Publication Date: 2004-03-01
Casey reviews relevant texts to show how contemporary conservatives highjacked the Brown decision.
Note: This is from the Winter 2004 Dissent
This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court decision that declared unconstitutional de jure segregation in American public schools. After Brown, one could no longer speak of racial justice without considering the state of American education, nor could one reasonably discuss American education without addressing the need for racial justice.
And yet, in a way that would have been unimaginable even ten years ago, an American conservatism that once fought court-ordered school desegregation at every turn is making the claim that its educational agenda provides the only hope for children of color trapped in failing inner-city schools. The right now declares, "We are the true heirs of Brown."
In a concurring opinion in the recent Zelman v. Simmons-Harris case, which upheld the constitutionality of school vouchers used to attend religious schools, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas quoted Frederick Douglass: "Education means emancipation," and, said Thomas, today's "inner city public schools deny emancipation" to students of color. Thomas and other conservatives contend that educational progress for African Americans and other racial and ethnic minorities lie not in remedies designed to bring equity to public schooling, but in vouchers, privatization, and the dismantling of what they call the public school "monopoly."
How We Got Here
Brown struck down laws mandating racial segregation, and, after prolonged efforts that finally overcame segregationist justice, made possible meaningful desegregation in public schools in the American South at the end of the 1960s and the start of the 1970s. But attempts at dismantling de facto segregation in other regions of the nation were less successful, and they halted in the mid-1970s as resistance to school busing reached a fever pitch, fiscal crises took a toll on magnet programs designed to promote voluntary racial integration, and conservatives discovered race as a "wedge" issue. Starting with Milliken, a spate of Rehnquist Court decisions in the late 1970s and 1980s undercut judicial mandates for school desegregation. Since the early 1990s, there has been a trend toward the resegregation of American public schools, which Gary Orfield and his colleagues at Harvard's Civil Rights Project have carefully documented.
Those who are not familiar with America's urban public schools may not appreciate the enormity of de facto segregation in our nation's classrooms. In the fourteen years that I taught in a large, academically respectable inner-city high school in Brooklyn, New York, I never saw a single white student in my classroom. During that period, of the tens of thousands who attended my school-located a short five-minute stroll from the gentrified neighborhood of Park Slope-only one student was white. And there were another twenty large high schools in Brooklyn alone that had similar profiles: New York City and State schools are among the most segregated in the nation. Millions of American students today learn about the Brown decision in classrooms that look very much like those of 1954 Topeka, Kansas.
And just as in 1954, that which is separate is unequal. Inner-city public schools are more often located in overcrowded, rundown facilities, more frequently stuck with inadequate and out-of-date books, learning technology, and laboratory equipment, and more often staffed by inexperienced and ill-prepared teachers teaching large, oversized classes.
In The American Dream and the Public Schools, Jennifer Hochschild and Nathan Scovronick show, in convincing detail, how the post-Brown impetus for school desegregation was checked at every turn after 1975. Yet over roughly the same time period, the American armed forces were successfully transformed, from top to bottom, into a fully integrated institution. This remarkable contrast can only be explained by differences in political will-by a combination of American conservatism's dogged resistance to school desegregation efforts and American liberalism's desertion of this particular field of battle.
There is no more telling sign of the resultant grim political reality than the fact that African American parents, who have been the most consistent and forceful supporters of integrated schools, have increasingly given up hope that the nation has the will to realize a democratic vision of racial integration in its schools. Although eight in ten black parents believe that it is important that their children's schools be racially integrated, according to a Public Agenda study, they pragmatically focus on finding other, more immediately viable ways of providing their children with quality education. As long as American education is separate, they reason, let it at least be more equal.
Advocates of equity in education, Hochschild and Scovronick note, have increasingly taken up the issue of school financing in efforts to obtain the resources that would sustain a quality education in inner-city schools. Campaigns for school financing equity are an essential front line of the struggle to realize the promise of Brown. But they cannot be the only front, and they cannot be carried on only through the courts. A real political price is now being paid for the tacit liberal abandonment of the struggle to integrate American public education. Freed from their historic role of opposing racial integration- for what movement on behalf of integration is there now to counter?-conservatives have set out to reinvent themselves as the standard-bearers of equity in American education.
