Berkeley Talks transcript: Professor Rucker Johnson on why school integration works

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Henry E. Brady: Welcome to the living room at the Goldman School of Public Policy. We have here today Professor Rucker Johnson, who’s a professor at the Goldman School. He’s just written an extraordinary new book. It’s about segregation, it’s about integration, and it’s about education in America. And it’s about how to make America a better place by improving its educational system and making everybody better off.

Professor Johnson, in your book, towards the end, you say your goal is not condemnation, it’s not to just diagnose an illness, it’s to try to cure the illness. Exactly how are you trying to do that? What do you want to do with this book?

Rucker Johnson: Okay, well thanks. Thanks for engaging with me on the book. We’re really excited about it. I think one of the animated features of it is that generally Brown v. Board is considered the beginning of the civil rights movement.

Henry E. Brady: That was in the 50s, of course, ’53 and ’54.

Rucker Johnson: Yeah, ’54.

Henry E. Brady: The successor Brown, too.

Rucker Johnson: Yes. And the question is clearly that with all the laws that were changed, with all of the War on Poverty initiatives and progress that was made, today we still find ourselves facing many of the same problems and groping in the dark, seemingly. With the average black-white achievement gap, big. For black children on average roughly two grade levels behind their black counterparts. That children from the poorest districts are estimated to be on average four grade levels behind the most affluent districts’ children’s outcomes. So that kind of leaves us with a question mark around maybe, with all the things that were tried, why are we still here?

Henry E. Brady: So let me just stop. So maybe everything failed. Maybe Brown v. Board of Education, although it was morally the right thing to desegregate the schools, maybe it just didn’t have much impact on improving the schools. Maybe school finance reform, which was something we tried in the decades following, didn’t succeed. And maybe Head Start, a Great Society program, maybe that failed too. But your book claims otherwise.

Rucker Johnson: Exactly. And I think that’s the thing, is that a lot of our efforts are kind of thinking about inequality in a vacuum, and just like people have intergenerational lineages, so do policies. When you go to the doctor, the first thing that they do when they’re trying to diagnose something is they’ll ask not just about your own blood pressure or your own blood pressure reading, but they’ll ask you about your own familial history in areas of health.

In the same way, we had to take inventory of the three biggest key equal educational opportunity policy initiatives that we pursued, school desegregation, school finance reform, as you say, and pre-K, expansions of public investments in pre-K. And really, what we had to do is be skeptical first of the conventional wisdom that none of those policies had worked and really look at it with a fresh eye, with new sets of data and methods.

Henry E. Brady: Let’s take each one of those in turn, but let’s start first with just talking about how could you even begin to figure out whether those things would work or had worked? What is the technique you used? Just give us a brief overview of how that worked.

Rucker Johnson: Yes. I mean, I think the most important thing is that these are age-old questions, but with the advent of big data, with the advent of new research methods to really kind of isolate and tease out causal effects and long-term impacts, we’re able to say something more definitive around what works, while not focusing narrowly on test scores, while not using just snapshots of what may happening at a point in time, but rather following children’s lives from birth to adulthood.

Henry E. Brady: First, you look at outcomes like employment, wages, health outcomes, and other things that happen to people 20, 30, 40 years after they’d experienced some of these programs like school integration or school finance reform. That’s right?

Rucker Johnson: That’s right. We’re trying to first leverage longitudinal data, using the panel study of income dynamics that can bridge a nasty representative portrait of how the childhood conditions were shaped, using data matched with the school reform timing, of school desegregation, of school finance reforms, or the timing of Head Start, and the family backgrounds of those children, so that we have the intersectional nature of the multiple factors that have fed children’s life change.

Henry E. Brady: You’ve got data over time of families that have been interviewed since the late ’60s?

Rucker Johnson: That’s right, four decades.

Henry E. Brady: All over the country, a nationally representative sample, and you can follow them all the way up to the present day, and you know all sorts of things about these families, including the places where they lived, which is essential for what you’re trying to do, because how did use the places they lived as a way to get at what the results of these programs were?

Rucker Johnson: Yeah. What’s key is, you really want to characterize how where people grow up affects the set of opportunities they had access to. Sometimes people think of Brown as something that happened 1954, and all of a sudden, a light switch was turned on, and all of a sudden, the vestiges of Jim Crow were automatically overnight overturned. And that’s just not how it happened. It requires having a sustained picture, and that’s why we have to follow children over extended periods of time.

