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What Are Schools For?

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Johnny Jenkins/UPI/Bettmann/Corbis
Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock Nine—a group of African-American students enrolled in the segregated Little Rock Central High School following the Brown decision—pursued by a mob on the first day of the school year, September 4, 1957. Arkansas National Guardsmen sent by Governor Orville Faubus blocked the nine from entering the school; three weeks later President Eisenhower sent federal troops to protect them and enforce desegregation.

One of the first things we learn in school is that America was founded on a set of ideas, not on shared racial or ancestral bonds. All men are created equal. Liberty and justice for all. Out of many, one. Our history reflects the different and often conflicting ways that Americans have worked out these ideas across time. So Americans have also placed an extraordinary emphasis—quite possibly, an exceptional one—on a heritage of words, phrases, and slogans. Go to a Tea Party rally and you’ll hear the Founding Fathers quoted at length. But you can find the same words in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address—which generations of American schoolchildren had to memorize—and in Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

More than a half-century after the Supreme Court’s ruling, it’s fair to call Brown v. Board of Education part of America’s rhetorical legacy. Not that many Americans can quote the actual words of the decision, which reflect the sober analytic traditions of the Court more than the religiously inflected cadences of Lincoln or King. Instead, the simple name of Brown v. Board of Education—shortened to Brown—has itself become a shorthand for the nation’s most cherished values and aspirations.

So the way people talk about Brown tells us a great deal about them. Consider, for example, the statement that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan released on May 17 of this year. “Today,” Duncan declared,

on the 56th anniversary of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education, we celebrate the progress we have made to bring educational equity to millions of American students. But we also honor the sacrifice of all those who fought for equality by recognizing that, for all our progress, we still have further to go. We reaffirm our collective commitment to providing a high quality education to all children regardless of race or background so they can succeed in college and careers and prosper in life. Education is the civil rights issue of our time. President Obama and I remain deeply committed to reforming schools so that all children receive the world-class education they deserve.1

Today, in the United States, the principles in this statement are unarguable; one can hardly imagine any reasonable person objecting to them. More than anything else, Brown symbolizes our strong and remarkably recent national consensus on the ideal of racial equality.

However far we are from satisfying it in practice, this ideal has become shared in ways that would have astonished Americans when Brown itself was handed down. It’s easy to forget that in 1956 nineteen of twenty-two Southern senators signed a manifesto demanding the reversal of the decision, or that The Atlantic Monthly—a tribune of New England liberalism—published an article the same year arguing that Brown would promote interracial sex. (“A very few years of thoroughly integrated schools would produce larger numbers of indoctrinated young Southerners free from all ‘prejudice’ against mixed matings,” the article warned.)2 In the North as well as the South, such openly racist sentiments were entirely acceptable; a mere half-century later, they are taboo.

As pollsters and social scientists remind us, contemporary racists are more likely to keep their prejudices to themselves.3 But their very reticence proves the larger point: in contemporary America, racial equality has been proclaimed a normative part of Americanism itself. Brown embodies that hope, in our present-day racial discourse, and Secretary Duncan’s statement exemplifies it.

But his statement is also remarkable for what it does not say: that different races should go to school together. As Martha Minow reminds us in her useful book, In Brown’s Wake, the decision made two related but distinguishable claims: that education should be available to all children on equal terms, and that separate educational facilities were inherently unequal. We have achieved consensus on the first ambition, even as we struggle to achieve it. But on the second claim, about racial integration, we have no consensus at all. Can you name a single politician today, of any party or any race, who has built a campaign around the simple proposition that children of different races should attend the same schools? Certainly not Arne Duncan or Barack Obama. No one would suggest that Obama—himself the product of richly integrated schools—“opposes” racial integration. But it would be equally absurd to pretend that it is a priority for him, or for anyone else. Look again at Duncan’s statement: much is said about racial equality, and nothing about racial integration. That’s where we are.