A successful reinvention along these lines is not a foregone conclusion. Outside of the inner city, Americans are substantially satisfied with the quality of their public schools and unprepared to turn them into a radical social experiment of the right: ballot measures calling for universal school vouchers have regularly gone down to defeat. Moreover, opponents can point out that where vouchers have been universally introduced, in New Zealand and in Pinochet's Chile under the direction of Milton Friedman, they have resulted in substantially greater racial and economic-class segregation.
Still, conservatives have been resourceful in advancing the cause of school vouchers. The work of leading voucher advocate Terry Moe, Schools, Vouchers and the American Public, is instructive in this respect. Moe argues that the American public is caught in the grips of a "public school ideology," which blinds them to the truth of conservative arguments about the inferiority of public schooling. An aficionado of "rational choice" theory, Moe declares ordinary Americans "rationally ignorant" on matters of educational policy. What this means for voucher proponents, he concludes, is that they must eschew the laissez-faire capitalism of a Milton Friedman, with its insistence on a universal system of vouchers, and develop more narrowly tailored proposals that will home in on the "Achilles heel" of American public education-its failing inner-city schools. Moe has in mind measures such as the Cleveland program recently approved by the U.S. Supreme Court, in which vouchers are made available only to students who would otherwise attend failing schools. Well-to-do and middle-class parents will not object to programs that leave their public schools intact, the reasoning goes; and in the absence of a significant civil rights movement fighting to bring quality education to inner-city public schools, there will always be enough desperate inner-city parents prepared to take a chance on the only game in town, vouchers.
Moe's strategy is politically astute. It allows conservative voucher advocates to pose as the forces fighting for equity against a public school status quo, but in a way that never seriously challenges the separate and unequal character of American education, but actually relies upon it. This positioning is more a political marketing strategy than an expression of genuine moral conviction. Moe commends Clint Bolick, co-founder of the Institute for Justice, which organized much of the legal defense of the Milwaukee and Cleveland voucher programs, as a visionary leader of the new, equity-based voucher movement. Bolick first made a national name for himself in the pages of the Wall Street Journal by attacking Bill Clinton's nominee for head of the civil rights division of the Department of Justice, Lani Guinier, as a "quota queen"; he has since drafted federal legislation to outlaw all affirmative action and submitted an amicus brief in the recent unsuccessful effort to have the Supreme Court prohibit affirmative action. Bolick is on record as denying the significance of racism in American life, and his account of the "voucher wars" details his partnership with leading right-wing luminaries such as Ken Starr and think tanks such as the ultra-libertarian Cato Institute. It is hard to imagine a less convincing advocate of racial justice.
Nor is Bolick an aberration. One looks in vain for any of the leading proponents of the equity argument for vouchers in the campaigns to advocate remedies for the vast inequalities in school financing and resources, much less as part of a movement for racial integration. Where is Howard Fuller, former superintendent of the Milwaukee Public Schools, who formed the pro-voucher Black Alliance for Educational Options with the support of right-wing foundations; Joseph Viteritti, author of the leading vouchers equity book, Choosing Equality; Floyd Flake, the minister and former Queens congressional representative who now sits on the board of the largest for-profit educational corporation, Edison Schools and heads its Charter School Division? For them, equity only counts when it can be used in an argument for school vouchers.
The Class Dimension
In the last few years, the public focus on questions of racial justice in American education has increasingly come to rest on what is called the achievement gap-the disparity between the educational achievements of white students and African American, Latino/a and Native American students. (The gap cuts across Asian American students, with students of Chinese and Japanese origin performing at the same or higher level as white students, while students from the Pacific Islands, the Philippines and other mainland Asian nations generally perform at a level comparable to other students of color.) The evidence of the achievement gap is considerable and indisputable: there are aggregate score differentials on a vast array of standardized tests; disparate placement rates in more rigorous programs of instruction; and differentials in attendance, drop-out and graduation rates, from pre-school through college.
Moreover, there is compelling evidence that the gap plays a significant part in continuing racial inequality in the United States. The current income gap and employment gap between African American and white women, and the even greater income gap and employment gap between African American men and white men, is more and more attributable to differences in educational achievement, economists say. (A declining real minimum wage, falling rates of private sector unionization, and job discrimination are also in play, especially for African American men.)