Henry E. Brady: But actually, it turns out, although it was probably not a good thing that it took so long to implement Brown v. Board of Education, from your perspective as a researcher, it gives you leverage in trying to figure out what the impacts were, because you look at young people who were in districts that were desegregated, versus those who were in districts that weren’t desegregated, and compare them to see if school desegregation actually had an impact.

Rucker Johnson: Exactly, and that’s really the hallmark of having laboratories of experimentation, where you could take a child that was born in, say, 1960, and they may have been born in 1960, but they lived in a district where they were exposed to integrated schools throughout their school-age years. And you can contrast it with a child that was born in maybe a similar area and similar region, but they weren’t exposed to integration at all, because of the timing of implementation of the desegregation court orders in their neighborhood and community of upbringing.

Henry E. Brady: It’s almost like a clinical trial that the healthcare people use, where you randomly assign people to one treatment or the other, one treatment being you get the medicine and the other one you don’t get anything. But in this case, it turns out people were more or less randomly, because of the way these programs were implemented, more or less randomly given the school desegregation treatment, versus those who were continuing in segregated schools.

Rucker Johnson: Well, that’s right, because partly what happened was that, while Brown decision gave a vision for what a just system and society should look like with regard to integration, and said what segregation should not be, it did not really give … it left the details up to someone else to fill in.

Henry E. Brady: So what did you find? Let’s start with Brown v. Board of Education and integration. What did you find? Was it helpful to these young people who had the chance?

Rucker Johnson: Yes. I mean, I think part of what is key is understanding what was integration itself, and what kind of cascading changes did it elicit? One of the things is that most people think of it as how many black kids are going to school with white kids? But a big part of the changes actually came through the way integration affected access to school resources, the ways in which it affect average class size for African American children in particular, the way it affected access to teacher quality and school facilities and after school programs and activities. And a big piece is also, it integrated the teaching workforce in a way where now teachers were teaching a multiethnic set of classrooms. And that took time. It wasn’t something overnight.

Rucker Johnson: But what we’re able to show is that, if we think of your example of a clinical trial, it’s a type of medicine where we’re saying that the medicine, treatment, call it desegregation, it works. But it also depends on the dose and the duration of exposure. When we find children only exposed to integrated environments only in their last two years of high school, we see much more muted impacts. When we see that they were exposed to integrated environments, but it didn’t significantly affect their access to school resources or reduce class sizes in a significant way and the like, we don’t see the same large impacts that we see when the integration both was something that happened earlier in the school career, particularly in elementary school years, and was sustained.

Henry E. Brady: What are some of those larger impacts, in terms of wages, say, or employment or something like that?

Rucker Johnson: Yeah. I’ll say chronologically, just to give you a sense of the array of outcomes that we find impacts on. But beginning with high school graduation rates, beginning with educational attainment, including college enrollment, college completion rates, as late as 1960, only about 20% of black males graduated from high school. As late as 1960, compared with 50% of white males. In that same by 1960, roughly only 3% of black males graduated from college, 13% among white males, as late as 1960. Those are vast educational differences.

Rucker Johnson: When we look at outcomes like education, health, earnings, the single area in which we saw the biggest racial convergence in those outcomes, black-white differences narrowing substantially, the only period in which we’ve seen that narrow so dramatically is this era of cohorts that were exposed differentially to school integration. We really are able to tie and connect the dots to that convergence in educational attainment, so that by the late ’70s and early ’80s, the college enrollment rates of 18 and 19-year-old black folks, children, were around the same rates that were experienced for white, for those cohorts.

Henry E. Brady: That’s an astonishing convergence.

Rucker Johnson: In a 15-year window.

Henry E. Brady: Of course, the great complaint of white racists in the South was that this was going to ruin the white race, and it was going to be terrible for whites to be integrated with blacks. What do you find?

