Equity & Diversity

Educational Inequality: 4 Moments in History That Explain Where We Are Today

By Ileana Najarro — March 20, 2023 5 min read
This May 8, 1964 file photo shows Linda Brown Smith standing in front of the Sumner School in Topeka, Kan. The refusal of the public school to admit Brown in 1951, then nine years old, because she is black, led to the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court overruled the "separate but equal" clause and mandated that schools nationwide must be desegregated.
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A new project from scholars at Columbia University examines the history of public education through the lens of race to better understand how national policies have had disparate impacts on various racial and ethnic student groups.

“Racial Inequality in the U.S. Education System Post-Brown: An Introduction to the History and Policies that Shape Our Contemporary Context” is one of five reports in the new “Uncovering Inequality,” project spearheaded by the Ira A. Lipman Center for Journalism and Civil and Human Rights. The project seeks to improve media coverage of various topics, including education, by providing journalists with historical context. However, the authors of the education report and other researchers say everyone working in public education should be equipped with this knowledge.

Here are four historical facts the report provides, which looks as far back as the 1800s. The full report, as well as others in the project, can be found online.

“Common school” system coincided with learning bans on enslaved Black Americans

The report covers the “common school” system of universal schooling funded by local taxes put forth by Horace Mann, an abolitionist and state representative in Massachusetts. The schools offered education to the children of poor white families, particularly in the northern United States in the 1800s, and essentially served as a precursor to our modern public education system.

But the existence of common schools coincided with bans on enslaved Black Americans from learning to read and write (though free Black Americans continued to run their own schools despite this) and the forced resettlement of Native Americans east of the Mississippi River, also known as the “Trail of Tears.”

In the Jim Crow era, the “Kill the Indian, Save the Man” campaign led the Bureau of Indian Affairs to create boarding schools to forcibly assimilate Native American students to white dominant culture by stripping them of their cultural identity and heritage, including their languages. Additionally, Black segregated schools lacked government resources available to white schools and were largely subsidized by Black communities.

Out West, the limited population of Chinese immigrants homeschooled their children since they were barred from school enrollment, and among children of Mexican descent, those who were light-skinned attended schools for white students, while those with darker complexions were forced to attend segregated “Mexican schools” with poor infrastructure and a lack of adequate resources.

Neighborhood segregation drove school segregation, and vice versa

The report highlights the popular 1920s “neighborhood unit” concept “where schools are placed at the spatial center of neighborhoods by using school enrollment as an indication of neighborhood boundaries.” This concept influenced urban planning for much of the 20th century. According to the report, post-World War II city developers worked with school districts to build new schools in predominantly-white suburbs, reinforcing racial segregation in the process.

After the Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka which struck down the practice of segregating schools by race, the report highlights how “neighborhood segregation drives school segregation in some contexts and school segregation drives neighborhood segregation in other contexts.”

For example, it states that “in general, racial segregation across schools and school districts is greater than or comparable to segregation across neighborhoods when school districts are geographically smaller and more fragmented,” while the converse is also true: “racial segregation across schools and districts tends to be less intense than segregation across neighborhoods when school district boundaries are geographically larger.”

Standardized tests have racist origins

The report also dives into how high-stakes testing—where standardized test scores have at times been tied to several outcomes including school funding, graduation rates, teacher evaluations, and more—exacerbates racial inequality in schools.

While it reviews how federal policies under the presidential administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama disproportionately hurt schools with large numbers of low-income students of color, (including No Child Left Behind punitive measures and Race to the Top’s impact on teacher evaluations) the report also traces the racist and classist origins of standardized testing in the United States.

For instance, the National Intelligence Test of 1919 was one of the first widely used standardized tests in schools. “This test was adopted from a series of exams created by Stanford professor Lewis Terman and others to test the intelligence of military recruits during World War I,” the report said. “The team that ran this testing, including Terman, concluded that European immigrants’ intellectual capabilities could be judged by their country of origin, that darker-skinned Europeans were less intelligent, and that Black Americans were the least intelligent of all people.”

The report also credits Carl Brigham with designing the SAT test and later the initial Advanced Placement tests used by students today to get college credit in high school, who initially advocated for these tests as a way to show the superiority of “the Nordic race group.”

Curriculum favors a Eurocentric bias

The report also covers the history of culturally responsive teaching in K-12 schools.

It looks at how “by the 1980s, 35 states adopted some form of multicultural education reform—ranging from teacher certification requirements to model curriculum in various ethnic studies courses, for example, African American studies in New York or Indigenous studies in Alaska. However, by the 1990s, funding for these programs were removed or they were never enforced due to increasing pressure on schools to rigorously focus on academic standards for ‘core’ courses.”

It reviews how much of the “K-12 curriculum is embedded with a Eurocentric bias that situates white people as heroic figures and all other races are inferior, unintelligent beings who are dependent on whites for direction and uplift” and adds that “these racist mischaracterizations of people of color that have framed the teaching of U.S history and other subjects shape negative self-concept of students of color.”

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