Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

50 Years Later: Can Current Education Policy Finish the Work Started with Brown?

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

50 Years Later: Can Current Education Policy Finish the Work Started with Brown?

Article excerpt

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 locus 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 mms 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 toughly 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."


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 1Q, 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 troth 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. …

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