A day before the 55th anniversary of the Brown V. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that made segregated schools illegal, Rev. Al Sharpton led a rally for education equality, but solutions are still not clear.
“The crisis is that 55 years ago, education was separate and unequal,” Sharpton declared to the hundreds in attendance in the White House Eclipse on Saturday. “And 55 years later, education is still separate and unequal.” Sharpton stood on stage with Minnijean Brown Trickey, one of the “Little Rock Nine”–a group of nine Black Arkansas teenagers that was escorted by the 101 Airborne Division into a desegregated Little Rock high school after enduring abuses by the previously all-White student body. Together, they
led a chant urging Washington to “close the gap!”
The rally comes on the heels of a McKinsey study that found quantifiable and disturbing educational achievement disparities between students from different racial and economic backgrounds, as well as between the United States and other countries.
The study found that by the fourth grade, African-American and Hispanic students were already nearly three years behind their White peers, a trend that worsens as they get older. And while students from higher-income backgrounds fare better than those that come from less fortunate backgrounds, statistics show that Black and Latino students in every economic class scored significantly lower in math and reading tests than White students of the same economic class.
Closing the education achievement gap–as it’s referred to by the study and by the Education Equality Project (EEP), an education advocacy organization founded by Rev. Al Sharpton and New York City Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein–has become a national priority, but there is not a consensus on solutions for reform, nor is there a consensus on why such a great disparity of achievement exists between different student groups even though the gap was widely considered to be even as recently as 1998.
“The McKinsey report was focused on collecting the data and measuring the economic impact–both individually and socially,” says Bennet Ratcliff, a representative of EEP. “It did not address why the achievement gap exists. EEP believes– and studies support–that African-American and Latino students can dramatically close the gap if they are taught by quality teachers. The current education system offers–and has historically offered–some of the lowest performing teachers to African-American and Latino students, which is a significant part of the problem. Rev. Sharpton has spoken eloquently on the subject of receiving a ”back-of-the-bus education”.
The issue is serious enough that even fundamental conservatives like former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich jumped on board to speak in favor of education reform at Sharpton’s rally. The McKinsey study estimates that the U.S. economy lost more than $3 trillion dollars in potential gains because of failures to close the educational achievement gap to its 1998 near-even levels, a figure that is more than the amount lost during the current deep economic recession and the one experienced at the beginning of the 1980s.This is a number that will only grow if nothing is done to curtail the trend because the U.S. Census Bureau forecasts that non-White students will make up more than half of the national student population as early as 2023. Why are Black students, even those from privileged backgrounds, performing worse than their White counterparts? ”I think it’s an institutional racism,” Sharpton responded in an interview. “I think it’s because we see that education in our communities, regardless of economic income and class, is different.”
It’s easy to simply cite institutional racism as the reason that African-Americans are falling behind, but that doesn’t account for Black students that don’t attend majority Black schools.
”What we saw going into the end of the 1990s was an actual closing of the gaps, and by 1999, we found that we reached parity in African-Americans’ ability to graduate high school and move toward college,” said Hilary O. Shelton, NAACP’s executive vice president of advocacy and director of the civil rights organization’s Washington bureau. “It was a cornerstone for real first-class education for all. However, some of the provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act, including the high-stakes testing provision, which was supposed to be put in place to keep track of how well schools were doing, ended up being used to penalize students.”
Shelton said that while some students who traditionally did well in classroom assignments and tests were held up when it came time for high stakes testing, which students must take in the fourth, eighth and 12th grades in order to matriculate to the next grade or graduate high school, a test score became the determination if a student could advance or not. “The graduation rate for African-Americans started declining again, and in that time, we started seeing that great gulf happening again,” he said. “Now you have cities where one-half of Black males are dropping out because they can’t pass that test. The test should be reevaluated. The tests should have never been the single source to determine who matriculates,” Shelton says.
The high-stakes testing standard is nationwide, so all students, regardless of race and class, must pass the same requirements. Black students are not less capable of passing tests, but rather, as one parent suggests, may be more complacent because expectations are lower. ”I think that African-American kids are testing lower than White kids…because the expectations are not as high for our kids,” says Virginia Watkins-Ford, executive director of D.C. Parents for School Choice, an organization that fights for school reform in D.C. on behalf of the district’s parents. “When you don’t expect kids to do well, then they have no reason to do well. If we raise our expectations and the general education raises their expections, then we will see some positive outcomes.”
During his rally speech, Sharpton insinuated that it’s possible for a man of color who comes from a single-parent home to become president, but a significant part is because he also went to the best schools. According to National Center for Education Statistics, less than 10 percent of students from the most selective colleges in the nation came from the bottom half of the income distribution.
In most cases, school districts must cut through time-consuming layers of political red tape internally and from teachers unions in order to make any type of grandiose educational reforms happen.
For those very reasons, organizations such as the Broad Foundation–whose education work is focused on dramatically improving urban K-12 public education, specifically urban schools, which educates 40 percent of all students in poverty– favors charter schools and school districts that are con- trolled by a single entity, such as a mayor instead of a school board.
Shelton thinks that charter schools can be helpful as long as they are not being used as tools to undercut public schools, and warns that because they are not regulated as heavily, they could also have problems. “The way the charter school system was being used by their administration is that you could have teachers in the classroom who [weren’t] even certified, who didn’t have degrees and weren’t allowed to bargain to become a part of teachers’ unions,” Shelton said. “But the concept of charter schools is a very good one.”
EEP is advocating on a national level around issues like merit pay, tenure reform, accountability, and charter schools while supporting on a grass-roots level urban districts that have begun reform efforts. “We want equal funding, accountability of teachers and incentives for teachers to teach in areas that are considered disadvantaged, and parental participation. And we must reform the public school system. These privatized schools only help some students,” Sharpton said. “We gotta save them all.”