies that promote comprehensive reading instruction, but indicate that just as much attention needs to be paid to ensuring that schools are integrated and to reducing classroom concentrations of children reading below grade level.”

What strikes me about the findings, first of all, is the designation of “segregated schools.” Since the Supreme Court ruled that segregation is by its nature inferior, that means these students are condemned to a lower quality education than those who are not so restricted. Today, segregation of schools by race is most often the result of housing patterns reinforced by poverty. The report does not establish a cause/effect relationship only a correlation, but it does raise the concern: Is the poor performance documented in the study the result of racial segregation or the lack of resources at the school or the quality of the instructors who are working with these students? 

Could it be that having a culturally mixed classroom produces better reading performance because there are students with whom the teacher can “connect” and thereby provide better overall instruction?

As a parent and a teacher, I have had some disturbing experiences with K-3 teachers, many of them young and white, who were trying to work with African American students here in Mississippi. Although they were by and large a dedicated group of young people, many of them were unable or unwilling to bridge the cultural gap between themselves and their students. 

I often heard comments about how the kindergarteners were unprepared for school or reading because they were nonverbal and could not communicate. Yet these same “nonverbal” students could talk non-stop once they left those classrooms, or before they came when they were attending Head Start or other pre-school programs where the instructors were from the same cultural background.

In the long battle against segregated schools in the South, black parents argued that if their children were mixed into the same schools and sat in the same classrooms with white children, then neither the teachers nor the school system could dole out inferior quality materials or education to them without putting the white children at risk. The problem then was that inferior conditions were being intentionally imposed on black students in the segregated schools (although the quality of the instruction was often better than in the white schools of the period). The FPG study, however, suggests something else: That left on our own without the uplifting influence of another culture, minorities—particularly blacks and Hispanics—will always come up short.

Ironically, this study comes at the same time other educators are pushing for schools that are deliberately selective not only by race, but also by gender. A June 20th article in EdWeek, spotlighted a conference of 24 principals calling for special schools for African American boys to address the significant achievement gap between black males and just about every other student subgroup in America.

What do these apparent countercurrents in educational policy mean? I would love to hear what others know and have to say on these issues.

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