Children of the Dream

Why School Integration Works


By Rucker C. Johnson

By Alexander Nazaryan

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An acclaimed economist reveals that school integration efforts in the 1970s and 1980s were overwhelmingly successful — and argues that we must renew our commitment to integration for the sake of all Americans

We are frequently told that school integration was a social experiment doomed from the start. But as Rucker C. Johnson demonstrates in Children of the Dream, it was, in fact, a spectacular achievement. Drawing on longitudinal studies going back to the 1960s, he shows that students who attended integrated and well-funded schools were more successful in life than those who did not — and this held true for children of all races.

Yet as a society we have given up on integration. Since the high point of integration in 1988, we have regressed and segregation again prevails. Contending that integrated, well-funded schools are the primary engine of social mobility, Children of the Dream offers a radical new take on social policy. It is essential reading in our divided times.


But my point was that not only I and my children are craving light, the entire colored race is craving light, and the only way to reach the light is to start our children together in their infancy and they come up together.



IT HAPPENED THREE YEARS AGO. I WAS FORTY-TWO YEARS OLD, enjoying my life in the San Francisco Bay Area as an economist, professor, father, amateur musician, and fitness enthusiast. Everything was fine. Actually, everything was great.

One day, I felt a weight on my chest as I walked into the gym. Convinced that it was nothing but a little heartburn, I continued my workout. The pain didn’t end, however. I told my wife that I would be okay if I got a good night’s rest. But the next morning, she took my blood pressure and looked at me with shock. Based on the reading, I needed immediate medical intervention.

We sped to the emergency room. After excruciating hours of tests, the cardiologist confirmed that I’d had a heart attack; he ordered an ambulance to rush me into emergency cardiac surgery.

I survived to complete this book with new attention to how bodily systems support each other and function interdependently. As I recovered, I considered my life’s work on poverty and inequality, specifically on the similarity between the human body’s systems and the policy systems of an equitable society. Through my research, I have come to terms with the reality that there is an undeniable interconnectedness among the policies designed to give our children (and their children) the opportunities they deserve to do something meaningful with their lives.

Just as our bodies begin to malfunction when systems fall out of balance, society suffers when we do not address inequality with the holistic strategy it deserves. I write this book as a “health report” on our nation’s goal of equal opportunity. I write to charge us individually and collectively to carefully consider the data analysis herein as evidence that we can have superior social outcomes when we design our education, health, housing, justice, and other policies to be connected from inception to implementation—as well as through reformation.

We must tend to the health of those policies through an intentional, sustained effort. If we do it for our individual health, we certainly can do it for the health of the nation.


BECAUSE THE SCHOOLS ARE GOOD. THAT WAS WHY MY PARENTS moved our family from Leningrad, in the Soviet Union, to the suburbs north of New York City. There were other reasons, too, that we didn’t end up in Kansas or Oregon, but the quality of public education was foremost. In fact, it was a primary reason we moved to the United States instead of moving to Israel, where military service would await at the end of a high school career.

Nobody ever understands how lucky he is. So it was with me. It seemed normal, for example, that I had a full-time language teacher devoted to me and a small scrum of other Russian immigrants. The well-stocked classrooms, the well-compensated teachers, the newest textbooks—that was just how things worked. When my high school was named the sixtieth best in the nation, the news was met with widespread derision by the student body, because we were ungrateful in the way of all teenagers. Most of us had no clue that, just a few miles away, there were children attending schools unfit for the developing world, never mind for the wealthiest and most powerful nation on earth.

It was in high school that I started to understand the vagaries of public education. The way, for example, my own excellent schooling was funded by the wealthy families with enormous houses sequestered in the wooded hills above town. My own father, meanwhile, a PhD who had worked in a physics lab in the Soviet Union, delivered pizza. And there were the inner-city kids who were bused into our suburban enclave. They were the “benefactors” of a desegregation plan, though also the victims of long-standing racial inequalities. We didn’t understand that, of course. Those kids, the black kids, stayed together, moving quietly through the hallways.

Later, after college, I became an educator, working in schools across Brooklyn, in large part to directly address the inequalities I had come to understand in the course of my own public education. This book is a continuation of that effort.



MORE THAN SIXTY YEARS AGO, THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT EMBARKED upon an experiment of astonishing ambition. It decided to reverse centuries of racism, discrimination, and forced separation of the races. The laboratory where this experiment took place is where we frequently test our grandest ideas about what American society should be: the public school classroom.

