The Fighting Spirit
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
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.
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
- Many of the more diverse
schools were having trouble meeting the law’s standards.
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
Melanie Brown is an
analyst for the International Trade Administration. She concentrates her
pro bono work in the field of family law.