There is general agreement among scholars that socioeconomic class accounts for a major portion, but not all, of the achievement gap: people of color are more likely to live in poverty, as a result of the legacy of historical racism, and the conditions of poverty militate against the full development of cognitive skills, from poor prenatal care to homes that have few if any books in them. In Inequality at the Starting Gate, Valerie Lee and David Burkham gather the available evidence and studies to present a powerful argument that there is a substantial gap in cognitive skills, overwhelmingly socioeconomic in origin and nature, before children even enter the school doors for the first time.
After formal schooling starts, a family in poverty is less able to provide optimum support for schoolwork and homework and less able to sustain, over the summer vacation, the academic advances that a child makes during the school year. Moreover, families of children in poverty are often transient, leading to constant changes in the children's school. But most significantly, children in poverty largely end up in schools segregated by socioeconomic class and often by race that lack the human and material resources to provide the quality education that upper-middle-class and well-to-do students receive.
The Racial Dimension
Still there remains what one might call the racial dimension of the gap. When one controls for socioeconomic class, there is a small racial achievement gap among students of different races in the higher socioeconomic strata and in post-secondary education. Counter-intuitively, the gap between middle-class black and white students is, on some measures, greater than the differential between poor black and white students. The reasons for this racial dimension are inevitably a subject of controversy, given that we live in a society that has historically denigrated the intelligence of people of color and in which theories of racial intellectual inferiority are still given credence in some quarters of the right. There is an understandable fear that a discussion of the specifically racial component of the achievement gap will feed into such prejudices, blaming the victims of the gap for its existence, as Asa Hilliard argues in Young, Gifted and Black.
Yet there is more here than can be explained by cultural bias in tests or a lack of cultural understanding and low expectations on the part of teachers. Racism does not exist simply in the prejudice and ignorance of specific social actors; after centuries of embodiment in American law and social practice, it has become part of the sinew of our culture and our psyches. Claude Steele and the late John Ogbu did pioneering work in studying some of the debilitating and harmful effects on academic performance that come with struggling to achieve educationally in a society in which one's intelligence is disparaged and under attack. In a series of experiments with Stanford and Michigan undergraduates, Steele and colleagues (Young, Gifted and Black and The Black-White Test Score Gap) showed that students taking a test under a "stereotype threat"- the threat of being viewed through the lens of a negative stereotype-perform significantly lower than they do when the threat is removed or diminished. Students' long-term response to stereotype threats are varied, ranging from avoidance to counter-stereotypic behavior, from disengagement to "disidentification." But most often the result is lowered academic performance. In an ethnographic study (Black American Students in an Affluent Suburb) of the racially integrated, upper-middle-class Ohio community and school district of Shaker Heights, Ogbu explains how a racial minority trapped in an oppressive caste system develops an oppositional culture of distrust toward the dominant culture, such that academic success within that dominant culture becomes identified with disloyalty to one's own peers, described as "acting white." This oppositional culture leads, Ogbu contends, to academic disengagement on the part of those students, which, in turn, breeds academic setbacks.
Patterns and Remedies
What effect does schooling have on the achievement gap? We lack the data to answer this question definitively, as there are no data sets and studies that follow cohorts, identified by race, from kindergarten through the twelfth grade. Two groups of scholars, one led by Meredith Phillips (The Black-White Test Gap) and one led by Jonathan Jacobson for the National Center for Education Statistics (Educational Achievement and Black-White Inequality), have patched together existing studies of different age cohorts, and arrived at similar conclusions. With respect to literacy, the differential is substantially the same at the end of the twelfth grade as it was when formal schooling began; in mathematics, the gap remains the same throughout the early years, but widens significantly in middle school and remains stable thereafter. This pattern conforms to what we know about the overall performance of American schools: in literacy, American students generally do well in international comparisons, but in mathematics, there is a significant decline in performance in the middle school years without a subsequent recovery. It seems that the achievement gap shadows the general strengths and weaknesses of American education.
