My father moved our family from Louisiana to Memphis in the summer of 1970. At the time, Memphis was only two years’ removed from the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.—and in the midst of a collective fretting over the pressure to integrate its schools.
One of my earliest memories of my new Tennessee home was the yard signs with smiley faces that read, “Happiness is walking to your neighborhood school.” I also remember the few grown-ups in my life talking in serious tones about “bussing.” The two—bussing and the signs with the smiley faces—were of course related, as I later learned. Yet at the time, they only puzzled me. There were no schools in my neighborhood (we lived in a new subdivision in an unincorporated part of the county, just south of Bartlett and east of the city limits), and what was the big deal about bussing? In Louisiana, I had ridden a bus to school everyday.
As we all know, in 1954 the Supreme Court ruled that segregated schools were unconstitutional, and thus it was only a matter of time before black children and white would be attending the same schools. In Memphis, that time was slow in coming: it was not until 1972 that a federal court under Judge Robert M. McRae ordered that the city implement a plan to desegregate the schools in earnest.
Desegregation, it was hoped, would improve the education that black students received. No school that enrolled white children would dare offer a substandard education; thus, by virtue of attending the same schools that white children attended, black children would have access to the same educational resources as whites, and the achievement gap between the two would soon disappear.
Needless to say, things did not play out that way, certainly not in Memphis. After Judge McRae’s order, many whites fled the city for the county, and of the whites who remained, many began sending their children to private schools. (As for me, I first attended Bartlett Elementary, a county school; in the mid-1970s, our part of the county was annexed by the city, so by 1976 I was attending city schools, first Raleigh-Bartlett Meadows, then Kingsbury Junior High and Kingsbury High, from which I graduated in 1983.) The result was that the Memphis City School system entered the twenty-first century with a student body that was 85 percent black—and struggling to educate its charges.
Just how much it is struggling is difficult to determine. According to the website of the Tennessee Department of Education, whose tables of data could provide more guidance in interpreting, in 2012, in the system as a whole, fifth graders and eighth graders scored an A on the writing portion of the TCAP (Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program), as did eleventh graders. At the same time, it appears that only 25% of third graders scored “proficient” or “advanced” in reading and language arts, and only 39% of high school students scored “proficient” or “advanced” in English II.
Certainly one observer who believes the system is struggling is Marcus D. Pohlmann, whose 2008 book, Opportunity Lost: Race and Poverty in the Memphis City Schools (University of Tennessee Press), seeks to understand why many students in the city’s school system perform so poorly. In particular, Pohlmann, a political scientist at Rhodes College and the author, along with Michael Kirby, of Racial Politics at the Crossroads: Memphis Elects Dr. W. W. Herenton (1996), wants to reexamine the connection between socioeconomic class and educational success, a connection that was first suggested in the mid-1960s and that, at the time, challenged the belief that desegregated schools were the solution to the problems that black students faced. It’s a connection to which Pohlmann was already committed to affirming—or so it seemed to this reader—when he began researching and writing his book. So it came as no surprise that Pohlmann concluded that it’s not the schools per se that are to blame for the poor performance of the city’s schoolchildren; rather, it’s the socioeconomic characteristics of the children that determine the degree to which they become educated and able to lead a productive life. Race and especially family income, rather than student-teacher ratios and per-pupil spending, are what principally determine a student’s educational success or failure.
He draws that conclusion after comparing the Memphis City schools with the Shelby County schools. As he documents, over the period between 1970 and the early 2000s, the city system scored slightly higher on many of the traditional “inputs” that are used to measure school quality, including expenditures per pupil and student-teacher ratios; yet over that period it was students in the county schools, not the city schools, who scored better on traditional “output” measures such as attendance, graduation rates, and reading and math proficiency. “It appears,” Pohlmann thus concludes, “that the output gaps have more to do with the academic disadvantages low-income students bring to school with them than with the quality of the educational resources available once they arrive.”
Pohlmann’s is not a rigorous study, and his investigation of the relationship between socioeconomic status and educational outcomes occupies only a single chapter of his 282-page book. But that is no matter. Despite what the author claims in his preface, the real purpose of Opportunity Lost is to make a case for reform. Indeed, the longest chapter surveys numerous educational reforms that have been proposed or implemented, not only in Memphis but nationwide, and his concluding chapter presents what Pohlmann believes are solutions to the problems besetting the Memphis City schools today. In line with the conclusion of his study, one of the reforms is to guarantee to every working parent a “reasonable income” and health and other benefits through programs modeled on any number of European ones, most specifically the Danish “Flexicurity” program, which relies on a social compact between business, labor, and the government.
Pohlmann’s central message—and it is one with which I am in full agreement—is that we adults are simply not committed to insuring that every child receives an adequate education. We may be committed to at least providing every child with an opportunity to go to school; but that is not enough. Until we recognize the many elements and circumstances that, through a complex interplay, either help or hinder a child’s progress, we are simply paying lip service to our belief in equal opportunity. Much to his credit, Pohlmann does not beat around the bush, and he is worth quoting at length:
If we are serious about finding a way to educate all children so that they truly can rise or fall on their own merits, the proposals [I have put forward here] suggest a price tag that that will be formidable. Effective education-related reforms will require significant sacrifice across society if we are to reduce poverty, provide quality education options beginning at age one, reach out to indigent caregivers, reduce class sizes, extend school days and school years, attract more of the nation’s best and brightest into the teaching profession, and effectively consolidate and decentralize school administration. As a nation, we are already spending roughly $1 trillion a year on education. We can spend that amount more wisely, but we will have to spend much more if anything resembling comprehensive reform is to be implemented.
If such a statement smacks too much of social democracy for those on the right, let me hasten to point out that “responsibility,” including the responsibility of students, is a component of Pohlmann’s reformist vision. “Children have a responsibility to do their homework, stay in school, master standard English, and stop having babies,” he writes, and fathers “need to raise the children they help produce.”
It is worth noting that at least one reform Pohlmann advances appears destined to come about. In 2011, the Memphis City Schools surrendered its charter, forcing a merger with the county system. The merger is scheduled to go into effect in 2013.