He taught a message of the need to help those less fortunate, while coming from a working class background himself.
I’ve heard it said that anyone who wants to understand education, student achievement and race relations needs to understand his work.
This Sunday I get to speak at a memorial service for him, a celebration of his life.
I wish I didn’t have to do that; I wish he were still here. There’s so much more to learn.
Robert L. Crain, TC Expert on Desegregation, Is Dead at 82
A passionate believer in school integration who applied the most rigorous criteria in assessing its benefits
Teachers College sociologist Robert Crain, who conducted some of the earliest large-scale quantitative studies demonstrating the positive impacts of school and neighborhood desegregation, died in March at age 82.
Crain, along with Jomills Braddock, Willis Hawley and James McPartland, was among a small group of pioneering sociologists who worked to convince the federal and state governments not to roll back the racial protections that had been accorded blacks through the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v Board of Education and the subsequent passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. He is perhaps best known for his various contributions to research on the benefits of school desegregation for students and society. For example, much of his work added weight to Perpetuation Theory, which predicts that young people who attend racially segregated schools are likely, as adults, to hold jobs in segregated workplaces and to live in segregated neighborhoods.
“Bob was a true champion of racial equality who played a key role in getting desegregation research established and recognized and then building a body of knowledge on desegregation’s impact.”
— Amy Stuart Wells
Crain also gave expert testimony in numerous court cases on desegregation, including on behalf of plaintiffs in Connecticut’s famous Sheff v. O’Neill case, who charged that the state’s system of separate city and suburban school districts had created racially segregated schools and violated their children’s rights to equal opportunity. His books and articles were also frequently cited, including Tuttle v. Arlington County School Board, a Virginia case which considered whether an “oversubscribed” public school may use a weighted lottery in admissions to promote racial and ethnic diversity in its student body.
“Bob was a true champion of racial equality who played a key role in getting desegregation research established and recognized and then building a body of knowledge on desegregation’s impact,” said Amy Stuart Wells, TC Professor of Sociology & Education, who was Crain’s doctoral student. “He was doing this work at a time when very little desegregation had occurred because of all the foot-dragging.”
In a meta-analysis titled “Perpetuation Theory and the Long-term Effects of Desegregation,” published in the Winter 1994 issue of Review of Educational Research, he and coauthor Amy Stuart Wells drew on findings from 21 studies to refute the notion, increasingly embraced in policy circles at that time, that school integration had been a failure because it had not produced immediate academic benefits.
“Because educational achievement alone does not solve the problem of economic inequality, school desegregation must do more than raise black students’ test scores,” Crain and Wells wrote. “It must also break the cycle of racial segregation that leaves blacks and whites worlds apart. In our study of network analysis, we are inspired by the old adage that who you know is as important (or even more important) in social mobility as what you know; we believe, therefore, that the lawyers and civil rights advocates of the 1940s and 50s knew what they were talking about. The social network advantages of desegregated schools for African-American students is real, even though it could not be measured in time to satisfy policymakers who have lost sight of the original goals of desegregation.”
Crain, who retired in 2004 as TC Professor of Sociology & Education, was unabashed in his belief in the rightness of desegregation.
“He really shone in working with you one on one, thinking through the complex problems…We had to send our computer programs with our research data to the center in those days and get back these giant dot matrix outputs. He’d roll up his sleeves and work with you on it.”
— Will Jordan
“I remember analyzing a big data set, and I saw some small correlations on the race of kids, integrated settings and achievement,” recalls Will Jordan (Ph.D. ’93), Associate Professor of Urban Education Policy, Organizational, & Leadership Studies at Temple University. “Bob said, it’s small, but it’s a pattern. The black kids are doing better, the white kids aren’t hurt by it. But even if that weren’t true, we should still desegregate. So he felt there was a moral imperative toward equality in education, and the fact you’re not hurt is just gravy.”
Yet his research was scrupulously rigorous in seeking to correct for any factors that could unduly exaggerate integration’s benefits. In studies of American inter-districts – eight urban-suburban areas nationwide (including Boston, St. Louis and Hartford) that enable students to move across district lines with the specific aim of attending integrated schools – he compared subsets of students who had been either admitted or denied admission via a lottery.
Similarly, Crain emerged as an expert on magnet schools, which became the mechanism of choice for school integration during the 1980s and 90s, because the student bodies of magnet schools in Manhattan were composed of the top 6 percent of performers taking a test, the bottom six percent and a random selection of those in the middle. The random assignment of students to integrated schools both in Hartford and New York City provided contexts that made these settings the best places to study effects on students.
