THE 50TH ANNIVERSARY - an Unfinished Journey: The Legacy of Brown and the Narrowing of the Achievement Gap

By Ferguson, Ronald; Mehta, Jal | Phi Delta Kappan, May 2004 | Go to article overview

THE 50TH ANNIVERSARY - an Unfinished Journey: The Legacy of Brown and the Narrowing of the Achievement Gap


Ferguson, Ronald, Mehta, Jal, Phi Delta Kappan


Why, Mr. Ferguson and Mr. Mehta wonder, does the achievement gap persist 50 years after Brown declared that black children must receive a truly equal education?

THE GOOD NEWS is that the achievement gaps between racial and ethnic groups in the U.S. are smaller than they were several decades ago. The bad news is that progress stopped around 1990.1 The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) continues to show large differences between the average scores of blacks and Hispanics on the one hand and those of whites and Asians on the other.2 Now, half a century after Brown v. Board of Education, while progress is evident and many milestones have been achieved - especially in the area of civil rights - policy measures focused on rights, resources, and required testing for students have not achieved their full promise for raising achievement and narrowing gaps between groups of students. And it is the failure to go behind the classroom door and foster high-quality instructional practices for all students, in all classrooms, in all schools that is strongly implicated in these disappointing results.

What we need today is a more determined, high-quality, research-based emphasis on improving what happens in classrooms. But before we look at just what sorts of practices we need to adopt, some historical background is in order.

Historical Overview

One hundred and seven years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the doctrine of "separate but equal" in Plessy v. Ferguson. The conflict was over passenger accommodations on the East Louisiana Railroad. Nonetheless, the doctrine of "separate but equal" was codified in state laws governing schools and virtually all other types of public accommodations in the South, where the majority of African Americans lived. Representing an eight-person majority, Justice Henry Brown wrote the following: "The object of the [14th] Amendment was undoubtedly to enforce the absolute equality of the two races before the law, but in the nature of things it could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based upon color, or to enforce social, as distinguished from political equality, or a commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either."

Half a century later, the doctrine of separate but equal still dominated the South, but the question being litigated was whether enforced segregation in public schools deprived black children of equal protection under the U.S. Constitution. On 17 May 1954, Chief Justice Earl Warren issued the Court's decision in the cases subsumed into Brown. The Court's opinion granted that it might be possible with segregation to achieve equality of "tangible factors" - things that money can buy - but the Court rejected the idea that separate could be equal or that laws maintaining segregation could provide equal protection under the Constitution. Informed by the work of social scientists, including the black psychologist Kenneth Clark, the justices wrote the following about the harm that segregation was doing to black children: "To separate them from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone." Thus Brown was not merely about equality of resources; it was also about children's "hearts and minds" and "status in the community." The decision struck down the doctrine of separate but equal. It was a landmark event.3

In challenging the separate-but-equal doctrine of the Jim Crow South, the plaintiffs in Brown aimed to challenge white supremacist ideology and the moral injustice of forced segregation. In addition, they hoped that giving black children access to the schools and classrooms where white children studied would help to equalize educational resources and academic outcomes. Unfortunately, implementation of the court order was exceedingly slow and limited. …

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