Or look at No Child Left Behind (NCLB), easily the most important federal education law in American history, which reflects a radical change in the relation of the national government to education. For most of our past, public education has been a local and state concern rather than a federal one. That began to change after Brown, when federal courts slowly started requiring Southern school districts to desegregate: today, thanks to those efforts, schools below the Mason-Dixon Line are much more integrated than their counterparts in the North.

In Congress, meanwhile, Great Society lawmakers devised new aid programs—including, most famously, Head Start—for disadvantaged children. But No Child Left Behind, as its name indicates, is targeted at everyone. It requires every school district to test all of its students in grades 3–8, and penalizes schools that fail to show progress. Although critics of NCLB sometimes talk as if it was imposed in some kind of military-style coup by George W. Bush, who signed the law in 2002, it had enormous bipartisan support, passing the House by a vote of 384–45 and the Senate 91–8. Its sponsors included Senator Edward Kennedy and San Francisco Bay Area Representative George Miller, one of the most liberal lawmakers in Washington.

And what does NCLB say about race? A lot. The law requires schools to classify their test results by race; if one of its racial groups is not making progress, an otherwise successful school (as measured by the tests) can also face penalties. Not surprisingly, the architects of NCLB rooted these provisions firmly in Brown. “The message of Brown v. Board was: separate schools are inherently unequal,” declared Rod Paige, Bush’s first secretary of education, as he swore in members of the Brown Fiftieth Anniversary Commission in 2002. “The message of No Child Left Behind is: separate instruction—instruction that is based upon assumptions that certain children cannot learn—is inherently unequal.”4

What Paige didn’t say, of course, was that American schools remain overwhelmingly segregated. So if Brown was correct in the claim that segregation is unequal, NCLB is doomed. In 2000, 72 percent of black children attended predominantly minority schools, and more than one third of black and Hispanic students went to schools that had at least 90 percent minority enrollment. No Child Left Behind does not require schools to monitor or measure racial integration; indeed, the law makes no mention of integration at all. Nor do the Obama administration’s proposed amendments to NCLB, which are prefigured in its recent “Race to the Top” competition. Instead, the reforms encourage states to develop more consistent tests and to base teacher salaries in part on student test scores, which has set off predictable alarms among teachers.

Like its advocates, meanwhile, NCLB’s opponents talk loudly about race but almost never about racial integration. Rather than helping minority children advance, critics say, NCLB harms them by encouraging lockstep instruction or “teaching to the test.” It has long been the case that wealthier children receive better instruction than poorer kids do; NCLB has probably widened this gap, because disadvantaged schools are under much greater danger of failing to show progress and thereby incurring the sanctions of the law. So they tailor their curriculums as precisely as possible to the tests, even providing minute-by-minute scripts for their teachers, a practice that has been much criticized.5

Nor is it clear that schools showing improved test scores have actually improved their students’ skills. Some schools have gamed the system by disguising the number of students who drop out, thus removing the lowest-performing students from the test results pool; others have engaged in outright cheating, sharing answers with their students during the tests or correcting erroneous responses afterward. At the state level, finally, officials routinely dilute the difficulty of the tests or lower the bar for passing them.6 In the end, as NCLB’s critics correctly emphasize, all of these scams and shortcuts hurt minority students more than anybody else; clustered in poor communities with underperforming schools, they bear the brunt of NCLB’s heavy hand. The longtime educational critic Jonathan Kozol even went on a partial fast in 2007 to protest “the vicious damage being done to inner city children” by NCLB.7

Damage,” of course, is a word that comes straight out of Brown v. Board of Education. But the lawyers who constructed its argument claimed that black children were damaged by racial segregation, not just by poverty or weak instruction. Indeed, as Martha Minow reminds us, they had to make that claim in order to make their case. “I went to the basic principle that if you had an automobile accident and you are ‘injured,’ you have to prove your injuries—you had to put on [the stand] a doctor, and the doctor will explain what your injuries are and how you are damaged,” recalled Thurgood Marshall, the plaintiffs’ Supreme Court counsel in Brown before joining the Court himself. “So I said that these Negro kids are damaged, we will have to prove it.”

