Monday, May 17, 2010

Three Ways To Preserve Brown V. Board's Promise

Three Ways To Preserve Brown V. Board's Promise

Fifty-six years after the U.S. Supreme Court rendered its landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education, America is in a state of educational emergency. Many students attend schools where they are more likely to be suspended or expelled than to receive a high quality education. In terms of high school graduation, the most basic of all indicators of academic achievement, some students stand no better than a coin flip of a chance. 

According to researchers at Johns Hopkins University, in nearly 2,000 American high schools 40 percent or more of entering freshman fail to reach their senior year. Not surprisingly, these schools, now known as "dropout factories," often have fewer fiscal and human resources than necessary to meet students' needs. And they are comprised mostly of black, brown and poor students. Overall, the much-discussed "achievement gap" between white students and students of color seems to be widening. In particular, in nearly every indicator of academic success, black students as a whole are underrepresented; and for every indicator of academic failure, these students are consistently overrepresented. Despite Brown's promise, these students are locked out of opportunity.

Fortunately, we have an opportunity to begin making things right. This year, President Obama and Congress began the process of reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Initially passed in 1965 as part of President Lyndon Johnson's "War on Poverty," the ESEA is the most expansive source of funding for K-12 schools, including targeted assistance to students living in poverty. But in order to make the ESEA a truly effective tool for fulfilling Brown's promise of educational equity, it must be retooled with an understanding of why the problems outlined above persist.

The decades since Brown have given rise to a toxic mix of increased racial isolation in schools that are more segregated than they were 40 years ago; ongoing racial discrimination, now more difficult to address due to precedents set by conservative federal courts; and a general divestment of fiscal and human capital in public schools. But America's dirty secret is that for a long time, public education has worked very well for some students, yet not others. And those whom the system fails miserably tend to live in poor communities of color. Academic failure for these students has come to be tolerated, if not expected. A child in this type of community has come to be thought of as "somebody else's child" and "somebody else's problem." 

Sadly, even the most heralded education reform strategies fail to take account of this perverse historical pattern. As a result, we are left with prescriptions that are touted as innovations, but clearly insufficient to fully address the problem: well-intentioned people thrust into teaching roles in the neediest communities, but with little to no training; draconian school turnaround models that shut down or fire the staffs of struggling schools instead of providing the resources necessary for success; new governance structures such as charter schools that sometimes work well, but have no hope of delivering for the masses; and competitive federal grant programs, described by one education leader as playing "jump ball" with education funds while states struggle for fiscal stability.

America can do better. And black America deserves better. As President Obama himself has noted, "[t]here's a reason the story of the civil rights movement was written in our schools." Just as the early gains of the movement were in education, so too can education be the epicenter of progress in this generation. And the stars are now aligned for a major push for meaningful reform. But how do we move forward?
While some continue to seek the next magic pill to solve our educational woes, there is also something to be said for simply following through on old commitments. Although official votes on the ESEA re-authorization may not take place until late this year or early next year, those who care about educational equity must act now to lift up what works. And for the most part, we know exactly what that is. To address the problems outlined above, the revised ESEA must at a minimum achieve the following:

1. Require truly equitable funding distribution throughout states and individual school districts. The current ESEA still contains loopholes that allow states and school districts to inequitably distribute resources to schools, thereby diluting the impact of federal dollars designed to address high poverty, high-needs students.

2. Require equitable access to highly effective teachers. Students of color and low-income students are less likely than others to have access to highly-effective teachers. School districts must ensure more equitable distribution of those teachers.

3. Reduce the over-reliance on punitive, exclusionary school discipline policies and eliminate the stark racial disparities in school discipline. We cannot suspend, expel and arrest our way to educational equity. Inclusionary discipline policies have been shown to improve student behavior and increase academic performance.

These are not novel ideas; they are simple, common-sense measures that flow directly from the core purpose of the ESEA and are necessary to fulfill Brown's promise. New ideas and innovation have their place. But let's start by doing something truly innovative - honoring the work that began, but did not end with Brown.

*W.E. A.L.L. B.E. News & Radio Special*
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