Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

The Promise of Brown and the Reality of Academic Grouping: The Tracks of My Tears

Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

The Promise of Brown and the Reality of Academic Grouping: The Tracks of My Tears

Article excerpt

So take a good look at my face. You'll see my smile looks out of place. If you look closer, it's easy to trace The tracks of my tears. (Robinson, Tarplin, & More, 1969)


Schoolchildren in 1994 should know that in 1954 laws and policies that once kept generations in chains and allowed self-interest to be enshrined above moral principles finally opened a path toward justice and equality for African Americans. Our children should also know that the legal decision that sparked a quiet revolution in public elementary and secondary educational equity celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. The case that brought this profound change is, of course, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1954).

In Brown, the Supreme Court unanimously recognized that de jure segregation of school children by race, even if the facilities and other tangibles were equal, deprives them of equal educational opportunity. Brown's continuing moral suasion still inspires rich discussions of its significance (see, for example, Klarman, 1994; Tushnet, 1991, 1994). However, while Brown helped remove legally sanctioned barriers to educational equality, subsequent policies allowing academic tracking and ability grouping drew new boundaries to stifle African Americans as they sought to realize their full potential in school and life. In addition, the reality of race and education today has taken a profound and ironic twist: when remedies are proposed to overcome unfair allocations and address inequitable outcomes in education and society in general, racism receives only fragments of attention. To address and change inequitable grouping patterns, educators, administrators, and policy makers must first acknowledge that persistent racism is rooted in society's settled attitudes toward African Americans as a whole.

This article revisits the high expectations for equal educational opportunities, equitable utilization of resources, and positive results through societal advancement that many African Americans felt at the time of Brown. Reflecting on several historical dynamics associated with the education and socialization of the majority of African Americans in our nation's public schools, it focuses specifically on three matters: academic tracking as a barrier to academic advancement, equity of human and material resources as a myth, and equality of educational opportunity as an elusive goal. Of these three, academic tracking is the primary focus. Indeed, few educational issues evoke as much debate and concern as the perennial use of academic tracking and ability grouping (Harris, Ford, Brown, & Carter, 1990) and continued practice of assigning students to classes based on assessments of academic ability (Adler, 1982; Goodlad, 1984; Slavin & Braddock, 1993). Thus, this article examines the antecedents of academic tracking and ability grouping in America and reviews the justification for these concepts in public school settings. In light of Brown, it advances a rationale supporting further efforts to dismantle these grouping practices and thereby end the negative impact they have on African Americans.


Throughout the South and in some parts of the Midwest four decades ago, African American and White students could not, by law, attend the same school, ride the same bus, or even share the same water fountain. This was the reality of "Jim Crow," or the form of American apartheid that became law following the United States Supreme Court's decision in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). With Jim Crow's demise, Brown became an occasion for much celebration among African Americans subjected to the policies based on and upheld by the fallacious doctrine of "separate but equal." Jubilation over Brown arose spontaneously and collectively as African Americans anticipated their fair share of the educational and economic opportunities that previously had been reserved for White Americans only. …

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