Minow quotes this passage at the outset of a long chapter about social science and the law, which concludes with a rather tepid plea for “social integration” in schools. She favors integration in the abstract but never constructs a persuasive case for how—or even why—we should promote it. And that, too, tells us something significant about our contemporary politics. Minow, the dean of Harvard Law School, begins her book by thanking her predecessor, Elena Kagan, our newest Supreme Court justice; when Obama made Kagan his solicitor general, he tapped Minow to replace her on the board of the Legal Services Corporation; and Minow, whom Obama has described as his most influential professor at Harvard Law, was reportedly on his short list for the Court vacancy before he chose Kagan. It’s fair to presume that if Obama gets to make any further Supreme Court nominations, Minow will be under consideration. So the rest of us should look closely at what she has to say about Brown, race, and much else.

Minow’s most important point, as it turns out, is that Brown affected everything else more than it affected race. “The state of racial integration in education might be stunningly disappointing,” Minow writes, “but Brown has also produced unexpected dividends addressing historic educational disadvantages based on gender, disability, language, immigrant status, poverty, sexual orientation, and religion.” In each of these matters, she shows, activists have used the language, spirit, and authority of Brown to transform our schools and our society. Yet here, too, the dual claims of Brown—education must be equal, and it can’t be equal if it’s separate—have yielded mixed and often confusing results. Americans are developing a broad consensus that girls and the disabled—like racial minorities—deserve an equal education; there is less agreement on that ideal when it comes to the status of immigrants and homosexuals, where a stronger degree of openly prejudiced and exclusionary sentiment persists.

But there is no consensus whatever about whether an equal education for these subgroups also requires an integrated one. Can a girl achieve an equal education in an all-female school, or a second-language English learner in a separate classroom, or a disabled child in a specialized institution? If gay teens are bullied and demeaned by their straight peers and teachers, should we establish special institutions for them? And if a religious minority would suffer discrimination in regular schools, as the ultra-Orthodox Kiryas Joel sect of Hasidic Jews has argued, should they be able to attend a separate school as well? In declaring that separate cannot be equal, Brown v. Board of Education would suggest that all of these questions have the same answer: no. But Americans today are uncertain about how to answer them.

So is Minow. Judiciously reviewing the relevant research, Minow admits how little we truly know about how children learn and the best environments for helping them to do so. Her discussion of single-sex schools is exemplary in this regard, and worth quoting in full:

While it is tempting to imagine that social science research provides answers about equality and education, most notable is the inconclusiveness of empirical research about schools and gender. Social science findings about girls and boys are ambiguous and complex. Even studies seeking to summarize the studies are inconclusive. Indeed, advocates on each side can and do rely on the empirical uncertainty to support their own side of the single-sex education debate, given the absence of reliable evidence that such revival of gender classification will work better or worse than coeducation.

The same goes for questions surrounding bilingual education (for example, the separation of second- language English learners for part or all of the school day) and disability, where the “mainstreaming” of handicapped children has become standard educational practice. There is plenty of evidence about the advantages of mixing disabled kids into regular classrooms, both for the disabled students and for their nondisabled peers. Just as clearly, however, some disabled children will learn better separately, and may face, and also create, insurmountable challenges in mainstream environments. “This should serve as a reminder that integration is not the only way to achieve equal opportunity; treating people the same who are different is not equal treatment,” Minow writes.

So when should we integrate children, and when should we not? Minow never comes right out and says it, but her answer is implicit throughout: we should follow the findings of social science. This position is somewhat surprising in view of her caveats about conflicting claims and uncertain knowledge. But it, too, is a legacy of Brown v. Board of Education. The case was a landmark not just in American law and race relations but also in bringing to bear new social research—especially in psychology—on the cause of social justice.

Thurgood Marshall’s search for a theory of “damage”—comparable to injuries caused in an automobile accident—led directly to Kenneth and Mamie Clark, the brilliant Harlem psychologists whose studies of students and dolls became infamous because they were so flawed. Although the Clarks showed that black children preferred white dolls to black ones, they did not demonstrate that black kids in segregated environments were more likely to do so.