The most important pattern in the achievement gap lies in the way that it steadily diminished in size from the mid-1970s through the late 1980s and then began to increase again in the 1990s. The reasons for this trend reversal are complex, as there are multiple variables in play, yet they are also central to any effort to abate and eliminate the gap. One factor that seems to have been crucial to the size of the gap was school desegregation. From the period when substantive desegregation began in the South up until the period when American education began to resegregate, the racial achievement gap diminished; moreover, the gap declined the greatest in the South, which was undergoing meaningful racial integration, and least in the Northeast, which saw little desegregation. Other central factors were improvements in the educational achievement and the socioeconomic status of African American parents. In the wake of the civil rights movement, affirmative action opened up post-secondary education and higher status employment to people of color, while civil rights legislation reduced job discrimination, and many Great Society programs improved job opportunities for poorer people of color. Additionally, educational programs introduced during the Great Society, such as Head Start, had a positive impact on the performance of poor students. By contrast, the effects of the rollback of the Great Society programs and opportunities for people of color that began under the Reagan administration came into full force in the 1990s. And although the 1990s were a decade of unprecedented economic growth and expansion, they were also a period of increased income inequality. During the 1990s, the achievement gap followed the same pattern as the wage gap.
What these patterns suggest is that the problem of the achievement gap is not simply one of breakdowns in schooling. It is also the story of reversals and setbacks in broader social and economic policy, as Richard Rothstein has argued. The remedies thus lie as much in policies directed at promoting racial integration and reducing poverty as they lie in education itself.
That having been said, there is still an important educational agenda to be pursued if the achievement gap is to be reduced, much less eliminated. Much of this agenda involves the replacement of separate and unequal education with quality education for all and the full financing of programs designed to help low-achieving students raise themselves up to standard. We know that Head Start and similar quality pre-school programs make a significant difference in preparing children living in poverty for school, and that they must be expanded. Unfortunately, the positive effects of Head Start diminish over time, as these students are placed in resource-poor, failing schools.
We know from careful studies of the STAR program in Tennessee and the SAGE program in Wisconsin that smaller class size, especially in the earlier grades where students acquire fundamental literacy and numeracy skills, makes a difference, and that it has the most positive effects for children living in poverty and African American children. Yet it is upper-middle-class and well-to-do students who most often have the smallest classes. We know that a well-prepared, skilled, and experienced teacher is critical to every student's success-the "value-added" statistical studies of the University of Tennesseee's Bill Sanders show definitively that each teacher makes a difference, and that students almost never overcome the burden of being taught by a number of novice, ill-prepared, and unskilled teachers in a row.
And we know that schools need proven curricula, together with teachers professionally prepared to use them. But inner-city schools with a constant revolving door of novice teachers often lack a basic curriculum that such teachers could use to teach the most academically disadvantaged young people. In sum, we know that for most of the things that can make a tangible difference in the achievement gap, we must provide inner-city schools with the human and material resources they now lack, and that to do that, we must redress the inequalities in school financing. That is why campaigns around fiscal equity in education are crucial to racial justice in education, even if they do not directly challenge growing racial segregation in our schools.
The racial dimension of the achievement gap must also be addressed. Bob Moses's Algebra Project, which has been previously discussed in Dissent ("The Algebra Project and Democratic Politics," Winter 1999 and "Radical Equations," Fall 2001), is one powerful model of how it is possible to organize against the achievement gap. The Algebra Project focuses on middle school mathematics, where the achievement gap is at its zenith and combines an ambitious academic program and a pedagogically innovative curriculum with organizing efforts directed at building parental and student empowerment in education.
The value of the Algebra Project lies in the way it combines rigorous academics with essential social and cultural supports. As Claude Steele has found, African American college students respond positively to teacher-student interactions where they understand that high academic standards are being used and that the teacher believes they are capable of meeting those standards. In order to counter the stereotype threat, Steele explains, the teacher must be explicit about these two points, must actually use high standards and genuinely believe in the ability of the students to meet them, and must give critical feedback to the students on what they should do to bring their work up to those standards. Steele reports on an experimental program he and a number of colleagues oversaw at the University of Michigan in which the achievement gap between participating African American and white first-year students was almost entirely erased by creating a racially integrated "living and learning community" with a focus on challenging academics, social supports, and affirmations of student ability.