The experiment was called school integration, and it began with the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. The case has become such a mainstay of American culture that we tend to forget just how revolutionary it was for the nation’s highest court to decide that black and white children would no longer attend separate schools. And, what’s more, that the federal government would exert its fullest power, including that of the military if need be, to end that separation.

As both proponents and opponents of the decision knew, Brown wasn’t just about schools. Kids who went to school together would also become friends, go to the same swimming pools, eat in the same restaurants, live in the same neighborhoods. If you struck down segregation in schools, you struck down segregation everywhere. That is what both thrilled and terrified Americans who understood the full scope of the decision. It is no accident, therefore, that Brown is often considered the beginning of the civil rights movement.

In spite of all the laws that were passed during the civil rights era and the “War on Poverty” initiatives and all the progress that was made, we find ourselves today groping in the dark, facing many of the same challenges. Looking at schools today, you might think that Brown v. Board of Education never happened. True, nobody is foisting “Race Mixing Is Communism” signs, as white protesters did in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1959. But there are, once again, classrooms in which all the students are white, and other classrooms in which all the students are black. And even in the schools that appear to be diverse overall, students are divided based on perceived ability. Advanced-level courses create a stout wall that overcrowds black students—including gifted ones—into regular or even remedial classes, while white students enjoy enclaves of small class sizes in the advanced courses that provide future academic benefits well into college. Certainly, no one is throwing rocks at school buses carrying black children to white schools anymore. But that’s largely because those buses are no longer en route.1

Quietly and subtly, the opponents of integration have won. So, at least, it seems, judging by virtually every indicator of American public education, from test scores to social outcomes. The standard narrative is that integration was a failed experiment, one that was noble yet doomed from the very start. We are beyond it now, and if our schools remain grossly imbalanced, we just have to live with that, to make that necessary concession to reality. Our schools were never going to be a rainbow coalition, beacons of equality and racial harmony. It was a nice thought, but, like so much else from the sixties, more dream than achievable goal. Best to let it go.

This book is a counterargument to that defeatism, to that persistent notion that integration failed and must therefore be consigned to the dusty drawer of historical curiosities. What follows is not an impassioned argument about diversity and integration; plenty of those have been made, and they are absolutely essential. Instead, this book uses data to show the power of integration and related efforts. Contrary to popular wisdom, integration has benefited—and continues to benefit—African Americans, whether that benefit is translated into educational attainment, earnings, social stability, or incarceration rates. Whites, meanwhile, lose nothing from opening their classrooms to others. And overall, society benefits from a decrease in the kind of prejudice that, in the past several years, has threatened to tear us apart.

Analyses of those data lead inevitably to a conclusion at once thrilling and frustrating: integration works, but only if we give it a chance—that is, if we implement collaborative policies beginning in the early childhood years and sustain quality investments from prekindergarten through high school graduation and beyond. This book explores the specific ways in which integration showed promise, how that promise has been stifled, and, most important of all, how that promise can be regained and realized.

Now is the time to act. Educational outcomes are stagnant or plummeting for American children, who increasingly lose out to competitors from around the world. Whereas American public education was once a point of national pride, it is today solidly average, on global terms. In part, that is because large swaths of the population have been left behind. Black children are, on average, two grade levels behind white children in terms of academic achievement; and children in the poorest districts are, on average, four grade levels behind those in the wealthiest districts. In the truest sense of the word, these students are no longer “peers.” Resegregation patterns prohibit them from attending the same schools and from learning in the same classrooms. This is the affliction of the racial achievement gap—that is, the difference in educational outcomes for white and Asian children, on the one hand, and black and brown children, on the other. The gaps emerge early, during elementary school, and widen over time. The gaps occur, in part, because children enter school with different levels of preparedness: about one-half of the achievement gap observed in third graders already existed on the first day of kindergarten. Contributing to that gap is the fact that black and brown children who attend poorly funded schools have the least experienced teachers and lack access to mentorship opportunities, music, and the arts as well as to the kind of technology that is proving crucial in the knowledge-based economy of the twenty-first century.2

We tend to think of the achievement gap as the problem of those who suffer from it. But the problem belongs to us all, making the closure of that gap imperative. And the bigger the gap grows, the greater the harm to the foundation on which our civil society rests.

