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Forced to Fail: The Paradox of School Desegregation

reviewed by Eva Foldes Travers - 2006

coverTitle: Forced to Fail: The Paradox of School Desegregation
Author(s): Stephen Caldas and Carl Bankston
Publisher: Praeger Publications, Westport
ISBN: 0275986934, Pages: 255, Year: 2005
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The central argument of this book is that school desegregation has failed—not because of flawed implementation, but because court-ordered school desegregation inherently violates American values of individual choice and local control. The authors describe the federal government’s attempts to redistribute students on the basis of race, through legislative and especially court decisions, as a misguided attempt to use schools to redesign American society.  This attempt has been undermined by middle-class, mostly white families, who moved out of districts facing court-ordered desegregation, fearing its effects on their children’s education. The authors claim that historical changes in the definition of civil rights—from government protection of individual rights to protection of group rights—have led to heavy-handed, counterproductive government interference in public education. They propose that applying market principles and allowing families to choose schools will better serve students and communities and improve educational outcomes.

Caldas and Bankston agree that Brown was a moral and political necessity. They approve the “freedom of choice” plans to eliminate de jure segregation that followed.   However they characterize desegregation rulings between 1968 and 1973—which increasingly specified what districts were required to do to in order be declared desegregated—as “coercive and destructive.” They approve of court rulings beginning in 1974 that limited the reach of desegregation orders and ultimately allowed virtually all districts under desegregation mandates to achieve “unitary status.”

The authors argue that demographic changes over the last half century have undermined the viability of desegregation as an educational strategy. These include changes in family structure, especially in the black community; rapid growth in the number of Hispanics, many of whom are concentrated in the most segregated schools; male unemployment in urban areas; and the increasing percentage of minority children living in poverty.   Such changes diminish the social capital of communities and the quality of education.

The role of social capital in education is critical to their argument. Social capital is the product of interactions among individuals in families and communities, and “like monetary capital, is an investment that can lead to advantageous outcomes for individuals and groups” (pp. 75–76).  The social capital that students bring with them affects the climate and achievement level of the entire school.  Court-ordered desegregation disrupts vital ties among families, schools, and communities.  White and/or middle class families move out, taking with them social, cultural, and economic capital. Desegregated districts are left with an increasing concentration of minority and/or low-income students, who have little social capital and a host of behaviors and attitudes that depress school achievement.  What’s more, because social capital largely determines the quality of education, adding tangible resources will be no more effective than desegregation in improving educational outcomes for poor minority children.

To illustrate their claim that desegregation caused the exodus of white and/or middle-class families, the authors present case studies of 15 districts across the nation that experienced various types of court-ordered desegregation plans.  Overall, achieving racial balance proved impossible, given large-scale movement of whites to suburban districts or private schools. Furthermore, desegregation did not markedly reduce the achievement gap between white and minority students. The context, scope, and time of the various court rulings made little difference in outcomes.

As further evidence, the authors point to the continuing racial achievement gap on the NAEP, SAT, and ACT.  They say evidence of increased achievement of black students in majority white schools is debatable. They acknowledge that some research, including their own in Louisiana, however, does show improved performance of blacks in mixed or majority white schools. They are concerned, however, about their finding that whites in majority black schools score significantly lower than whites in majority white schools.

Forced to Fail is surely correct in identifying challenges that changing demographics pose for school desegregation, as well as the challenges that diminished social capital poses for poor and minority students in achieving educational success.  But as someone who continues to believe in the goals of school integration and equality of opportunity, I take issue with the authors’ selective use of data, internal inconsistencies, and underlying assumptions about the goals of education and its role in society.

Their criticism of Court decisions between 1968 and l973—decisions that spurred the most rapid and thoroughgoing desegregation efforts—is highly problematic.  If desegregation efforts had ended with freedom of choice plans, actual desegregation would have been minimal. The court decisions from 1968–1973 were essential.  

Mandated desegregation did contribute to white flight. However, the exodus of whites to the suburbs began after WWII and also occurred in virtually all urban districts without mandated desegregation.  And, while widespread residential segregation remains the single greatest obstacle to school integration, it is not universal or inevitable.  There exist a few examples of districts that have succeeded in slowing the trend and/or maintaining voluntary integration plans after court orders have been lifted.

