By Alexa Epitropoulos
It’s been 65 years since the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board decision, but, by many measures, America’s schools are still segregated.
ASCD’s event on April 23, ASCD Educational Leadership presents Separate and Still Unequal: Race in America’s Schools 65 years after Brown v. Board, examined the factors contributing to segregation in schools and possible solutions. The conversation was led by panelists Becky Pringle, vice president of the National Education Association, Dr. Greg Hutchings, superintendent of Alexandria City Public Schools, Dr. Dawn Williams, dean of Howard University’s School of Education, and Deborah Menkart, executive director of Teaching for Change. Anthony Rebora, editor-in-chief of Educational Leadership, moderated.
Here are six takeaways from the conversation:
We must know the real story
Hutchings said knowing our history is an important part of finding solutions moving forward. “The simple fact is that when you don’t study your history, you will repeat your history.”
Many of us, however, learned a simplified version of Brown v. Board and segregation in America’s school system – one that erases the role of black educators in fighting for integration and minimizes the difficulty black students faced in the decades after Brown v. Board.
Menkart asked the audience to think about what they had learned in elementary school, middle school, and high school about the Supreme Court case and the fight for desegregation and integration. Many remembered learning the basic narrative that black children in the south were denied an education until a Supreme Court comprised of white men saved them.
“The legacy of that is we don’t see those adults in the solution to the problem. We don’t see how we got to Brown v. Board and the adults that were accompanying children on that journey and we then sent those children into school without the very allies who had fought for them, believed in them,” Menkart said.
Not understanding the true story of Brown v. Board and the integration efforts that followed the decision has led to mistakes.
We must be in a state of continuous learning
If we don’t talk about modern-day segregation and how it impacts students, we won’t find solutions. Educators and policymakers must learn from these honest and difficult conversations and act to solve our education system’s deep-rooted issues.
“It is so fundamental, especially for us as educators, because if we don’t learn, if we are not in a state of continuous learning, we will do what we’ve always done,” Pringle said.
Hutchings said he encourages teachers in Alexandria’s school system to learn from the local story of segregation, including the history of the integration of the city’s high schools into the then new T.C. Williams in 1971.
“Remember the Titans, there’s a whole lot more to that story than Denzel Washington,” Hutchings said, referring to the 2000 Disney movie based on the 1971 T.C. Williams football team.
We must check our biases at the door
Bias impacts education on every level, from funding to teaching. According to a 2019 report from nonprofit EdBuild, nonwhite school districts receive $23 billion less than white districts, despite serving the same number of students.
“We have the dollars, we have the money. We’re just not using it wisely and not making an intentional effort,” Hutchings said.
Similar bias also manifests in the classroom.
“It prevents us from allowing kids from being all they can possibly be,” Hutchings said. “Who can tell what level a kid can reach by looking at them?”
We must retain and recruit diverse teachers
As the dean of prestigious HBCU Howard University’s College of Education, Williams is preparing the next generation of teachers to enter and lead America’s school system. Many of Howard’s students have jobs lined up well ahead of graduation.
Williams said Howard’s relationships have created a pipeline for African American teachers to enter the classroom. Employers know that Howard’s graduates are credentialed and well prepared.
“You have to form partnerships, you have to have that pipeline,” Williams said.
Recruitment is only one side of the issue, though. Retaining teachers of color is a larger hurdle, especially as black and brown teachers face an unequal and racist system that impedes their ability to progress.
Pringle said the NEA has conducted surveys with teachers who have left the profession and found that many of them left because of pay and lack of advancement.
There are still few black superintendents and even fewer black women superintendents. Hutchings, during his time as superintendent of the school district in Shaker Heights, Ohio, recalls being one of the only black superintendents in a room of more than 600 Ohio superintendents. The percentage of black superintendents nationally remains in the low single digits.
“I think [our school system] has come to this point because we haven’t been able to have a seat at the table and it is still so difficult for African American superintendents to have a seat at the table,” Hutchings said.
We must be culturally affirming
There’s a big difference between being culturally relevant and culturally affirming as we teach students, Williams said.
Teaching in a culturally affirming way means teaching black students their history, including the rich history of black leaders, black educators, and black scholars, and about the heroes in their own community, including their family members.
“It’s one thing to be relevant, but to affirm students is a more progressive standpoint,” Williams said. “It must be from a non-deficit perspective, making sure you’re bringing up the assets of that child and that child’s family.”
Menkart brought up an educator in Florida who read books about and by notable black figures, like Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes, even though she faced professional risk by doing so.
“When you start learning real history, it helps you make sense of the world you’re living in today,” Menkart said.
Finally, we must act
Discussion, while valuable, isn’t enough. It takes a community to effect change and it takes time. Williams said it’s important to build coalitions and to speak up to people in power, particularly our elected representatives.
“It’s going to take being in their face often and early,” Williams said. “We have to keep this fight going and make sure it’s not just you, but pulling from allies that are bringing together this progression.”
White educators and education advocates must be allies in this fight.
“The role of white allies in this work cannot be underestimated. They need to step up, they need to check their fragility, they need to push, they need to speak up in places where we are not,” Pringle said.
Read more about the legacy of Brown v. Board and modern-day segregation in Educational Leadership’s April 2019 issue.