Rucker Johnson: What we find is that the beneficial impacts that we find for African Americans did not come at the expense of whites, and moreover, we see no negative impacts across earnings, wages, employment, incarceration, health, you name it. We don’t find any negative impacts for whites, and moreover, we find significant beneficial impacts on aspects that have to do with racial attitudes in adulthood, that when they’re exposed to more integrated environments, their attitudes around race, racial tolerance, their perspectives around racial diversity. You’re a scholar of the political polarization. You’ve written a major book on the political polarization that we’ve seen. We actually can document how the early experiences in diverse schools shape subsequent political attitudes in adulthood.

Henry E. Brady: And reduced polarization.

Rucker Johnson: And reduced prejudice.

Henry E. Brady: Increase tolerance, understanding, ability to have friends of another race and to work, presumably, with folks who look different than you do, which in course, is increasingly important in many jobs in America, especially in big cities, where you’re going to be dealing with a diverse workforce. What’s really wonderful about your book is, you not only talk about how integration mattered, and you talk about the complexity of the treatment of integration, what did integration really do, but then you start to unpack that. You say okay, what was it that made integration work well? You move to school finance reform, and the lessons you have there are actually lessons not just for African Americans, they’re for everybody, because we find out that it turns out that school finance reform actually is one way to make our educational system better. So that about that.

Rucker Johnson: Well, I think one of the things to even discuss the impacts of a reform is to make sure we appreciate what the status quo was. Historically, the way we have funded public schools in the United States is through the local property tax base, and local property tax wealth differences, because of segregation by income and neighborhood, wealth differences, create vast differences in the ability to raise revenue through the property tax base. That was creating significant vast differences, where poor districts would have to leverage much higher property tax rates just to generate almost half of the level that very affluent areas were having.

Rucker Johnson: That really, I would say, set the table and the stage following the school desegregation court rulings for the school finance reform movement, to challenge the constitutionality of solely local systems of finance. What the state court-ordered school finance reforms began to do, with California being the first … It’s interesting, because California is both the first and actually now represents among the most recent and bold progressive formulas in the most recent five years. But the first one was done here in California, and the idea is simply to narrow the spend disparity between rich and affluent [crosstalk 00:14:01].

Henry E. Brady: And the other thing here, on a moral grounds, is very simple, is that every child deserves an equal opportunity in K through 12, and therefore, that’s not equal if we’re spending vastly different sums in Beverly Hills than we are in East Los Angeles. There’s a literature out there that says additional school spending isn’t worth it. We don’t get anything for it. It’s just wasted. You don’t find that.

Rucker Johnson: Yes. This is, again, where the conventional wisdom around integration being a failed social experiment, school spending leading to great waste and not really boosting student outcomes, the reason why some of those premature conclusions had been reached, at least what we find in our work, is inadequate attention to accounting for family background, important. But really isolating how the school spending, where the money flows to, what students are affected, and what school districts at the time, and when we isolate the school spending, what we find is significant improvements on a whole host of educational trajectories.

Henry E. Brady: And another thing you do, is you say that it’s not just about test scores, that some of the problems with some of this literature is it’s focused on does school spending increase test scores? But it turns out, that may not be the best measure of what schools do. And indeed, if you think about it, what we ultimately care about is not test scores, but whether people go on to get jobs and whether they stay out of prison and they stay off welfare, things like that. And you find that when you use those kinds of measures, you get significant positive effects.

Rucker Johnson: That’s right. And we do actually find it on test scores too. Like my colleague Jesse Rothstein and his colleagues, they certainly find outcomes on test scores. But I would say if we focus solely on test scores, we would miss a huge, and understate the potential for school reforms like these to really break the intergenerational cycle of poverty. That’s a key piece.

One thing I think that’s important about the school spending piece is, one of the things, because people often come to me, and they say, “Haven’t we already tried these things?” And I think one of the things you have to consider is that all of these things were tried one at a time, and unevenly, inconsistently, not with sustained investment. What we find is that the very nature of learning begetting future learning is that half of the achievement gap among third graders is already apparent on the first day of kindergarten. That footprint of these early life experiences has to be part of the investment strategy that would include pre-K.

Henry E. Brady: Okay, let’s talk about pre-K, and then I want to talk about the interaction of pre-K with school funding, which I thought is one of the most interesting findings you have. But let’s first talk about pre-K. Head Start was an attempt on the part of the Great Society, Lyndon Johnson, to say that we’ve gotta really do a better job of providing education for young people before they even get to kindergarten. There’s been lots of people who’ve said that never worked. And then you don’t find that.

