Middle-Class Kids Aren’t Magic Pixie Dust

The New York Times Magazine has a long article by Nikole Hannah-Jones about school segregation and integration in New York City this week. It’s an interesting story, but there are several issues even on a cursory reading. Excerpts from the article are in quotes below.

We live in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a low-income, heavily black, rapidly gentrifying neighborhood of brownstones in central Brooklyn.

Bed-Stuy (where, for what it’s worth, my wife lived when we started dating) was moderately low-income (although with many pockets of middle class families) as of a decade ago. Now, it has a median income above the city-wide average: $52,253.

I didn’t know any of our middle-class neighbors, black or white, who sent their children to one of [the neighborhood] schools. They had managed to secure seats in the more diverse and economically advantaged magnet schools or gifted-and-talented programs outside our area, or opted to pay hefty tuition to progressive but largely white private institutions.

Here are the demographics for the Community Roots charter school, and the Brooklyn Prospect school, two of the more popular charter schools among middle class parents in Bed-Stuy and nearby neighborhoods and the two that have the highest percentage of white students:


My husband, Faraji, and I wanted to send our daughter to public school. Faraji, the oldest child in a military family, went to public schools that served Army bases both in America and abroad. As a result, he had a highly unusual experience for a black American child: He never attended a segregated public school a day of his life.He can now walk into any room and instantly start a conversation with the people there, whether they are young mothers gathered at a housing-project tenants’ meeting or executives eating from small plates at a ritzy cocktail reception.

I went to a speech in 2000 by Harold Levy when he was in charge of all the NYC schools where he focused on these Department of Defense-run schools like the one Hannah-Jones’s husband attended, and how NYC should emulate them. Levy credited involved parents, mandatory racial integration, and so on for these schools’ success. But of course there’s an additional reason DoDEA schools have different patterns of achievement than other school districts- the Army administers an IQ test (the ASQT) to all potential recruits, and excludes those roughly below the 25th percentile. The other branches of the military have higher cutoffs. This test excludes a larger percentage of potential black and Hispanic recruits than of white (or Asian) recruits, so black and Hispanic recruits’ kids have unusually high scores, and there are smaller than ordinary achievement gaps (which may produce smaller than ordinary social gaps, as well.)

I grew up in Waterloo, Iowa, on the wrong side of the river that divided white from black, opportunity from struggle, and started my education in a low-income school that my mother says was distressingly chaotic. I don’t recall it being bad, but I do remember just one white child in my first-grade class, though there may have been more. That summer, my mom and dad enrolled my older sister and me in the school district’s voluntary desegregation program, which allowed some black kids to leave their neighborhood schools for whiter, more well off ones on the west side of town.

I started school around the same time as Hannah-Jones, and I was bused for K-2 (to the more-black end of town) and then kids from that neighborhood were bused to my neighborhood school for grades 3-5. It didn’t hurt me any, and I had great teachers in both schools, but it should be noted that my home town, like other liberal college towns, still has among the largest black-white test score gaps in the country, thirty years later.

In a city where white children are only 15 percent of the more than one million public-school students, half of them are clustered in just 11 percent of the schools, which not coincidentally include many of the city’s top performers. Part of what makes those schools desirable to white parents, aside from the academics, is that they have some students of color, but not too many. This carefully curated integration, the kind that allows many white parents to boast that their children’s public schools look like the United Nations, comes at a steep cost for the rest of the city’s black and Latino children.

This is the main logical tension of the whole article. Even if you distributed those 15 percent of students equally across the entire city, you’d have all schools that are 85% non-white. Unless you believe that a small number of white students would act as a magic pixie dust on schools, you have to assume that this would have zero effects on outcomes. Moreover, about a fifth of the white students are in Staten Island and can’t be plausibly moved to other more segregated schools. The Bronx only has 4% white students, and it’s not clear that you’re going to demand kids get on the train in the Upper West Side or Fort Greene, and travel all the way to Yankee Stadium, just to go to first grade.


Black and Latino children here have become increasingly isolated, with 85 percent of black students and 75 percent of Latino students attending “intensely” segregated schools — schools that are less than 10 percent white.

