Equity & Diversity Commentary

Still Standing in the Schoolhouse Door

By Jacqueline Jordan Irvine — May 19, 2004 7 min read
Brown at Fifty

When the Brown decision was handed down 50 years ago, there was celebration and escalated hopes and dreams for all who believed in and loved freedom and democracy. Many thought that, at last, black and white children would attend schools together, become friends, and grow into enlightened citizens, and that the walls of segregation, racism, and prejudice would come tumbling down. More importantly, the visionaries and architects of Brown thought that desegregation of public schools would have a domino effect, and that other barriers in housing, employment, and higher education would collapse. When the decision was rendered, the future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who worked arduously for 20 years to dismantle segregation, said, “We hit the jackpot.” Later he recalled, “I was so happy I was numb.” Although Marshall and the NAACP admitted that there was much work yet to be accomplished in implementing Brown, he told a reporter in 1954 that school segregation would be eliminated nationwide within five years.

Brown at 50
Marking a Milestone: Commentaries

  • Still Standing in the
    Schoolhouse Door

Unfortunately, those dreams of equal opportunity were not to be fully realized because dream-breakers literally stood in the schoolhouse door. The icon seared into our consciousness is the image of Gov. George C. Wallace of Alabama. His defiance, hatred, and obstinate racist positions are indelibly etched in my own mind. On June 11, 1963, I was 200 miles away as Gov. Wallace made his stand at the University of Alabama and reaffirmed his proclamation made at his inauguration: “Segregation now. Segregation tomorrow. Segregation forever.”

Fortunately, George Wallace and people like him are no longer physically standing in schoolhouse doors. Yet there are dream-breakers, reminiscent of Wallace, who are still among us. The mandate to proceed with “all deliberate speed” has stalled, and the dream of equal educational opportunity even now appears elusive. Two factors, I believe, represent the greatest disappointments of Brown: the increase in segregation in schools, and the continuing decline in the school achievement of African- American and Latino students.

The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University and the Educational Testing Service provide some sobering statistics on desegregation. Segregation has been on the rise in the last decade, despite rapid increases in the number of students of color. U.S. Census Bureau data indicate that the white population in the United States is declining, while 40 percent of the students in our schools come from ethnically diverse backgrounds. However, this growing diversity does not foretell growing integration. The average white student attends a school that is 80 percent white. The average African-American student attends a school that is 67 percent African-American. The most segregated of all minority groups are Latinos. Seventy-five percent of Latinos attend mostly minority schools. Adding to the complexity of this picture is the fact that not only are these schools segregated, but also the students of color who attend them are overwhelmingly poor.

That our schools are still segregated is disturbing enough. More troubling is the fact that far too many African-American and Latino students in these mostly segregated schools are performing poorly. One of the most trenchant areas of concern among educators and researchers is the test-score gap, or the general tendency for white and Asian students to score higher on standardized measures of achievement than their black and Hispanic peers.

This test-score gap is revealed in the fact that white students, on average, score 20 to 30 points higher than their black and Hispanic peers. But the importance of the discrepancy becomes even more apparent when considering what a 30-point difference means for the average black or Hispanic student. Seventeen-year-old black and Hispanic students have skills in reading, mathematics, and science that are similar to those of a 13-year old white student.

Credible research has documented variables that explain why students of color in mostly segregated schools continue to fall behind their white and Asian peers. Residential segregation, supported by decades of reversals of school busing cases, has contributed to hypersegregation, particularly in medium to large urban areas. Housing patterns are not the sole explanation, however. As census data reveal, the suburbs are now over one- fourth minority. The other contributing factor to school segregation is the increase in private school enrollment by white students. White private school enrollment in 2000 was comparable to that in 1968.

The ETS recently published the results of a review of thousands of pieces of empirical research in an effort to determine what we know about achieving a quality education for all children. The researchers identified 14 correlates of achievement that they claim are “unambiguous,” including, for example, highly qualified and experienced teachers; a challenging, academic curriculum; safe and well-funded schools; involved parents; prenatal care; preschool literacy experiences; and a decrease in the number of female-headed households.

None of these factors should come as a surprise. We have known about the salience of these issues since President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society and War on Poverty programs in the 1960s. Why have we, as a nation, ignored them? Why were the promises of Brown never fully realized? Who or what is standing in the schoolhouse door today? I contend that the most disturbing dream-breaker of Brown is the lack of moral leadership in this country, particularly at the national level. Although the federal government has no legal or constitutional responsibility for educational issues, the fact of the matter is that the federal government, and particularly the courts, have always been the dream- keepers for generations of Americans in search of equal opportunities.

Political leaders are now playing a horrible shell game with the lives of poor and minority students, and have eliminated or underfunded most federal legislative and judicial efforts aimed at decreasing segregation and the achievement gap. The No Child Left Behind Act is a prime example of the national public relations strategy that uses children as political pawns. When taken at its face value, the law looks promising. Who would take offense at a mandate requiring states to be accountable for the achievement of poor students, special-needs students, and students of color?

On closer review, however, critics have unveiled a disingenuous law that pledges to raise 100 percent of all students to proficient levels in reading and math by 2014, without any attention to fully funding the law or providing other needed assistance to children and their families in areas such as health care, employment, and pre- and after-school care. The No Child Left Behind law ignores the best practices of measurement and evaluation, and makes a mockery of the definition of a “highly qualified teacher.” States can define the criteria for a qualified teacher. In my own state of Georgia, anyone with a bachelor’s degree who passes Praxis tests in basic skills, subject matter, and principles of teaching and learning can teach. No college training in education or field experience is required. Texas has passed a similar plan.

Such inadequately prepared teachers will not be found in the suburban schools of middle-class students. They will be in the schools with the most vacancies—segregated rural and urban schools with large numbers of low-income minority students. If, after several years of trial and error and on-the-job training, these novice teachers become effective and accomplished, the data suggest they will leave their poor, urban, or rural schools and transfer to more lucrative and less challenging assignments.

We will not and cannot achieve our national vision by ignoring children with broken dreams and broken promises. Somehow, we must start to think of our future as inextricably linked to the success of poor and minority students, who remain the dispossessed heirs of Jim Crow. Fifty years after Brown, it’s clear that we have the knowledge, skills, and technology to make the promises of that landmark ruling a reality. What we lack are visionary and courageous leaders with generous hearts.

Ron Edmonds, the trailblazer of the school reform movement, noted 35 years ago that we already know all we need to know to provide a quality education for all children. “Whether we do or do not,” he said, “depends upon how we feel about the fact that we have not done it.”

Jacqueline Jordan Irvine is the Charles Howard Candler professor of urban education at Emory University, in Atlanta.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 19, 2004 edition of Education Week as Still Standing in the Schoolhouse Door


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