Our quest is like a search for the cure to cancer—there is no shortage of studies that attempt to find viable solutions and interventions, but there is a paucity of credible ones demonstrating effective, enduring cures for the ailments of schoolchildren who start off behind and are subsequently left behind. But not all research is created equal. Many studies on the effects of school quality are misleading and are rendered useless for policy prescriptions, because they either (a) insufficiently account for childhood family factors, (b) are short-run snapshots of student performance lacking data that follow children over time, or (c) use time-series data analyzed at the state level, giving little consideration to local conditions and trajectories. Like peering through a microscope with the wrong lens, such approaches fail to use the high-resolution tools needed to capture a clear, detailed picture of the problem, which compromises any attempt to identify a solution. These studies measure some correlation between what schools do and how children fare, and they assume that the school conditions fully and exclusively shaped the child’s outcomes. Very few of them sufficiently account for the possibility that socioeconomic factors affecting families could play a role in the achievement gap. Nor do they clearly identify effective interventions that could overcome barriers to success regardless of race, income, or family circumstance.

Meanwhile, headlines declare that school spending doesn’t matter and that increases in spending mostly lead to waste; that early childhood education programs, such as Head Start, have no lasting effects; and, most damaging of all, that integration was a failed social experiment. As we embarked on our research journey, hanging over our work like a cloud was the deeply held belief by many that ambitious social programs are not worth the sustained investment they require. In broader arguments about the effectiveness of antipoverty programs, much of the public has adopted the sentiment expressed by President Ronald Reagan in 1988: “We waged a war on poverty, and poverty won.” This argument has at times prevailed even when there has been ample evidence to the contrary. But why? Our curiosity was piqued. Why did it appear that these policies were not met with the success that inspired the architects of their enactment?3

We discovered that many prior studies were biased and had dubious data sources and samples. If we could isolate the causes, we could get that much closer to identifying prescriptions for social change. That’s what we’ve sought to do.

Just as people have intergenerational lineages, so do policies. In the pages that follow, we chronicle key equal-opportunity initiatives through the prism of the generations of children who were directly impacted by these policy changes. We started with the most controversial and ambitious social experiment of the past fifty years—school desegregation—but quickly found that other policies mattered, too, particularly school finance reform and public pre-K investments. Our journey was fueled by a researcher’s hunger to solve the achievement gap puzzle and a journalist’s nose for on-the-ground reporting. What lessons could we import from history that could inform contemporary policy debates about the best ways to address unequal opportunity in children’s lives? Where there was success, what were schools doing right? And so we launched our research expedition: the nation was our lab; schoolchildren, equal education opportunity policies, and schools our subjects. To glean the most useful policy conclusions, quantitative data would give us an aerial view to be matched with some on-the-ground qualitative evidence from discussions with school leaders, teachers, judges, policymakers, and others on the front lines.

We combined original quantitative analyses and qualitative interviews to ensure that our data mirrored the lived experiences of those who were exposed to these landmark reforms. These complementary vantage points of the same narrative bolstered the validity of our argument that, when strategically implemented together with sustained investments over extended periods of time, equal education opportunity policies can and do work. Individually, integration seeks to accomplish the goal by redistributing schoolchildren, school finance reform by redistributing resources, and expansion of pre-K investments by redistributing the timing of school investments back to the earliest years of cognitive development. As we’ll see, these policies can each make a difference on their own, but together they enhance one another. In this way, integration is more than a policy, it is the very approach to policy. Some advocates have viewed the pursuit of integration as an end in and of itself, but we’ll explore how integration is a necessary means to a broader end: equal opportunity.

Haven’t all these things been tried? Yes, but not as the kind of holistic cure we prescribe. In most places and times, these policies were advanced one at a time, unevenly and inconsistently, with each policy often framed initially as a panacea. Yet the substantial variation in their timing and implementation across districts is exactly what offers us a rare testing ground for what we call the “first-generation suite” of equal education opportunity policy initiatives.

BECAUSE THE ACHIEVEMENT gap has not been closed, marginalized children continue to suffer the repercussions, their lives sometimes snuffed out. It is no accident that many of the late young African American men whom the Black Lives Matter movement has sought to honor and earn justice for had been incredibly ill served by public education as well as by other segments of society. The social integration aspect of diverse schools is an underappreciated aspect that can enhance the quality of schools. Prior research has shown, for example, that greater childhood exposure to individuals of other races can reduce the anxiety and stress experienced in interactions with members of those groups—conclusions our research corroborates. Michael Brown, the high school graduate killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in the summer of 2014, attended schools in the starkly segregated suburbs west of St. Louis. The Normandy Schools Collaborative district, from whose schools Brown graduated, lacks accreditation, making a degree like his much less valuable to colleges and potential employers than a degree from an accredited school. Ferguson had become a two-faced city, with prosperous whites living one reality and struggling African Americans living another.4

Eric Garner was also killed by a police officer during that tumultuous summer. His death took place in New York City, a thousand miles from the St. Louis suburbs where Brown was killed. But the conditions weren’t all that different. Much like Brown, Garner was the product of a heavily segregated education system that sequestered black and brown children in chaotic schools that did more babysitting than teaching. It worsened the life chances of these kids, when it had been charged with improving them.

