Beyond Race

October 01, 1998 4 min read

For more than four decades, schools have worked to integrate and achieve the dream of educating black and white children together. But a new survey of parents suggests the country’s zeal for integration has faded, replaced in part by an urgency for better schools.

An overwhelming majority of African American parents want public schools to focus on student achievement rather than on racial diversity and integration, according to the poll. And while whites and blacks continue to view integration as an important goal, the survey’s researchers say both groups of parents show “a distinctive lack of energy and passion for integration.”

The poll was conducted by Public Agenda, a nonpartisan public-opinion research firm in New York City. Public Agenda and the Public Education Network, a Washington, D.C.-based group of nonprofit local education funds, plan to use the findings to engage Americans in conversations about race and education nationwide.

The dynamics of the dialogue on race and schools have changed in recent years. The courts have released many districts from orders that mandated desegregation following the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education, and traditional alliances of civil-rights advocates have also eroded, with some blacks endorsing private school vouchers.

The poll suggests that attitudes toward integration have changed, as well. When asked what the bigger priority for schools should be, 80 percent of black parents chose raising academic standards and achievement. Only 9 percent chose achieving diversity and integration; 11 percent said both.

Though white parents were reluctant to address race issues, the researchers say they expressed anxiety about integration. More than 60 percent said they believed discipline and safety problems, lower reading scores, and social problems would follow if large numbers of black students began attending a mostly white school.

Despite such misgivings, both groups of parents still view integration as a vital goal. Eighty percent of black parents and 66 percent of white parents said it was very or somewhat important that their own child’s school be racially integrated. Nearly half of black parents said integration was very important, compared with 28 percent of whites. “School integration serves important-mostly social-functions,” the study concludes, “but academic achievement is, for both groups, a separate and independent issue.”

Wendy Puriefoy, president of the Public Education Network, calls the results “exciting, affirming, and hopeful....There is common ground about the need for high-quality public education, common ground on what education ought to look like, and common ground that standards and good teaching and community support are essential,” she says.

Deborah Wadsworth, executive director of Public Agenda, says the findings “challenge some commonly held assumptions about what African American parents consider most important.” Though black parents view public education from a different perspective than whites, “their concern about quality education and academic standards and their agenda for achieving these is nearly identical,” she says.

Black parents’ insistence on academic achievement reflects their fears about how their children are faring in schools, the report suggests. “In their minds, the problem is at crisis point.”

The majority of black parents-56 percent-estimated that fewer than half of black students attend good schools with good teachers. By contrast, 74 percent thought that white students attended good schools. And while 48 percent of black parents thought that more than half of black students are doing well in school, 47 percent disagreed.

If money were not an obstacle, 60 percent of black parents said they would switch their children from public to private schools. Only 38 percent would stay with their public schools.

The report, Time To Move On: African American and White Parents Set an Agenda for Public Schools, presents the results of 30-minute telephone surveys of 800 black and 800 white parents conducted from March 26 to April 17, as well as the findings from eight focus groups and individual interviews with parents and 22 public school educators. These focus groups were separated by race in an attempt to make it easier for participants to speak freely.

Researchers polled parents on race-based hiring in schools as well as integration. More than three-fourths of black parents said that a mostly black district should hire the best candidate as superintendent, regardless of race. Only 4 percent said the district should hire a black candidate even if it meant turning away a better-qualified white candidate.

Similarly, three-fourths of black parents said that a mostly black district should hire the best teachers possible, regardless of race.

“These findings are strong and consistent but somewhat counterintuitive” when compared to other findings that indicate black parents consider race pivotal to an educator’s effectiveness, the report says. Nearly 70 percent of black parents, for example, thought that there was some truth to the statement that teachers and principals had lower expectations for black students because of racial stereotypes. A similar number said that too many white teachers didn’t know how to deal with black students because they were from different cultures.

Black parents believe black students “sometimes pay a price when taught by whites,” the report suggests, but they think that racial considerations divert schools from academics.

-Ann Bradley