Dispatch From Topeka: How Schools Can Carry Out the Promise of Brown v. Board
Written by Tiffany Anderson
The U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, which was delivered 65 years ago this week, changed the course of public education for all students and changed the nation in many positive ways. The decision declared that segregated schools were “inherently unequal” and granted equal protection to all students under the 14th Amendment. In so doing, the ruling upended years of legally sanctioned segregation and inequality in public education that had left many black students with inadequate resources and facilities.
Many would argue that the Brown decision also opened the door for the Civil rights movement to take shape. Not long after Brown was decided, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat and the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott began. A decade later, in 1964, the U.S. Civil Rights Act was passed, followed by the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. You could say Brown provided the legal spark for the movement—and for greater equality in American society.
Yet, as educators know, the impact of Brown on public education over the past 65 years has been mixed. Schools in many areas remain racially segregated—primarily because of segregated housing patterns, which are fed by and feed economic inequality. This means that poor students of color are often marginalized and isolated in education systems.
There is also a great deal of segregation within schools that might look integrated. Differences in the ways students of color are treated in schools—through disciplinary actions, special education and course assignments, and learning opportunities granted—are significant factors in keeping education unequal and feeding generational poverty for students of color. (As Michelle Alexander shows in her book The New Jim Crow, school practices have helped create a caste system results in higher rates of poverty and incarceration for people of color.) We can legislate policies to integrate schools, but legislation does not change mindsets, which is what creates action in schools. School cultures based on tolerating rather than empowering all cultures and ethnic and racial backgrounds lead to segregated outcomes. But we can change that.
Leading the Brown District
In the district I lead as superintendent, Topeka Public Schools in Kansas, the Brown anniversary has special resonance. The namesake for the plaintiffs, Linda Brown, was a student in Topeka and became a steadfast advocate for desegregated schools in the state. When I became superintendent in Topeka in 2016, she was one of the first individuals I met at church. Linda Brown passed last year, unfortunately, but her 96-year-old mother, Leola Brown, still lives in Topeka. The impact of a family that courageously challenged the education system and that chose to remain in the community for decades is strongly felt in the district. We have an inherited commitment to honoring their legacy.
Like many communities, while economic and segregated housing patterns persist in the city, Topeka is a far more diverse today in comparison with decades prior. The district’s student enrollment is evenly divided—approximately 33 percent African American, 33 percent Hispanic, and 33 percent Caucasian. The majority of the middle and high schools in Topeka are integrated, with a roughly equal number of white students and students of color. However, the 15 elementary schools are largely segregated based on housing patterns, with high minority populations attending their neighborhood schools in high minority and high poverty communities. I am the district’s first African-American female superintendent.
As a district, despite pockets of racially segmented schools, we have made great strides in creating more educational equity. As of 2018, the high school graduation gap for students of color in the district was eliminated, and state test scores increased at every level for two consecutive years, with increases in every racial subgroup. More students of color are also accessing the ACT. In addition, Topeka won the National School Board Association’s 2018 Magna Award for Equity in Education.
Carrying Out the Mission
Having served as a superintendent for most of my 26 years in education, I have been a part of efforts to improve educational equality and reduce achievement gaps in multiple schools and districts. I’ve found that transforming schools—creating true equality of opportunities—can only happen when mindsets are changed and all cultures are embraced.
To this end, one of the first initiatives we launched when I joined as superintendent in Topeka, in partnership with the Midwest and Plains Equity Assistance Center, was a staff-development program on equity for all teachers and school leaders. The training focuses on building teachers’ awareness and critical consciousness of racial disparities. Staff members are taught how to use culturally relevant pedagogy to increase rigor and how to leverage critical language for courageous conversations. They learn to disaggregate data and engage equity-oriented data dialogues.
Outside the classroom, educators make field trips to a juvenile detention center, so they can gain a close-up awareness of the school-to-prison pipeline. They also have had experiences learning from the plaintiffs in Brown v. Board case and studying the impact of the case through readings and data.
When educators are given opportunities like these to examine their own beliefs and expand their understanding of all their students, they can serve them more effectively. Indeed, in my experience, improved cultural and equity understanding leads to what I consider the key education levers for reducing racial disparities and inequality:
- Changing educators’ mindsets about what students of color can accomplish and need.
- Increasing rigorous academic opportunities for all students.
- Reducing graduation gaps and graduating more students who are critical thinkers.
- Creating a pipeline of economic opportunity for every student.
The 65th anniversary of Brown v. Board gives us an opportunity to reflect on the impact of the past on the present and on the future—and to make sure we are honoring those who before us who fought so hard for civil rights in education. Today, as educators, we stand on the shoulders of those courageous individuals, like Linda Brown, who took the first steps. We must work harder to carry out their mission.
Tiffany Anderson is the superintendent of Topeka Public Schools and an ASCD faculty member.
If you would like to read more about Brown v. Board and the impact the case has had on our education system take a second to browse April’s Educational Leadership issue entitled, “Separate and Still Unequal: Race in America’s Schools“.