Garner, who had been born in 1970, graduated from Automotive High School in 1989, a time when the dropout rate in New York City reached as high as 22 percent. The school had proudly graduated generations of mechanics. But over the post–World War II years, the members of white ethnic groups in the surrounding neighborhood, called Williamsburg, had moved away, their white flight taking them to the suburbs of Long Island, New Jersey, and Connecticut. As Latinos and African Americans moved in, the area had suffered from a massive municipal divestment. And no institution suffered quite like its schools. In 1986, when Garner was in high school at Automotive, the New York Times reported that a student there “was found with two eight-inch knives and a brass knuckle ring.”5

Garner went on to work as a mechanic and a horticulturalist and to have children, but by his early forties, he had an arrest record that included driving without a license, drug possession, assault, and grand larceny. He had quit his job and was making his living selling cigarettes on the streets. When officers of the New York Police Department approached him on July 17, 2014, he was living on the margins of society.

Are substandard schools to blame for the lot of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and so many others? Imagine if Garner had gone to well-funded schools, beginning in preschool and lasting throughout his high school years, where he had been taught by experienced and committed teachers. What if he had been given opportunities to interact productively with whites and members of other races on a regular, daily basis? Or had been counseled by a caring social worker about the life choices that lay ahead? Imagine, also, that the involved police officers had attended truly integrated schools as children, and had developed more diverse friendships. Would they have had more cultural understanding and fluency, making them better able to handle pressurized situations on the job? Would they have responded with peaceful approaches to conflict? It seems likely that, given such opportunities on both sides, Eric Garner might be flourishing today and would not live on only as a symbol of police brutality.

Schools are sometimes the cause of our collective social failure, and sometimes they are the symptom. Sometimes, they are both. But they are almost never the only malefactor. Take, for example, the case of Freddie Gray, who was killed while in the custody of the Baltimore Police Department in 2015 at the age of twenty-five. Gray had grown up in a West Baltimore neighborhood called Sandtown-Winchester. Many of the houses there were tainted with lead, as landlords neglected to make necessary improvements. While federal law banned the use of lead paint in housing built after 1978, lead paint removal was not required in older homes. Because the houses were so rundown, they were cheap enough to be rented by impoverished African American families that, by the 1980s, had seen little of the upward mobility the civil rights movement had promised.

Exposure to lead early in life can have deleterious impacts on a variety of cognitive and behavioral outcomes, and those ailments seemed to be concentrated in Baltimore’s African American population. “Nearly 99.9 percent of my clients were black,” said one lawyer after Gray’s death, referring to his clients in lead-poisoning cases in the city. “That’s the sad fact to life in the ghetto, that the only living conditions people can afford will likely poison their kids. If you only have $250 per month, you’re going to get a run-down, dilapidated house where the landlord hasn’t inspected it the entire time they’ve owned it.”6

Gray struggled in school, often getting into trouble. The high school he attended (but from which he did not graduate), Carver Vocational-Technical, has been described as an “apartheid school,” because 98 percent of its students were African American. Its low graduation rate and poor academic offerings consigned students like Gray to a life of bleak prospects. At the time of his death, Gray had never had a good job. Before he was even born, Gray was the victim of forces far beyond his control. Those forces kept his parents from living in safe housing in a neighborhood with good schools. They kept him from having a healthy family life. And as a result, he went to schools similar to those attended by Brown, Garner, and many of the other African Americans who were being felled by police violence.7

Despite those facts, we will show in this book that segregation is not a black problem, but an American problem. It is not a single loss prospect—it harms whites and blacks alike. And the blockage it creates reverberates throughout the entire body of American society: higher education, the labor market, public health, criminal justice, civic engagement, digital fluency, life expectancy. As for integration, it is not a zero-sum game: whites as well as blacks benefit from it.

Every politician of the modern era pays lip service to the importance of public education, the need to “fix” our schools. Their “fixes” are often a total departure from those of their predecessors. President Lyndon B. Johnson launched a War on Poverty, which included the revolutionary early education program Head Start. Recognizing the importance of money in education, and of education to his Great Society vision, he signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, establishing the stream of federal Title I funds that bolstered impoverished districts. President George W. Bush had No Child Left Behind, and Barack Obama gave us Race to the Top and greater research-based investments in preschool education.

