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Editor: W. Patrick Tandy

May, 2004


The Fighting Spirit

By Melanie Brown

In 1950, two African-American students, George McLaurin and Barbara Rose Johns, fought with determination and strength for equality in education. It was their fighting spirit and that of others like them that were the power behind the landmark case Brown vs. Board of Education. It was these students and their parents who believed that an education was pivotal to being free Americans. Thanks to them, children and adults of all colors and cultures across America attend public school side by side. But Brown and the pre-Brown equality cases were not only about ending segregation in education; they were also about the importance of obtaining an education.

When Chief Justice Warren determined the effects of segregation on public education, he considered “public education in . . . its present place in American life throughout the nation.” Brown v. Board of Education, 374 U.S. 483, 492-493. Applying that standard today: where are our African-American children in public education throughout the nation? Current statistics show that:

  • In 2003, only one in six African-American children could read proficiently by fifth grade, while only 3 percent tested proficiently in math
  • In 2003, a higher percentage of white high school graduates had taken advanced chemistry, biology and physics compared to African-American high school students
  • In 2000, national tests on educational progress showed that reading scores for black students at age 17 were about the same as those of white students at age 13.

These statistics should not be startling; the decline in the academic accomplishments of our African-American children has been gradual. For years, we have watched an achievement gap grow between white students and African-American students. While white students advanced academically, our African-American children reverted academically, resulting in an achievement gap that was partly created by the poor academic performances of our African-American children. However, the achievement gap is not the only problem we face in public schools today.

In public high schools, white students are the overwhelming majority in honors programs, while African-American students are the overwhelming majority in disciplinary and remedial programs. Consequently, public school classrooms have once again become segregated – not because of racial segregation, but through unimpressive academic results by our African-American children. Over time, the fighting Brown spirit has eroded.

Federal Government Action

In January 2002, President George W. Bush signed into law the reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) – the largest federal law addressing education from kindergarten to high school. The reauthorization also included sweeping education reform designed to improve student achievement, especially in low-performing schools. Entitled the “No Child Left Behind Act” (the Act), the reforms were designed to increase accountability for academic results, emphasize what works best for student achievement on the basis of scientific research, expand parental options and expand state and local control and flexibility.

So how has the Act improved conditions for African-American students? Essentially, the Act places more responsibility on low-performing schools by giving parents the option to transfer their children to higher-performing schools if low-performing schools fail to improve. Statistically, African-Americans are more likely than white Americans to be poor, unemployed or live in subsidized housing. If low-performing schools are so often found in impoverished areas, then it seems reasonable to conclude that statistically most African-American children attend low-performing schools. Unfortunately, sending their children to higher-performing schools is not an option for most impoverished African-American families. They cannot afford private schools, magnet schools are overcrowded and charter schools can be discriminatory in choosing their student body. Therefore, the onus is on impoverished schools making significant improvements; otherwise, the achievement gap will continue to expand.

Another concern is that the Act contributes to “white flight” – the vast migration of white Americans to white suburbs. The Act grants parents the aforementioned option of transferring their children to higher-performing schools. Since the majority of those schools are located in more affluent, predominantly white areas, however, fewer white students attend school with African-Americans in urban areas and fewer African-American students attend school with white students in suburban areas.

In another effort to improve low-functioning impoverished schools, under the Act each state is required to measure each student’s progress in reading and math in grades three through eight and at least once during grades 10 through 12 so that parents have objective data on where their child stands academically. Furthermore, schools will also test a “subgroup” of children, which includes African-American, Hispanic, Pacific Islander, impoverished or special education children. All children (including “subgroups”) are required to improve and meet a state-established proficiency level in 12 years. As many African-American students are starting at a disadvantage, however, how can “subgroups” realistically meet the state-imposed proficiency level in time?

Under the Act, generally speaking, all teachers hired must be “highly qualified,” meaning that all teachers must be certified and competent in the subject they teach; moreover, by the 2005-06 school year all teachers teaching core subjects are to be “highly qualified.” In developing a plan to ensure that teachers are “highly qualified,” states are required to include specific steps to ensure that poor and minority children are not mainly taught by unqualified teachers.

Recent Developments

Several states have reported their progress since the Act was implemented. Some of those statistics showed that in 2003:

  • Only 12 schools were on track with half of the federal requirements under the Act.
  • In Clark County, Nevada, 82 schools were labeled as under-performing schools and struggling to improve.
  • Michigan’s low-performing schools were in high-poverty urban areas and served low-income minority children. Out of 216 failing schools, only seven were located in suburban and rural areas.
  • Thirty-nine states developed accountability systems, but fewer than half were still trying to figure out how to assess or improve the test scores of children in every subgroup.
  • Many of the more diverse schools were having trouble meeting the law’s standards.

Individual Action

Clearly, federal education regulations are not a panacea for the troubles our African-American children face in schools today.  Ultimately, we are responsible for educating our children, both individually and as a community. It is time for families to stop relying upon and expecting public school systems and governments to do all the work. The fact that the federal government designated minorities as “subgroups” in need of special attention shows that federal education standards have failed our African-American children. It is impossible for federal, state or local laws to repair every complaint with public education. Educating our children has to start at home. As mentors, professional African-Americans can tutor children in reading and writing. There are many programs available locally and statewide that are seeking volunteers. By donating our time, we can support our children in school and teach them about the Brown fighting spirit.

Melanie Brown is an analyst for the International Trade Administration. She concentrates her pro bono work in the field of family law.



Publications : Bar Bulletin: May, 2004

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