50 Years Later:
Can current education policy finish the work started with Brown?
By Karin Chenoweth
Black Issues In Higher Education first started publishing a year after the 1983 “A Nation at Risk” report shocked many into taking seriously the sorry nature of elementary and secondary education in this country. The report’s dire warnings of a “rising tide of mediocrity,” bolstered by data on the rarity of academic rigor in American schools, have been debated ever since by those who see in the report an overblown criticism of public schools. After all, the report’s critics have argued, the American economy is a powerhouse, and the ingenuity of its people a marvel for all the world to wish for. Why would you want to criticize the schools that have created such conditions? If you look at the top kids in public schools, the report’s critics say, they match and beat any kids around the world. True, some kids don’t meet those standards, but it’s important to focus on the half of the glass that’s full, not the half that’s empty.
For 20 years debates along those lines have been swirling around, but in the past few years they have crystallized in ways that are of enormous importance to poor kids and kids of color. Because it turns out that those “top kids” are, for the most part, drawn from a very narrow section of students, mostly White and mostly middle and upper-middle class.
Huge swaths of students are not only not doing as well as the “top kids,” but are doing horribly. We know that because in the last decade or so, there has been a push to “disaggregate” data to get a clearer picture of what is going on in schools, and what we can see has been deeply disturbing.
One thing we see, for example, is that, on average, Black and Latino 17-year-olds read and do math about as well as White 13-year-olds when measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Every assessment has its critics, and NAEP is no exception. But other measures, including SAT scores and state test scores, show roughly the same thing, so — although it is possible to quibble around the edges — there is no argument that there is what has come to be called an “achievement gap.”
The Achievement Gap
That achievement gap narrowed considerably from, roughly, 1967 to 1988, but in 1988 the narrowing stopped and the gaps started widening and haven’t stopped.
There have been a number of explanations for these gaps. The infamous 1994 book The Bell Curve, by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, essentially attributed the gaps to inherited differences in IQ, but careful analysis of the data yields other explanations more directly related to environmental factors.
For example, Dr. Gary Orfield, co-director of Harvard University’s Civil Rights Project, points to the correlation between the widening of the gap and what he calls the “resegregation” of the schools — that is, the increasing racial isolation of Blacks, Whites and Latinos during the past decade or so of post-desegregation, years in which court-ordered busing and other measures taken to desegregate schools ended. “Apartheid schools,” as termed by Orfield, not only have larger concentrations of poverty and children with chaotic lives — they also usually have fewer resources at their disposal, demonstrating the truth of the old phrase used by those seeking school integration, “green follows White.” Dr. Ronald Ferguson, a public policy lecturer at Harvard University who also studies the achievement gap, disputes Orfield’s analysis, attributing the widening gaps since 1988 not to resegregation but to cultural factors, such as a drop in interest among Black students in reading for pleasure beginning in 1988, the year that rap music became widely popular.
Careful analyses by academics such as Dr. Richard Ingersoll, an associate professor of education and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, and Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor of education at Stanford University, have documented that poor kids and kids of color consistently have less well-qualified teachers than White and middle-class kids. Again, it is possible to quibble about definitions of “well qualified,” but whatever measure is used — teacher certification, educational attainment, college courses taken, SAT verbal scores, Praxis I test scores, or demonstrated effectiveness in changing student achievement — it is possible to document the fact that poor kids and kids of color do not get what Kati Haycock of the Education Trust calls their “fair share” of good teachers.
This swirl of scholarship has taken place at the same time as a philosophical battle over the purpose of education has been fought in America.
One hundred years ago, there was a general consensus that the mission of schools and education was to sharpen students’ minds, to increase their intelligence, and increase their store of learning and knowledge. But the new field of psychology began casting doubt on such a notion. The modern “men of science” argued that people were born with a certain store of intelligence, and it was foolish to waste educational resources on those who would never be able to benefit from them. Further, they argued, it was possible to predict with precision who could benefit from education by administering simple paper-and-pencil tests that eventually became known as IQ — for Intelligence Quotient — tests.