This is not terribly surprising, if only 15 percent of students are white.

Getting [the author’s daughter] into one of the disproportionately white schools in the city felt like accepting the inevitability of this two-tiered system: one set of schools with excellent resources for white kids and some black and Latino middle-class kids, a second set of underresourced schools for the rest of the city’s black and Latino kids.

I argued with Hannah-Jones on Twitter about this, but it’s just not true that schools in New York with more black students or more poor students are getting less resources (they may be spending it more poorly, of course.) Here are the 32 Community School Districts’ spending per pupil (public K-8s) plotted against % low-income and % black:

In both cases, neighborhoods with higher % black students or higher % eligible for Free-or-Reduced-Price Lunch receive more money. The correlation would almost certainly be higher on a school level: the Federal Government allocates Title 1 money depending on FRPL status, and other federal grant sources are also redistributive.

This isn’t unique to New York City, of course; in many to most states, there is a negative correlation between school spending and median income, due to redistribution. Here are two figures making this point from the blogger Random Critical Analysis’s thorough response to an earlier New York Times article on educational inequality.

Faraji couldn’t believe that I was asking him to expose our child to the type of education that the two of us had managed to avoid. He worried that we would be hurting Najya if we put her in a high-poverty, all-black school. “Are we experimenting with our child based on our idealism about public schools?” he asked. “Are we putting her at a disadvantage?”

The answer is, most likely, “no.” Middle-class black students are arguably as likely to underperform in affluent majority white settings as in majority black settings, for a variety of reasons. The evidence that racial diversity per se- apart from school characteristics like well-disciplined classrooms- is advantageous to black students’ achievement is mixed. It may be that being in a very low poverty setting is advantageous,  but this is a separate proposition from the benefits of diversity.

Eventually I persuaded him to visit a few schools with me. Before work, we peered into the classrooms of three neighborhood schools, and a fourth, Public School 307, located in the Vinegar Hill section of Brooklyn, near the East River waterfront and a few miles from our home. P.S. 307’s attendance zone was drawn snugly around seven of the 10 buildings that make up the Farragut Houses, a public-housing project with 3,200 residents across from the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The school’s population was 91 percent black and Latino. Nine of 10 students met federal poverty standards. But what went on inside the school was unlike what goes on in most schools serving the city’s poorest children. This was in large part because of the efforts of a remarkable principal, Roberta Davenport.

I’ve visited dozens of low-income schools over the years. I’ve been in fairly chaotic middle schools, but in essentially no chaotic elementary schools, no matter how poor, and regardless of the surrounding neighborhood. Davenport may be a talented administrator, but it’s also likely Hannah-Jones overestimates how dysfunctional other schools are.

Soft of voice but steely in character, she rejected the spare educational orthodoxy often reserved for poor black and brown children that strips away everything that makes school joyous in order to focus solely on improving test scores. These children from the projects learned Mandarin, took violin lessons and played chess. Thanks to her hard work, the school had recently received money from a federal magnet grant, which funded a science, engineering and technology program aimed at drawing middle-class children from outside its attendance zone.

So…after all the determination to attend a neighborhood school above, she did sort of ended up sending her child to a magnet school, albeit one that hasn’t yet attracted many middle-class kids.

There follows a recounting of the history of school integration efforts since Brown v. Board. Then this:

Decades of studies have affirmed integration’s power. A 2010 study released by the Century Foundation found that when children in public housing in Montgomery County, Md., enrolled in middle-class schools, the differences between their scores and those of their wealthier classmates decreased by half in math and a third in reading, and they pulled significantly ahead of their counterparts in poor schools. In fact, integration changes the entire trajectory of black students’ lives.

I discussed this study earlier. Putting aside that its estimated effects are much larger than for other similar efforts, there just aren’t enough Montgomery Counties to go around. Over half of the public school students in the country are now eligible for free-or-reduced-price lunch, ie, are low-income. Even if being a poor kid in a *very* low-poverty school, like those in Montgomery County, is on average helpful to some outcomes, you run out of such schools very quickly. In 1970s, last time the push for forced integration came, you had an 83% white non-Hispanic country: a lot more integration to go around.