Rucker Johnson: Right, and this goes back to being too enamored with easily measured overnight kind of metrics like test scores. There have been evidence that have shown, text score improvements have faded out in the years following Head Start attendance, but the question, is that fade-out reflective of the policy’s inadequacies, or is it just a by-product of any great early investment is still dependent on the quality of subsequent investments?

Henry E. Brady: One of your most extraordinary findings, it seems to me, is that you find out that pre-K has an especially big impact when in fact subsequently school districts actually invest money to provide more help and services to students who are getting pre-K. So in other words, there’s an interaction effect, and that you’ve gotta, as you say, keep going with the treatment, and if you do that, you find suddenly that pre-K actually has an impact and a long-lasting impact.

Rucker Johnson: That’s right. We think of this as kind of synergies, that when we combine these policies in a strategic investment implementation way, what happens is, you invest early, you cause children … Those investments are not investments in acquisition of knowledge, but they give greater ability for the acquisition of future knowledge, and that enables them to be more likely to be school-ready as they enter kindergarten. And then they can take more advantage of the K-12 educational opportunities, because they’re in a system that’s not poorly funded in the K-12 years.

We actually do find fadeout, if you do the pre-K, and they subsequently attend poorly-funded schools in the K-12 years. We do find that the effects do not last long when that happens. And similarly, even the K-12 spending investments don’t yield the same return if they’re not preceded by high quality pre-K investments.

Henry E. Brady: Well, that makes common sense. I mean, you would think of an exercise regime, for example. If you thought that somehow, “Well, I used to exercise 30 years ago, I should be fine today,” that’s rather foolish. We know that probably you have to keep it up, at least at some level, and that’s what you’re really basically saying, is that it’s great that we have pre-K, but we’ve gotta follow up with schools that actually capitalize on that pre-K work.

Rucker Johnson: Yes.

Henry E. Brady: And so I think that’s an extraordinarily important finding. We can’t just assume there’s a magic bullet, that one of these programs is gonna solve all the problems.

Rucker Johnson: Exactly. Exactly. And it’s very much like, going back to an initial question you asked, which is what’s the frame of the book? What the book is aimed to do is to provide a blueprint, an educational opportunity blueprint for what kind of investments are requisite. What are the essential ingredients for kids’ opportunities, no matter their ZIP Code, no matter their race, ethnicity, to be ensured? No matter their poverty status, to be ensured to have opportunities to thrive?

Henry E. Brady: Your book is very hopeful, it seems to me, in that you say if we just would be more intense about saying let’s keep up our desegregation efforts, let’s keep up our efforts to fund schools in a responsible manner to make sure that money gets to the places it’s gotta get, and we add pre-K, that we’re gonna have a system that actually does a lot better. The sad part of your book is the second half, when you start talking about the fact that we’ve actually pulled back on a lot of these policies, especially desegregation and to some extent, school finance reform.

Rucker Johnson: Yes. There is a kind of misnomer that we actually did a lot of school finance reforms, and so maybe the spending disparities are no longer there by, say, income. And actually, that’s not true, that we find 23 states as late as 2012, and those rates really haven’t changed in the last five years, that among 23 states, average spending in more affluent districts is significantly greater than in poor districts. I think one of the key things is that we’ve reached a peak level of integration in the late ’80s. 1988, we’re at the peak level of integration in many ways. We were seeing a lot of the positive impacts, but they weren’t actually well documented.

Rucker Johnson: So while they were happening, in real time they weren’t being documented, and that created a window for some of the political backlash that would want to move back to what is cast as school choice or local control or, what other words? Forced busing. These are very loaded words, but underneath them sometimes, the motivation has a little bit of a fear of race and integration. Beginning in the early ’90s, there began to be a kind of legal change, in which basically court rulings lifted and made it easier to lift court orders.

Henry E. Brady: Because there was a court order that said you had to desegregate, and you had to work hard to figure out…

Rucker Johnson: And you had to have a desegregation plan to integrate, and it was incumbent upon the district to ensure that there be racial balance and those things. That began to be lifted.