At the elementary and secondary level, it is also vital to develop programs of ability affirmation to work in tandem with rigorous academics. Successful programs designed to establish stronger family-school and community-school partnerships, such as that pioneered by Yale psychologist and educator James Comer, and for mobilizing community resources behind academic achievement, such as the NAACP's ACT-SO program, need to be expanded and replicated. Programs that form academically oriented identity and peer groups among African American and Latino/a students and promote cooperative and group studying are particularly promising. These techniques have proven exceptionally successful among Chinese American students and at Xavier University in New Orleans, a small historically black college that sends twice as many African American students to medical school as any other college in the United States. Special attention needs to be paid to initiating students of color into a community of scholars, by providing them with role models and mentors. Small schools, in which every student is well known by the teaching staff, provide more of the individual attention and care, more of the extra-academic support, that students of color say is lacking in their current schools. However, such care can not be at the expense of a rigorous course of academic instruction.
The Conservative Response
No Excuses, the latest book on American race relations by Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom, is the most complete attempt to examine the achievement gap from the right. The way to end the achievement gap, the Thernstroms contend, is to promote school vouchers and choice, increase standardized testing, and return to traditional curricula.
The flaws in No Excuses lie as much in the arguments the Thernstroms marshal on behalf of the predictable conservative policy conclusions as they do in the conclusions themselves. Early on in No Excuses, as the Thernstroms briefly acknowledge the reversal in the decline of the achievement gap which took place at the start of the 1990s, a particularly telling passage appears. They note that the achievement gap is once again increasing, as this development fits their general argument on the severity of the problem. But they offer no explanation of why the gap decreased from 1975 through the late 1980s and no explanation of why it began to increase again in the 1990s, leaving the reader with a single cryptic notation that the reversal took place "for reasons we do not know." This allows them to elaborate their policy proposals unencumbered by any sense of what policies have actually diminished the achievement gap and what policies reversed that progress.
On this basis, the Thernstroms set about to demonstrate that the separate and unequal character of American education is a series of myths that have nothing to do with the achievement gap. Problem after problem-racial segregation, unequal and inadequate funding and resources, oversized classes, academic tracking, novice unprepared teachers-are simply defined out of existence. Let us look at one example, their argument that American schools do not have a problem of racial segregation, but a modest "racial imbalance" that is correcting itself. The analysis of Gary Orfield and others that points to increasing racial segregation, the Thernstroms argue, incorrectly focuses on the extent of integration between white students and students of color, taken as a group; it does not consider the rates of integration among different groups of non-white students or the absolute numbers of white students in the district.
According to this logic, the Brooklyn high school in which I taught was not really racially segregated because there was a mixture of African American, African Caribbean, Asian American, Puerto Rican, Dominican, and Central American students, some native-born, some immigrant, and the immediate neighborhood the school drew from was largely populated by people of color. My students and fellow teachers certainly understood that there was a pedagogical and cultural value to the mix of cultures that made up our school. But we also understood that there was a relationship between the facts that our school was overcrowded and in poor repair, and that our classes were large and lacked basic educational resources, on the one hand, and the fact that it was a school for students of color, largely immigrant and poor, in an underfunded urban school district, on the other. Yet having defined away the problem of de facto racial segregation, the Thernstroms can blithely assert that there is no "harm" in such racial "imbalance." And having ignored the role that school desegregation, especially in the South, played in diminishing the achievement gap from 1975 through the late 1980s, they can then assert that racial integration would have no positive effect.
What makes the Thernstroms' dismissal of the separate and unequal character of American education so galling is their contention, based on one model teacher and a couple of model schools, that there is nothing in the achievement gap that high standards, high-stakes tests and high expectations can't solve, nothing that a "no excuses" message won't address.
Their model educator is Rafe Esquith, a teacher who has written eloquently about his work in an inner-city Los Angeles school in There Are No Shortcuts. As it happens, I know Rafe, and I have visited his classroom: he and I met in 1992, at the American Teacher Awards, when we were both honored-he as the elementary school teacher of the year, I as the social studies teacher of the year. There is no question that the work Rafe does, like the work of thousands of similarly dedicated teachers of inner-city students across the United States, demonstrates that inner-city kids working with selfless, loving, and skilled teachers are capable of great things, even under the most trying and difficult conditions.