“The lottery selection enabled him to control for the self-selection factor — the idea that if you put your kids on a bus to go across town, you’re by definition a more involved parent,” says Wells. “By controlling for that, his findings were even more robust.”
Robert L. Crain was born into an impoverished family in Louisville, Kentucky.
“He and I were both Southerners who either witnessed or experienced prejudice and segregation,” said Prudence Carter (M.A. ’95), Jacks Family Professor of Education and Professor of Sociology at Stanford University, who will become Dean of the Graduate School of Education at the University of California-Berkeley this coming June. “I can’t help but think that motivated him in his work.”
Crain earned an undergraduate degree in math and engineering from the University of Louisville in 1957, studied math at the graduate level at the University of North Carolina, and received his Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Chicago in 1964.
“Bob was lucky to be in the right place at the right time, because the University of Chicago then was creating a new, mathematical branch of sociology, and he was able to get in on the ground floor,” said his wife, Nan Guptill Crain, Professor of Music at William Paterson University in New Jersey.
“He and I were both Southerners who either witnessed or experienced prejudice and segregation. I can’t help but think that motivated him in his work.”
— Prudence Carter
Peter Rossi, a professor at the University of Chicago, hired Crain first as a doctoral fellow and then as an Assistant Professor of Sociology in 1963, a post that for the next five years he held concurrently with a position as Senior Study Director at the National Opinion Research Center. In 1968 he became Associate Professor in the Department of Social Relations at Johns Hopkins University, the same year that he published his classic text, The Politics of School Integration: Comparative Case Studies; (1968), which frames decisions to desegregate by 15 northern and southern cities as being rooted in the economic, social, and political structure of the community. He left in 1973 to serve for five years as Senior Social Scientist At the Rand Corporation, returning to Hopkins in in 1978 as Principal Research Scientist at the university’s Center for Social Organization of Schools. In 1982, he coauthored another landmark book, Making Desegregation Work: How Schools Create Social Climates, and three years later joined TC’s faculty.
“Bob was an unfailingly generous scholar, educator and guide. He blazed trails, he listened patiently, he carried himself humbly, and he always found something to laugh about. He had a big heart to go with his great brain.”
— Xavier de Souza Briggs
He is universally described by former students as the classic absent-minded professor – dressed in tweed blazer and rumpled oxford shirts, often with a pen left uncapped in the breast pocket, with predictably disastrous results. He was known as an especially committed advisor who was generous in creating research opportunities for students and strongly supported advisees through the dissertation process. In addition to Wells, Jordan and Carter, his students over the years included Xavier de Souza Briggs, Professor of Sociology and Planning at MIT and currently on leave serving as the Ford Foundation’s Vice President for Economic Opportunity and Markets; Carter M. Stewart, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Ohio.
“Bob was an unfailingly generous scholar, educator and guide,” said Briggs. “He blazed trails, he listened patiently, he carried himself humbly, and he always found something to laugh about. He had a big heart to go with his great brain.”
“I’ll be forever indebted to Bob for involving me in the Yonkers Project on Families and Communities, which he co-PI’d,” says Carter. “It was my first year as a graduate student, and it gave me the richest possible experience in interview design, survey design and field experience.”
“He really shone in working with you one on one, thinking through the complex problems,” Jordan recalls. “There was an old gym on upstairs in Thompson Hall in those days, and sometimes, because I worked fulltime at TC, I’d go up there in the middle of the day and grab a ball and shoot around. He’d often join me in his blazer and wingtips. Also, we had to send our computer programs with our research data to the center in those days and get back these giant dot matrix outputs. He’d roll up his sleeves and work with you on it.”
Crain saw the field he helped create take some daunting turns. Beginning in 1974, when the Supreme Court ruled that federal judges could not order desegregation remedies that send students across urban-suburban district boundaries without substantial, hard-to-document evidence that the suburban districts actually create racial segregation, through to the Court’s 2007 decision that that public school systems could no longer seek to achieve or maintain integration through measures that take explicit account of a student’s race, policymakers largely ignored the thrust of his research findings. Yet he continued to produce a body of research that, on a broader level, has remained central to discussions of race and educational equity.
“I once came back from a data collection project where I’d done lots of interviews with white people who just didn’t get the importance of integration,” Wells recalled. “I was venting about that, and he said, ‘Amy, the problem with most people is that they’re not sociologists. They don’t look at the macro level, so they don’t understand the structural inequalities, the patterns that get repeated.’ And I tell that story to my TC students, because it really gets at the importance of what we, as sociologists, do and how we can contribute.” – Joe Levine
Published Friday, Apr. 8, 2016