In their case studies of Charlotte, a countywide desegregation plan that included extensive busing, and St. Louis, a voluntary metropolitan plan, the authors admit there was relative success.  Nevertheless, they conclude that outcomes in these cities ultimately mirrored others they examined; and they omit relevant evidence that does not fit their general conclusions.1

Desegregation need not stop with the moving of bodies or resegregation within schools. It can move schools toward “true integration.”   The authors ignore in-school factors that can affect the success of desegregation.  For example, schools can reduce the amount of ability tracking, implement programs that support equal status contact among races, and implement new teaching strategies, as well as address issues related to parent communication and involvement, so that students benefit from contact with each other. Furthermore, long-term effects on blacks and whites who attended desegregated schools, for instance, are related to greater attendance at integrated colleges, employment in integrated work places, and living in integrated communities because of the opportunity for increased social networks.2

Contrary to the authors’ conclusion, the continuing racial/ethnic gap in performance on national standardized tests is not clearly connected to negative effects of desegregation.  Significantly, the authors fail to interpret the decreasing gap on the NAEP between l971 and 1990, when scores of blacks and Hispanics improved while white scores remained essentially flat, though desegregation may be only one of the causes. However, by the end of the 1990s, when almost all desegregation plans were dismantled, the racial gap had again widened.

It is striking how frequently the authors emphasize the harm allegedly done to white students and communities by desegregation, while devoting less discussion to the positive effects on poor minority students. The logic of their argument would seem to imply (and research seems to confirm) that minority students benefit from attending school with white and/or middle class students.  But the authors argue that desegregation does not usually help, and even hurts, minorities because it disrupts their communities and diminishes civic participation.  

To address the problems with desegregation they delineate, the authors advocate returning to neighborhood schools to strengthen communities and hiring quality teachers to improve schools in poor minority districts. Local control in minority communities, as the authors note, has long been advocated by many black scholars and activists, and may well be desirable. But the claim that neighborhood schools and community control will solve the educational problems of minority communities with concentrated poverty seems disingenuous.  These schools and communities almost always have fewer economic and political resources than their suburban counterparts.  Where, for instance, will they get the resources to attract quality teachers?

In short, it’s hard to see how the author’s proposals would improve the quality of education for poor and minority students, or promote equality of educational opportunity. But it may be that equality is not really a goal or value for them. In chapter 5, they say that education is primarily “an economic good . . . and a right of individuals” (p. 111). They unequivocally state “an economy needs people with different skills who would receive differing levels of financial rewards. . . . If in fact we have public education in order to put people into existing jobs, then sorting people into unequal economic positions is exactly what public schools are supposed to do” (p. 110).  When they start with assumptions like this, it’s no surprise that they reach the conclusions they do.

The authors claim that “wearing the blinders of moral and political commitment, advocates of desegregation policies failed (and continue to fail) to see the destructive effects . . . on American schools and communities” (p. 22).  This accusation demeans the motivation and actions of people of color and whites who continue to believe in the goals and benefits of school integration.


1  See Orfield and Wells for a different perspective on these two cases. Orfield, G. (1996).  Dismantling desegregation. New York: The New Press. Wells, A., and Crain, R. (1997).  Stepping over the color line. New Haven: Yale University Press.

2  Wells, A., and Crain, R. (l994). Perpetuation theory and the long-term effects of school desegregation. Review of Educational Research 64(4): 531–55. Wells, A. (1995). Reexamining social science research on desegregation. Teachers College Record 96(4): 691–706. Schofield, J. (1995a).  Improving intergroup relations among students. In J. Banks and C. Banks (Ed.), Handbook of research on multicultural education (pp. 635–46). Sigelman, L., et al. (1996). Making contact?  Black-White social interaction in an urban setting.  American Journal of Sociology 101(5): 1306–32.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 108 Number 8, 2006, p. 1564-1568
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12264, Date Accessed: 12/4/2021 8:37:31 PM

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About the Author
  • Eva Travers
    Swarthmore College
    EVA FOLDES TRAVERS is a Professor in the Educational Studies Department at Swarthmore College where she teaches courses in urban education and education policy. In 1974, during the first year of court-ordered desegregation in Boston, she conducted workshops and worked on curriculum development at Roxbury High School, the formerly all black high school, as part of a team from the Institute for Learning and Teaching, University of Massachusetts, Boston, that was assisting with desegregation implementation. Currently she is working with a team from Research for Action, a nonprofit educational research organization in Philadelphia, that is examining the effects of the state takeover of the school district and the largest experiment in privatization in an urban district in the United States.
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