Professional Learning

Good Schools for All: Finishing the Work of Brown vs. Board of Education

May 20, 2014 Updated May 13, 2014
Photo credit: 77krc via flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

A good school is, or should be, within reach of every child. That was one of the intents of the Supreme Court when, on May 17, 1954, their decision in the case of Brown vs. the Board of Education, ruled unanimously that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal" and schools must be desegregated. Brown actually combined rulings from similar cases also arising from Delaware, South Carolina, Virginia, and Washington, DC. While the case was nominally about inferior facilities and access, the decision rendered by Chief Justice Earl Warren made clear the real evil that was being addressed -- for children of color, segregation "generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely to ever be undone."

The Coleman report of 1966 provided research that confirmed this view, leading to civil rights actions designed to promote desegregation through busing. But these efforts were implemented slowly and reluctantly and eventually were reduced. A 2010 research report concluded that racial segregation in schools, as well as poverty, still deny African-American students equal opportunity for a sound education. So while good schools should be within reach of all children, they clearly are not.

Redressing the ultimate problems requires political courage and action. We need this and we need bold and creative leadership to bring us to such action in a sustained way. However, my concern is that we have yet to heed the wise words of Lyndon Johnson, spoken at the Howard University Commencement in June 1965:

"You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, 'You are free to compete with all the others,' and still justly believe that you have been completely fair."

Today's Youth Can't Wait for Political Solutions

Children who are now in schools cannot wait for the slow mechanisms of political action to save them. And once the surface features of desegregation are addressed, the culture and climate of these schools will not automatically revert to acceptance and respect. However, right now, we can look to research, and to successful schools, to schools lauded for excellence in academics and in social, emotional, and character development, in all parts of the United States and in all socioeconomic and demographic circumstances, to provide guideposts for moving forward. We know how to create schools that can teach the mind and the heart.

It will take our most under-resourced and chronically dysfunctional schools time to turn around. They must be given that time. And they also need to be given the direction (and latitude to pursue this direction) articulated by The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), in its review, Social and Emotional Learning: What Does the Research Say?

In summary, CASEL's view is that better academic performance and success in school and life is the goal we must hold out for P-12 public education. It is most likely to be attained when students have greater attachment, engagement, and commitment to school, which happens when schools welcome all students and seek to provide them with opportunities for positive contributions, recognition, and a sense of purpose and pride in being part of the school. In other words, kids want to go to schools that stand for something and feel part of that sense of purpose, even if they are not the smartest or best athletes or performers (as relatively few students are).

We also can expect and require that every student is in safe, caring, cooperative, well-managed learning environments -- particularly classrooms -- and that every school systematically teaches, along with academic subject areas and artistic, musical, physical/health, and civic development, evidence-based approaches to promote all students' social, emotional, and character development and essential skills for participating in a range of social contexts. These contexts include the classroom, lunchroom, school bus, community groups, family, and workplace. This means that every student should be intentionally and continuously exposed to programming that supports the growth of the whole child (as opposed to mainly the "cognitive/academic" child), including the competencies needed to be healthy, civically engaged, prepared for service and ready to resist and stand up against substance use and bullying in all its forms -- two of the most corrosive influences on school life.

We Know How to Create Good Schools for All Children

While all this may seem like a lot, this is what good schools do. It happens through the quality of respectful, caring, and supportive relationships in these schools. It can take schools up to five years to develop all of these components when they are all lacking, and longer still for them to come together for profound impact. There are no shortcuts or magic bullets because deep and genuine relationships are not established on a fast timetable. Quick fixes or accelerated change programs that been tried and proclaimed as instant successes are more likely to revert backwards than to show sustained progress.

As President Johnson said, we cannot "declare" equity and restore it immediately for those for whom it has been denied, regardless of how unfair and unfortunate this is. As Chief Justice Warren foretold, there are deeply seated attitudes at play. On the part of students, they must realize their enormous potential, regardless of past and even current messages; and for those resisting desegregation, they must realize their folly. As the recent demise of the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers basketball team shows, prejudice and bigotry no longer have a sanctioned place in America and those holding those attitudes will find themselves at increasing risk.

The students may be the more ready group for change, and they need the change most urgently. Therefore, this is how we need to direct our attention. For many schools, what is required is a steady climb up a long ladder, as many rungs as it takes, for as long as it takes, to get into the light. If the ladder has been firmly grounded in steady soil and the rungs are not decayed, the school can remain in the light and perhaps continue to ascend.

The wider spirit of Brown vs. the Board of Education is to declare that every child entering school is entitled to obtain the tools needed for a decent chance of success in life regardless of starting point. It is ultimately through public education that integrates social, emotional, academic, ethical, civic, and aesthetic excellence that we have our best chance to achieve the goal of an improved society of equity and opportunity and inclusiveness. And we can be successful if we are determined, guided wisely, appropriately demanding, prudently impatient, and allocate the necessary resources -- including time -- without cutting corners.

What are your thoughts on the ideas shared in this blog? Please share in the comments section below.

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