Henry E. Brady: Let’s note that you give some examples, where that was done extremely well, that maybe in Boston, for example, mistakes were made. So for example, as I read your book, it looks like the poorer communities bore the greater brunt, the poor white communities, than the rich white communities in Boston, and that that was a mistake, and that’s not the way to do it. And then other communities realized that everybody had to share equally if you’re going to do this, and then everybody would be better off.

Rucker Johnson: That’s right.

Henry E. Brady: And you give examples of where that’s been done successfully.

Rucker Johnson: That’s right. A big part of it is just that the “how” matters just as much as the “what”. When we say integration, we have to still think about what is it that’s making things work together, and what is it that can make it unravel? It’s the combination of, they lifted the court order, so half of the districts that were ever under court order had been lifted of court order, and that led to significant resegregation. Another example is a place like Charlotte that was really a model of integration, and now has basically backtracked to become as segregated as they were before busing began.

Rucker Johnson: Part of the rationale and part of the reason is not just, without policy playing a critical role. In this case, I’ll give you an example, with the North Carolina legislature passed House Bill 514. And what it did was it authorized four wealthy suburban districts in the Mecklenburg County to secede and form their own charter districts-

Henry E. Brady: Apart from Charlotte.

Rucker Johnson: Under the banner of school choice, but that would be their own charter districts and predominately white suburban. That really enabled there to be a significant also resegregation of schools that was furthered. The reason that kind of piece is important is because whereas before, if you had a set of racial prejudice to avoid integration, you did have to bear the brunt of the financial cost. When it’s a charter school, it is the taxpayers’ money that’s actually subsidizing the segregation. There are aspects about how the instruments of policy can be used to further integration efforts, but in some places are being used to further segregation.

That’s one of the things I guess I should say, that is part of the second half of the book, and I think it’s part of the goal of the book in its entirety, which is that we had the quantitative evidence and nasty representative portrait, but we needed to marry that. That provided an aerial view of how the reforms were working and whether there was long-term impact, but we had to marry that with qualitative evidence around the stories of people who were living these experienced changes within the schools, by talking to superintendents and teachers and judges and policymakers, to really get the texture, to understand how this was mirroring their lived experience, both the challenges and the successes.

Henry E. Brady: Well, one of the great things about the book are those stories. And then the evidence that you bring from the very careful econometric and statistical work that you’ve done, and you marry that, I think, extremely well to show how, in fact, these programs can and do work, and also to give us an idea of why on the ground they work, but also why on the ground, even though they work, sometimes people reverse them and don’t continue with them. And that’s, as I say, the sad part of the book, but the hopeful part at the very end is that there are a set of policy prescriptions you put forth that will improve education for everyone. Why don’t you recount those again, just so that we have a summary of them?

Rucker Johnson: We cannot leave out school integration, because throwing money at the problem only is insufficient to the task. It’s integrated school environments, combined with early pre-K investments and quality school finance equalization policies that ensure access to opportunity. And that includes teacher quality and ensuring the development of those teachers. Now, doing that in a kind of cohesive way is not something that should be left up to one district at a time, but really requires some vision around how that needs to be connected.

Henry E. Brady: Rucker Johnson, you’ve written an extraordinary book, Children of the Dream: Why School Integration Works, but it’s much more than that. It’s how to make our educational system work better, and better for everyone.

Rucker Johnson: For all children.

Henry E. Brady: Not just for one group, but for everybody, and how to solve a problem that’s been an American dilemma for far too long. And I thank you for this very readable, very exciting, very amazing book.

Rucker Johnson: Can I just close with one quick thing?

Henry E. Brady: Sure.

Rucker Johnson: I have a number of colleagues that were instrumental in the work, economist Cora Bell Jackson at Northwestern, my colleague and former PhD student Sean Tanner. My current PhD student Sean Darling-Hammond was instrumental in research assistance and other insightful feedback. And Alexander Nazaryan, a former senior writer for Newsweek, also collaborated with me on this work. So I want to definitely give shout-outs to a whole host of folks that made this possible.

Henry E. Brady: You put together a great team, and I think the lesson to the team is, it helps to get people together to work together, to do things together-

Rucker Johnson: Different perspectives.

Henry E. Brady: … and of all sorts of different perspectives and backgrounds. That’s the message of the book in two ways, just in terms of what we should be doing in this country and in the way to write one heck of a good book. Thank you very much.

Rucker Johnson: Thank you, Dean Brady.

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