Improving Outcomes for Urban African American Students

Article excerpt

Almost 50 years after the Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1954) decision there are still inequalities in the education system. African American children, particularly those living in impoverished communities, are at increased risk for special education referral. This paper examines causes for the disproportionate representation of African American students in mild mental retardation (MMR) and serious emotional disturbances (SED) special education categories. It also provides recommendations to promote positive academic and social behavior for African American students that may prevent the students' need for specialized education services.

The landmark case of Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1954) was the catalyst for dramatic changes in America's education system. This Supreme Court decision struck down the long held belief of "separate but equal schools" for Whites and Blacks and had a profound effect on where and how children are educated in America. The Brown decision was not only a pivotal case in the fight against racial discrimination but it also served as the vehicle for improving access to education for children with disabilities. Court cases were won and laws, such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act [IDEA], were enacted to protect the right of children with disabilities to a free and appropriate education.

Initially, the Brown decision created anger in many parts of the country. Southern states responded with violence against African Americans who attempted to integrate schools. Some states (e.g., Virginia and Arkansas) temporarily closed public schools rather than integrate them (Vecchione, 1987). Northern cities also experienced unrest as the practice of de facto segregation was challenged. Court-ordered "busing" and "White flight" to suburban neighborhoods became household terms. Nevertheless, the violent resentment fostered by the Brown decision has not prevented African Americans from making significant progress in the education system. More African Americans are graduating from high schools and entering colleges than ever before. The result is greater numbers of African Americans entering the various professions.

Despite the real progress and enormous promise of these two events-Brown decision and IDEA-the struggle for education equality has not been realized, particularly for minorities living in poor urban communities (Gardner & Talbert-Johnson, 2001). The truth is inequality in the United States educational system still exists (Kozol, 1991). Children from poor families still are more likely to attend schools that have fewer resources and less experienced teachers (Darling-Hammond, 1996). Children who attend these less affluent urban schools are more likely to be from minority families. In many poor inner-city areas, African Americans constitute a significant percentage of the resident population, if not an overwhelming majority. Students in urban schools tend to perform less well than their peers from more affluent schools on academic measures, such as statewide achievement tests, ACT, and SAT. The poor performances by urban students on academic measures cause some to raise questions about the quality of education in urban schools while others blame the quality of the students. Advocates for improving the quality of urban schools have promoted solutions such as increased school funding, vouchers or tax breaks for private school tuition, better teacher preparation programs, and school competition between inter-district schools and charter schools. While each solution has its merit, none has been fully implemented nationally and all remain controversial. For example, in Ohio, the unequal funding of affluent (usually suburban) school districts and poor (urban and rural) school districts has been ruled unconstitutional, yet the Ohio legislature has been unsuccessful in finding a solution to this 11-year-old legal battle (Candisky & Leonard, 2002). …