Bearing The Torch

October 01, 1994 10 min read

When Gary Orfield was a graduate student at the University of Chicago in the late 1960s, he remembers sitting in a history class and hearing John Hope Franklin describe how white liberals had abandoned the cause of Reconstruction in the years following the Civil War. The noted historian talked about how the numbers of blacks holding elective office quickly declined after that and how Jim Crow laws began to take hold.

“If that ever happens in this country again,’' Orfield remembers thinking, “I’m going to do the other thing.’'

As one of the nation’s leading experts on school desegregation, Orfield has remained true to his word. Federal funds for desegregation research have all but dried up, and other educational researchers have turned to new interests, but Orfield doggedly continues to work in the field, prodding schools to do a better job promoting integration.

Some people say that kind of devotion is admirable. But others fault him for it, saying his strident views are coloring his research. “You wouldn’t call it social science,’' says Christine Rossell, chairman of Boston University’s political science department and a frequent critic of Orfield. “You would call it advocacy research.’'

Whatever you call it, one thing is certain: Orfield’s work attracts attention.

It’s an August morning, and Gary Orfield is seated amid the clutter of his fourth floor office in Harvard University’s Gutman Library. Bookshelves, crammed to overflowing, line every available inch of wall space. Boxes and papers are piled high on the floor. And, even in the doldrums of summer, the phone rings constantly.

One caller asks if he would speak at a church forum in Cambridge. He says yes. Another, a reporter, wants a statement on the racial implications of the O.J. Simpson murder trial. He declines to comment, saying he prefers to stick to what he knows.

At age 52, what Orfield knows best is school desegregation. A political scientist by training, Orfield became interested in the field when he did his doctoral dissertation on the subject. He followed that up with the first of several books. By the late 1970s, advocates on both sides of major court cases involving school desegregation were citing his research and writing. Over the years, he has been a witness in 21 civil rights cases--in such areas as education, housing, and testing--and he has had a hand in dozens of studies.

It is Orfield’s contention today, 40 years after the U.S. Supreme Court’s benchmark ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education, that the nation’s schools are slowly sliding back toward resegregation. His own national studies, produced for the National School Boards Association, have found that segregation of African-American students now exceeds 1970 levels and that Hispanic students are even less likely than blacks to be educated in an integrated setting. Even in the South, the nation’s most integrated region since the 1970s, segregation is on the rise.

The slide backward, he notes, is taking place as school districts nationwide try to squirm out of restrictive court-ordered desegregation plans. Some have succeeded--with the court’s permission.

This is why Orfield has remained in the trenches of the school-desegregation fight. “I felt the country had quietly made the decision that separate could be equal,’' says Orfield, whose formal title at Harvard is professor of education and social policy. “And there are deep structural reasons why separate can’t be equal.’'

The trend becomes all the more worrisome, Orfield says, as the nation’s minority populations grow. Statistical projections show that within 30 years, the majority of all young Americans will be members of groups that are now considered to be minorities. “We’re a multiracial society,’' he says, “and we’re going to become predominantly nonwhite, and we’re trying to operate within this tremendous tension with no attention to race relations. School desegregation is misconstrued as being about academic achievement, but it’s a much bigger issue that has to do with what kind of society we want to have and how we can get along.’'

One way Orfield has managed to keep a high public profile is through his work with the Harvard Project on School Desegregation, which grew out of a graduate class offered jointly by the Harvard Graduate School of Education, the John F. Kennedy School of Government, and the Harvard Law School. Students who take part in the project are divided into research groups, which focus on a particular issue. The dozen or so students in Orfield’s school-desegregation group analyze the status of various desegregation efforts. Districts that have been targeted for the uninvited scrutiny include: Detroit; Kansas City, Mo.; Little Rock, Ark.; Austin, Texas; Prince George’s County, Md.; and Montgomery County, Md. Small grants from the Spencer and Andrew W. Mellon foundations helped pay for students’ travel to those locations.

The resulting reports have carried the names of their student authors, but the introductions all have been written by Orfield. Invariably, they have sharply criticized the school district in question and caused a splash in the local media. They have also drawn the ire of local school officials.

Even districts noted for their progressive desegregation efforts have come in for criticism from the Harvard group. One example is Montgomery County, Md., an affluent suburb of Washington, D.C., with a rapidly growing minority population. The district has never been under a court order to integrate its schools, but it has, nonetheless, taken steps in that direction, creating magnet schools and allowing children to transfer to schools outside of their immediate neighborhoods. The district has touted its efforts, boasting that the achievement gap between its African-American and white students is narrowing.

In a report released this past summer, however, Orfield and his students conclude that African-American and Hispanic students have become increasingly isolated in the county’s schools. The county’s policies, the report asserts, have been ineffective--and even counterproductive--in reducing segregation. Orfield and his team concede that the achievement gap between African-American and white students has indeed narrowed. But they say the gap between Latino and white students has grown and that the test scores of both black and Latino students still lag well behind those of whites.