Magnet schools were a craze, then charter schools. The resurgence of technical and vocational schools are on the horizon. We’ve had regimes of standardized testing and more rigorous teacher evaluations. These have all come and waned. And despite pockets of success (often in districts that eschew this obsession with panaceas), achievement gaps persist, growing with each successive year students are in school.8

Even fixing schools will not “fix” all of the problems that American society faces. But those problems will persist unless we fix our schools. The fix outlined in the pages that follow is not some flashy new proposal unlike anything that’s come before. As a matter of fact, every idea suggested herein is an old one, but analyzed anew with better data and superior methods to determine the essential ingredients of school quality for all children. Silicon Valley has made innovation the buzzword of our age. In addition to presenting innovative data that spark new insights, the pages that follow point to another word: commitment, and the restoration thereof, to the ideals and ideas that once provided so much hope for the nation’s schools.

Rome was not built in a day, and effective social policies do not work overnight. Hope can fuel the perseverance needed to allow policies to reach fruition. But no policy can, and no policymaker should, rely on hope alone. Our conclusions and policy prescriptions rely on something else: research findings that allow for a clear-eyed look at what we’ve accomplished, where we’ve come up short, and how we can yet realize the promise of equality of opportunity. Those new findings stand on the extensive, rigorous analyses of the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID), a survey of eighteen thousand Americans begun by the University of Michigan in 1968 and conducted every year since. “America’s family tree,” as it is affectionately called by researchers, is the longest-running longitudinal household survey in the world, spanning fifty years and encompassing three generations of adult outcomes. The PSID is like an annual exam, one that focuses on various dimensions of well-being, including earnings, income, wealth, education, health, and family structure. It is one of the few nationally representative data sources that, with innovative and vetted analytical tools, can help unearth answers to complicated questions about poverty and inequality and the influence of childhood factors on success in later life. It is considered among the nation’s most reliable sources for answering complex questions about intergenerational mobility. With the PSID, it is possible to determine who is moving up that fabled ladder of opportunity—and who isn’t.

The analyses that form the foundation of this work overlay data from the PSID onto the landscape of American education in the second half of the twentieth century. We* track life outcomes of cohorts followed from birth to adulthood across several generations, from the children of Brown to Brown


  • "If you long for compelling arguments to reinforce a commitment to equal opportunity, Children of the Dream is a must-read. This well-written book integrates analyses of original quantitative data sets with engaging discussions of eye-opening qualitative evidence to reveal in sharp relief why the combination of integrated education, quality preschools, and equitable school funding works for disadvantaged students. Rucker C. Johnson has written an important volume that is bound to not only engage academics and policymakers, but general readers as well."—William Julius Wilson, Lewis P. and Linda L. Geyser University Professor, Harvard University
  • "This book is fuel for hope. No other work addressing race so powerfully combines first-class social science with historical, social, and policy analysis. Passion shapes the narrative without compromising the science. Indeed, here is a model for how to advocate equity by being advocates for evidence rather than ideology. Children of the Dream joins Richard Rothstein's recent work as essential reading for anyone committed to understanding our racial divisions and then addressing them with public policies and moral courage."—Christopher Edley, professor and former dean, U.C. Berkeley Law School, and co-founder, The Opportunity Institute
  • "There is no more urgent issue in America today than closing the gaps between Americans of different races and ensuring that everyone has a decent life and living. Education is central to that aspiration. This book is a bracing and informative summary of the history of segregation, desegregation, and resegregation. It demonstrates that integration works and that it is a goal towards which our entire society should work."—Diane Ravitch, author of The Death and Life of the Great American School System
  • "In a highly diverse society and world like ours, integration matters. Most of us learn to live integrated lives through integrated schools. Rucker C. Johnson's ground-breaking research should raise alarms for policy makers, educators, parents, and any other citizen concerned about America's future in the face of classrooms that look today as segregated as they were when that practice was declared unlawful in 1954."—Deval Patrick, Managing Director, Bain Capital Double Impact, former Governor of Massachusetts

On Sale
Apr 16, 2019
Page Count
336 pages
Basic Books

Rucker C. Johnson

About the Author

Rucker C. Johnson is the Chancellor’s Professor in the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley, and a faculty research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research. He lives in Oakland, California

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Alexander Nazaryan

About the Author

Alexander Nazaryan is the Washington National Affairs correspondent for Yahoo. A former Newsweek staff writer, Nazaryan has written on politics, books and culture for the New York Times, Newsweek, the Washington Post, the Village Voice, the New Criterion, Salon, and many other publications.

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