60 years ago, on May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court of the United States issued its seminal opinion in the long-running quest for civil rights and equal opportunity in America. Segregated schools are inherently unequal and unconstitutional, the Court declared in Brown v. Board of Education, overturning the shameful “separate but equal” standard of the now-discredited 1896 case of Plessy v. Ferguson that reinforced racial injustice by permitting racial segregation as a matter of law.
Brown repudiated that legal shame, but while boldly issuing the landmark civil rights opinion, the Court took a more timid approach to its implementation, saying in a second opinion issued in 1955 that public schools and other facilities should be desegregated “with all deliberate speed.” Sixty years later, deliberation trumps speed when it comes to public schools that remain, in too many places, segregated in fact (de facto segregation).
In her commencement address to the Class of 2014 on Saturday, May 17, 2014, D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson reflected on the importance of the Brown decision, and noted that the District of Columbia Public Schools also had an historic decision as well on May 17, 1954 in the case known as Bolling v. Sharp. In that case, the Supreme Court said that the then-legally-enforced racial segregation in the D.C. Public Schools violated the Constitution’s due process clause. Sadly, however, over the years de facto segregation continued as the norm in D.C., and too many of today’s public schools in the city remain largely segregated — not only by race, but perhaps even more consequentially, by social class and economic conditions.
Poverty is a condition of social injustice that has a disproportionate effect on African American and Hispanic families and children in urban areas. When it comes to inequality in educational opportunity, it’s almost impossible to separate poverty and racial injustice from the conditions of dismal schools and abysmal achievement. 60 years after Brown said that segregated schools are inherently unequal, the academic achievement gap between black and white children remains shocking, a consequence of the intractable tentacles of poverty and racial injustice that continue to plague urban K-12 education.
“Education is the civil rights issue of our time,” is a phrase that is often cited by contemporary school reform leaders from President Obama to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to former President George W. Bush and his brother former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. Improving educational opportunity appears, at least on the surface, as a bipartisan movement that sets politics aside to focus on strategies that will close the achievement gap and improve educational and economic opportunity for all.
Sadly, somewhere between the promise and the performance, equal educational opportunity is stalled. Reformers and resisters argue loudly with each other while children still pass through school with only the faintest acquaintance with vocabulary, writing and math skills, and most of all, critical reading skills that are essential for success at work, in college and in life. So much of the argumentation sounds like a power struggle rather than a serious discussion of how children learn and what conditions impede learning. I’ve never understood how certain reformers can dismiss poverty and conditions of violence at home as “an excuse.” At the same time, I’ve also never understood how anyone can defend the status quo, given the abysmal learning outcomes.
Fulfilling the promise of Brown is an unending quest for the United States. With so much wealth in this nation and tremendous educational resources at our disposal, the gap should have closed a long time ago and we should be well on our way to higher educational achievement for all students. Instead, as we learned from last week’s release of this year’s National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), scores in math and reading are stagnant, and the black-white achievement gap is as big as ever.
An even more disturbing study of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, released in March 2014, revealed that racial disparities in school discipline start as young as pre-school and get worse as children grow older; that black and Latino students have less access to pre-school, fewer advanced courses at the upper levels, lower paid teachers and generally fewer resources than white children. These problems mirror not only racial disparities but the massive socio-economic gap that has become a major social problem nationally.
What’s to be done? First, we have to strengthen our national and local resolve to address the ongoing problem of unequal educational opportunity without blame or recrimination, but with clear determination to improve how and what children learn. Second, we need to restore at least at some level the critically important role of parents and community associations, including churches, in the formation of children’s minds and dispositions for learning. Too much of the school reform movement has stripped parents of both authority and responsibility for the academic success of their children.
This, too, is a problem that’s clear along economic fault lines, where wealthier parents stop at nothing to guide their kids through school while impoverished parents often do not have the time, skills or resources to engage. School reform programs that leave parents out on the sidewalk will simply not be transformative. If parents, themselves, are unable to read, unsure of what academic success looks like, they will not be able to reinforce the lessons of the classrooms and schools. School reform programs should include a strong commitment to support for adult education initiatives for parents — not just basic literacy programs, but truly progressive learning for adults through college.
Most of all, we who are responsible for improving conditions of education need to stop arguing about methods and come together around effective solutions. The promise of Brown cannot remain unfufilled for another decade, let alone another half century.
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