The success of IQ tests in sorting soldiers into different jobs and training routes during World War I bolstered the claims of the testing psychologists, and that success, coupled with the huge wave of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe and Asia into the country — immigrants thought by many in the elite to be dull and uneducable — made for a powerful argument to use secondary and then even elementary schools not as institutions to transmit learning to a new generation but as vast sorting devices to divide children into winners and losers.
Students were tested at earlier and earlier ages and sorted into different tracks of education, some leading to college, and some to jobs, either real or illusory (old printing techniques were still being taught in vocational high schools long after the printing industry had changed technologies several times over, for example).
Although the Supreme Court said, in Brown v. Board of Education, that the nation could no longer operate separate schools because separate schools are inherently unequal schools, it did not tackle the problem that schools themselves housed enormous inequalities. And that has been the post-Brown dilemma faced particularly, but not only, by poor students and students of color. Too often they are not seen as the “gifted” children most deserving of extensive educational resources, and too often they are taught by inadequate or unprepared teachers and shunted into a low-level curriculum that does not even pretend to prepare students for college.
No Child Left Behind
It is exactly this issue that has been tackled by federal legislation, first the 1994 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), and then the 2001 reauthorization, known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB).
For the first time, in 1994, the U.S. Congress said that federal money must not simply be spent on poor kids, as it had been since the first ESEA of 1965, but that it be used to bring poor kids up to state standards. And, further, Congress said that schools that receive federal funds must also demonstrate that they are teaching all students to meet state standards.
The provisions of the 1994 reauthorization never took full effect because most states failed to comply with them. By 2001, only 11 states had even set up the record-keeping and testing systems required by the law. This is why No Child Left Behind has seemed so draconian to many of the states and has occasioned protests from state legislators and those involved in state-level education. For the first time states are being told to demonstrate that they are using federal money effectively.
The main provisions of NCLB are that each state must:
1) set standards that it expects all children without major cognitive disabilities to meet;
2) have a way of measuring whether children meet those standards; and
3) demonstrate regular progress toward the goal of having all students meet state standards by 2014.
To keep schools and school systems from relying solely on averages, where the high achievement of the “top kids” overshadow the dismal performance of everyone else, the law further requires that each “subgroup” improves in performance. Those subgroups are: African American, White, Hispanic, Asian, American Indian, those students who meet poverty standards governing the free and reduced-price lunch program, and those students with disabilities.
Because No Child Left Behind focuses on the need for all children to meet their state’s academic standards, Chris Edley Jr., co-director of Harvard’s Civil Rights Project, said he views NCLB as a “civil rights statute.”
NCLB has come under withering criticism from some school administrators and teachers, including the National Education Association, and some state legislators, who have called it an “unfunded mandate,” and from some of the Democratic presidential candidates, including Howard Dean, which made it appear to be a Republican proposal. However, although President George W. Bush took a lot of credit for it, and his Secretary of Education, Dr. Roderick Paige, has put some teeth into it by refusing to grant waivers, NCLB really had its start in the 1994 reauthorization under President Bill Clinton and was shepherded along its way by such Democratic politicians as Sens. George Mitchell, D-Calif., and Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. For this reason, Edley told a group of education writers, he advised Dean to “cool his jets” with respect to criticizing NCLB — advice Dean did not heed.
The presumptive Democratic candidate, Sen. John Kerry, also flirted with painting NCLB as a Republican measure and as an “unfunded mandate,” but has recently kept fairly quiet on the issue.
As Edley said, “We have lots of unfunded mandates — the First Amendment, the 14th Amendment.”
The question for the next decade — and it is one Black Issues is sure to cover with sophistication and plenty of data — is whether NCLB first can survive the 2004 election and then can, in fact, finish the work that Brown started 50 years ago — making sure each child in America has the opportunity to meet high academic standards.
Karin Chenoweth was executive editor of Black Issues In Higher Education from 1995-1998. She now writes the “Homeroom” column for the Washington Post.
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com