The hard lessons of segregation
WAYNE CLOUGH, the president of the Georgia Institute of Technology, has just moved into a new office. The workmen are still in the corridors outside, generating noise and dust. A few years ago the site, in Atlanta, was full of drug addicts and prostitutes. The hotel across the street was boarded up and inhabited by vagrants. Now Georgia Tech is building a “sustainable, energy-efficient campus” with white roofs, recycled building materials and a system for catching and using rainwater. It is a bit more expensive, says Mr Clough, but “if you plan to be around for a while, you’ll recapture the costs eventually.”
Georgia Tech has a global reputation. Its 16,000 students will mostly go on to careers in engineering, medicine or some other tough and lucrative field. But Mr Clough does have some worries. Southern universities got into the research game later than their northern rivals, so the region is behind the curve in attracting high-tech industries, he says. From time to time, fundamentalists try to teach creationism as science in southern public schools, which “reinforces the backward image”. But his biggest worry is that not enough young southerners are mastering science and maths.
“Brother Dave” Gardner, a stand-up comic from Tennessee, greeted the 1954 Supreme Court order to end segregated schools with the quip: “Let ’em go to school, beloved. We went, and we didn’t learn nothin’.” That was harsh, but partly grounded in fact. The point of school segregation was to keep blacks down and whites separate. When it ended, many white parents moved their children from newly integrated public schools to private schools whose chief selling point was whiteness, not academic rigour.
As in so many areas, the legacy of the past afflicts the present. Today, if you rank states by the proportion of inhabitants over 25 who have at least graduated from high school, seven of the bottom ten are southern, with Texas dead last. Look at the current generation of schoolchildren and Texas is doing much better, but the South still lags. On standardised maths tests, 13-year-olds score below the American average in every southern state except Texas, Virginia and the Carolinas. In Alabama and Mississippi nearly half of them score “below basic” on maths, which means that even simple calculations baffle them.
Nicole Dobbs, now 17, attended public schools in Atlanta until 2004. There were “behaviour issues”, she recalls: “Kids fighting, throwing paper, talking back to the teacher, stuff like that. After a while of being [stopped from learning], you figure, what the heck? It can’t be important.” Miss Dobbs’s motivation dried up when her drug-addict mother moved the family into a homeless shelter. But it revived when she was accepted at Tech High, a state-funded but independently run “charter” school.
Some of the South’s educational problems are cultural. A high proportion of students are poor, black or Hispanic. Black and Hispanic kids who do well academically are sometimes accused by their peers of “acting white” and ostracised. This is not an urban myth. A robust study by Roland Fryer of Harvard University showed that above a certain grade-point average, blacks and Hispanics have fewer friends than other pupils, whereas whites have more. But culture is not destiny. A good school can help to mould it.
Tech High is 97% black or Hispanic and takes kids from the roughest parts of Atlanta without screening for academic aptitude. Alan Gravitt, a science teacher there, says that when he gets new students from the public system, “it’s shocking what they don’t know.” One 14-year-old girl, he recalls, was surprised to learn that six divided by three was not the same as three divided by six. Tech High spends only two-thirds as much money, per pupil, as the Atlanta public schools. Yet its test scores are better than any in the inner city, and on a par with the average for Georgia. Why? Its teachers are easy to sack and rewarded by merit. Management is lean. Classes are disciplined, not least because teachers can threaten to send troublemakers back to the public schools they escaped from.
Learning to do better
Jay Greene, a professor at the University of Arkansas, says there has been more educational progress in the South than in other regions in recent years. Between 1992 and 2005, for example, the seven states that showed the swiftest improvement in nine-year-olds’ maths scores were all southern. Mr Greene singles out Florida, Texas, North Carolina and Tennessee for subjecting pupils to rigorous testing, reducing class sizes, making schools more accountable and giving parents the choice to switch from bad schools to better ones.
Such reforms—especially school choice—often meet fierce resistance from teachers’ unions and educational bureaucrats. Charter schools such as Tech High typically cannot set up without permission from the educational hierarchy whose flaws they plan to expose. A modest attempt to make it easier to sack incompetent teachers in Georgia was revoked in 2003 after its main sponsor, Governor Roy Barnes, a Democrat, was spurned by the educational establishment and voted out of office. But Mr Greene thinks the general picture is positive. “The South did not have the same tradition of educational achievement as the north, and that held it back,” he says. “But that’s not really the case any more. The big advantage that the north had is not infinitely self-perpetuating.”