The findings produced a bitter back-and-forth debate in the pages of The Washington Post. Responding to a preliminary version of the report, district administrators fired off an angry retort, calling the team’s work “advocacy research’’ and saying it was full of inaccuracies. Although they are still reviewing the final report, the administrators say they stand by their initial characterization.

Part of the problem, some of Orfield’s harshest critics say, is that racial integration is his ultimate goal, but integration does not automatically improve students’ academic achievement.

Boston University’s Rossell says 90 percent to 95 percent of the disparities in student achievement can be explained by differences in students’ social class or family background--and not by their racial group. But she says Orfield and his students fail to control for such demographic characteristics in their studies. “If a graduate student had given me some of these studies, I would flunk him,’' says Rossell, who frequently testifies opposite Orfield in school-desegregation cases.

The critics also say some of Orfield’s studies fail to take into account the cause of the racial isolation they document. For example, is the community geographically isolated? Or was there white flight? And, if there was, how much of it was caused by the school district? “He de-emphasizes the importance of white flight,’' says David Armor, a senior fellow at George Mason University’s Institute for Policy Studies.

Some school administrators accuse Orfield of being a closet advocate of court-ordered busing, something Orfield denies. Others contend he doesn’t give their districts enough credit when their minority students show academic progress, as was the case in Montgomery County.

But probably more than anything else, school officials argue that Orfield’s pointed criticisms heap unfair blame on them; the problem of segregation, they say, is bigger than the schools.

For his part, Orfield argues that race is inextricably linked to social class. Intensely segregated minority schools are 14 times more likely than others to be predominantly poor. “High-poverty schools have more dropouts, less success in college preparation, fewer well-prepared teachers, and less advanced curriculums,’' he points out. Moreover, he says, “I’ve never presented myself as a statistical person.’' The goal of the Harvard reports, he explains, is to describe what the students actually experience in the schools they attend.

Orfield says he knows that schools cannot solve the problem on their own. But he insists that they can do more. They can promote integration, for example, by working with other agencies to change local housing policies. He even suggested that one district build low-income housing on district-owned land near a predominantly white school. (The district rejected the idea.) “Why should the schools let somebody else undo all their hard work?’' he asks.

Orfield’s admirers suggest that some criticize his scholarship because of the way he presents it--and follows up on it. “He comes on very strong, but his scholarship is very sound,’' says Gerald Sroufe, executive director of the American Educational Research Association. “The fact that he pursues it with this great intensity once it is completed is probably what’s getting him into trouble now.’'

“Part of it is the question of how far you can take the issue,’' says Willis Hawley, dean of the University of Maryland’s school of education. “Gary’s view is that if he says it is difficult to achieve the goals and that the districts have done the best they can under the circumstances, then that is justification for inaction.’'

What no one seems to doubt, however, is that the Harvard professor’s motives are pure. As a parent, Orfield led an effort to integrate a predominantly black elementary school in Washington, D.C.'s Capitol Hill neighborhood. His daughters attended the Chicago public schools when he taught at the University of Chicago. “Here is a guy,’' Hawley says, “who takes his family to Mexico to learn Spanish so he can be more intelligent and responsive to issues, and he does this three years in a row.’'

Unlike many academic experts who serve as witnesses in civil rights cases, Orfield accepts no fees for testifying. His stiff moral backbone has even created headlines. In 1985, during the Reagan administration, he withdrew himself from a national school-desegregation study sponsored by the U.S. Civil Rights Commission after concluding that the effort was “flawed and biased.’' Angering panel members further, he wrote to school districts participating in the study and urged them to drop out.

School desegregation has put Orfield in the national spotlight, but he has worked in other areas, as well. Recently, for example, he and co-investigator Faith Paul conducted a massive survey of students, parents, and school counselors in Indiana. They found that students, regardless of background, have similarly high college aspirations. Many are cut off from the goal, however, by a lack of guidance on the kinds of courses to take.

Still, the steady drumbeat from the Harvard project is likely to continue for some time. The agenda currently includes several more reports on individual school districts, a book on the team’s findings, and a report on Asian students. (Orfield believes Asian students should not be counted toward school district desegregation goals because their academic achievement often outpaces that of white students and because the nation does not have the same kind of “historic responsibility’’ to desegregate Asian students as it does to desegregate African-American and Hispanic students.)

Orfield expects the Harvard team’s future reports will be as critical--and as controversial--as the earlier ones. “It’s like giving a checkup to a patient who has a terminal disease,’' he says. “The healthy thing is to expose and resolve problems. The unhealthy thing is to cover them and let them fester.’'
--Debra Viadero

The “Research’’ section is being underwritten by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.

A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 1994 edition of Teacher as Bearing The Torch