But it is an insult to Rafe and to other dedicated teachers to suggest, as the Thernstroms do, that their work could be easily replicated on a mass scale. When you read Rafe's account of his work (and if you buy any book in this review, buy Rafe's, because all of the author's royalties will be spent on an inner-city classroom), you discover a teacher who begins his work with students at 6 A.M., works with those students straight until 5 P.M., and then goes out on second jobs, in order to finance various class trips and out-of-school events. He recounts how an exhausting schedule that allowed barely three or four hours of sleep a night landed him in a hospital emergency room, vomiting blood, before he learned how to put limits on what he would try to do for his students. He and teachers like him are authentic heroes precisely because they do what ordinary women and men are not willing to do, because they sacrifice in ways that no society, let alone the richest society in the history of the world, has a right to ask teachers to sacrifice. Teachers like Rafe compensate for what American society and government fail to provide. Facing schools that are separate and unequal, these teachers bring a measure of unity and equality, through incredible selflessness and sheer dint of effort.
If my words are riven with passion here, it is because I have lived this reality. For ten years, with two colleagues, I prepared classes of students to participate in the national "We The People" competition on American constitutional principles and citizenship; in each of those years, they won the New York City championship; in four of those years, they won the New York State championship; twice, they ranked fourth in the entire nation. That record of success, in which my students regularly defeated prestigious schools from the wealthiest school districts in the state and nation, was made possible only by work before and after the regular school day, by our giving up vacation days and weekends, by our organizing within the community to find lawyers, judges, and law school professors to work with the students. And while teachers from private schools and wealthy school districts had every possible support in their work with their classes, I had to go hat in hand to raise the tens of thousands of dollars required for my students to participate in the multi-day national competition.
The Thernstroms' commendation of Rafe Esquith echoes a new conservative ethos, in which civic virtue is reserved for the poor and working class, while the wealthy engage in ostentatious self-indulgence. American soldiers can be sent to fight and die in Iraq, but the wealthy can not even be asked to pay their fair share of taxes to support the war effort. And teachers can be called upon single-handedly to undo the negative effects of poverty and inadequate schooling, but they should not expect the tools necessary to do that job.
The struggle for racial justice in American education went seriously awry when the battle to desegregate public schools was abandoned. As important as efforts to gain financial equity in schooling are, they can not be the sole front of the struggle for equality. If progressive reform efforts are to regain the political initiative in education, progressives must find a way to put the question of how to replace separate and unequal schooling with quality, integrated schooling for all on the America political agenda once again.
Leo Casey taught in an inner-city high school in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, New York, for fourteen years. He now works for the United Federation of Teachers.
BOOKS AND STUDIES DISCUSSED IN THIS ESSAY
The Affirmative Action Fraud:
Can We Restore the American Civil Rights Vision?
by Clint Bolick
Cato Institute, 1996 $19.95
The Voucher Wars: Waging The Legal Battle Over School Choice
Cato Institute, 2003 $12
ridging the Achievement Gap
John Chubb and Tom Loveless, eds.
Brookings Institution Press, 2002 $18.95
There Are No Shortcuts: How An Inner-City Teacher -Winner Of The American Teacher Award - Inspires His Students And Challenges Us To Rethink the Way We Educate Our Children
by Rafe Esquith
Pantheon, 2003 $21
The American Dream and the Public Schools
by Jennifer Hochschild and Nathan Scovronick
Oxford University Press, 2003 $35
Civil Rights Project of Harvard University
by Christopher Jencks and Meredith Phillips
Brookings Institution Press, 1998 $19.95
Educational Achievement and Black-White Inequality
by Jonathan Jacobson
National Center for Education Statistics: July 2001,
Inequality At The Starting Gate
by Valerie Lee and David Burkham
Economic Policy Institute, 2002 $13.50
chools, Vouchers and the American Public
by Terry Moe
Brookings Institution Press, 2001 $22.95
The Quiet Reversal of Brown v. Board of Education
by Gary Orfield
New Press, 1996 $17.95
Young, Gifted and Black: Promoting High Achievement Among
by Theresa Perry, Claude Steele, and Asa Hilliard
Beacon Press, 2003 $25
"Time To Move On: African-American and White Parents Set an Agenda for Public Schools," Public Agenda
No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning
by Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom
Simon and Schuster, 2003 $26
Choosing Equality: School Choice, the Constitution, and Civil Society
by Joseph Viteritti
Brookings Institution Press, 1999 $19.95