Legally and culturally, we’ve come to accept segregation once again. Today, across the country, black children are more segregated than they have been at any point in nearly half a century. Except for a few remaining court-ordered desegregation programs, intentional integration almost never occurs unless it’s in the interests of white students. This is even the case in New York City, under the stewardship of Mayor de Blasio, who campaigned by highlighting the city’s racial and economic inequality. De Blasio and his schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña, have acknowledged that they don’t believe their job is to force school integration. “I want to see diversity in schools organically,” Fariña said at a town-hall meeting in Lower Manhattan in February. “I don’t want to see mandates.” The shift in language that trades the word “integration” for “diversity” is critical. Here in this city, as in many, diversity functions as a boutique offering for the children of the privileged but does little to ensure quality education for poor black and Latino children.

Here’s what is driving segregation in New York City schools:

a) Neighborhoods are largely segregated by rental price.

b) Middle class and white New Yorkers aren’t having that many kids to begin with.

c) If middle-class people move to gentrifying neighborhoods with segregated schools (like Hannah-Jones’s), they do the research to find a school that isn’t segregated and put their kid into it. The schools that are desirable for middle class families are deluged with applications. The two schools above whose demographics I listed use various tools to *increase* the percentage of black and Hispanic students and poor students relative to what would happen if they just lotteried to all comers.

d) Low income black and Hispanic families don’t do this, possibly because they don’t have the skills to find a school, but possibly because they are happy with their neighborhood school.

e) If you force everyone to enroll in their local school (getting rid of magnet programs and somehow shutting down charters), you’ll have fewer middle class parents in the system at all.

f) You’ll also penalize the low-income and black and Hispanic parents who are currently motivated to find a different school for their kid.

14 thoughts on “Middle-Class Kids Aren’t Magic Pixie Dust

  1. Does point c mean that white and Asian parents want some blacks and Hispanics in their kids’ public schools? Do they want this enough to trade off some other benefit, even a small one, for it?

    I don’t know any people who would desire that. The white and Asian parents I know would be indifferent at best to the presence of black and Hispanic students. But I live in the suburbs. Is it really that much different in the city?

    And then there are some that don’t even consider the public schools — like someone on the Upper West Side that assumed his kids would go to private school even if they didn’t get into particularly good ones.


    1. Schools that are desirable for middle class parents have various reasons for wanting not to be -too- white, both for their parent body’s own sense of guilt (these people are reading the NY Times Magazine and agreeing with it too) and from the administrators’ perspective to shield the school from unwelcome attention from the central district.

      There have been various (mainly Asian-focused) NYC schools that have not played the diversity game and deliberately tried to create a homogenous middle class environment- NEST was the one I knew of most. But they get caught and punished eventually.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I grew up in Waterloo, Iowa, on the wrong side of the river that divided white from black, opportunity from struggle, and started my education in a low-income school that my mother says was distressingly chaotic. I don’t recall it being bad, but I do remember just one white child in my first-grade class, though there may have been more. That summer, my mom and dad enrolled my older sister and me in the school district’s voluntary desegregation program, which allowed some black kids to leave their neighborhood schools for whiter, more well off ones on the west side of town.

    Nikole Hannah Jones became a 2017 MacArthur genius grant winner earlier this month. Although I should not have been, I was surprised to learn that her mother is white. According to Hannah Jones, it is fine for a white mother to pull her bi-racial children out of a dysfunctional black school, but a white child from the same white woman is expected to stay and deal with it.

    Both Hannah Jones and her Department of Defense-educated husband are unicorns when compared to the majority of black population, but she is given a platform and financially rewarded to pretend that they are the same as the majority of blacks with the only difference being the schools they attended. Scholastic pixie dust.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There’s a complicated story about why American communities are in many ways more segregated than they were 50 years ago, but just viewing it as pointless racism- or weirdly blaming white gentrifiers for putting their kids in 30% white schools instead of 10% white schools, makes no sense.

      Liked by 2 people

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