In fact, some of their research suggested precisely the opposite: the black children in integrated schools chose the white dolls more frequently than children in segregated environments did. Just like the accident victim in his example, Marshall needed doctors to corroborate the injuries that black people had suffered. And he discovered them in the work of the Clarks.

Others would enlist their own doctors. In response to the Clarks’ studies and other scholarly evidence introduced in Brown, John W. Davis, lead counsel for the segregated South, complained that social scientists “can find usually…what they go out to find.” On the major moral issue of his lifetime, Davis was dead wrong. But he was correct—and remarkably prescient—about social science and the law. Brown helped unleash a profusion of expert knowledge throughout the American political system: in any given battle, whether legislative or judicial, each side now lines up its own academic authorities like so many gladiators. The outcome is often a political stalemate and academic polarization, as scholars tailor their research to a political cause or wake up one day to discover that the cause has distorted their research.8

Nowhere is this process more palpable—or more poignant—than in the field of education. Although the No Child Left Behind Act includes a clause instructing schools to base their practices on “scientifically-based research,” education is not—and never will be—a “science.” In most kinds of educational research, there are simply too many different actors and variables to render reproducible and generalizable knowledge.9 Perhaps because it is so limited in its scientific breadth and validity, educational expertise is probably more liable to ideological and political distortion than any other kind.

Compare, for example, what most schools of education today teach about the “mainstreaming” of disabled children and of second-language English learners. On the question of disability, as we have seen, mainstreaming has become received wisdom; sometimes referred to as “inclusion,” it allegedly enhances disabled students’ learning and also promotes friendship, tolerance, and acceptance across groups with different abilities. No one denies that some children are handicapped in ways that require special schools, but the overriding view is to keep such schools to a minimum.

Yet when they analyze second-language English students, most education professors reject “mainstreaming” out of hand. Indeed, they won’t even use the word: placing these students exclusively in regular classrooms is derided as the “sink-or-swim” or “submersion” method, which supposedly drowns curious young immigrants in a sea of incomprehension. Why is mainstreaming an unqualified “good” for one category of students, but “bad” for the other? True, there are some studies supporting each of these propositions. But the studies are still tenuous, contributing to the certitude with which education professors spout them. Indeed, the weaker our evidence about any given practice, the stronger we seem to cling to it. And this suggests that ideology—not science, or evidence, or knowledge—is driving educational policies.

That’s inevitable. Try as we might to make it “scientifically-based,” education is always ideological: whether implicitly or explicitly, it addresses what Aristotle called conceptions of “the good life.” What is the best way to live, and how should schools promote it? No double-blind research protocol will help us answer that question, which involves the meaning and purpose of education itself. But on such matters, Minow has almost nothing to say.

In the worldview of Martha Minow—and, it would appear, of Arne Duncan and Barack Obama—schools exist primarily to provide skills and opportunities for the individual. That’s why we call our federal education law “No Child Left Behind.” Especially in an economy based on expert knowledge, with new global competitors and challenges, every person should be able to obtain what Duncan pointedly calls a “world-class education.” So when our leaders invoke Brown v. Board of Education, they inevitably cite its promise of equal rights—for every American. “In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education,” the Brown decree said. “Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.” We object, quite appropriately, when anyone is denied this right because of inherited characteristics: race, gender, poverty, disability, and so on.

But Brown also spoke to a collective purpose for schools, which we seem to have forgotten. “Compulsory school attendance laws and the great expenditures for education both demonstrate our recognition of the importance of education to our democratic society,” the Court declared. “It is required in the performance of our most basic public responsibilities, even service in the armed forces. It is the very foundation of good citizenship.” This means that education is more than just an individual right. It also is—or should be—central to our civic life, teaching us the skills and habits of democracy: reason, deliberation, tolerance, fairness, compromise, and more.10 Surely, in a society that becomes more diverse by the hour, one of those skills is the capacity to interact and communicate with peoples of different races, religions, and cultures.

The Supreme Court actually recognized such an imperative when it upheld a law school affirmative action plan in Grutter v. Bollinger (2003), confirming the school’s “compelling interest in obtaining the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body.” But in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 (2007), the Court barred the district from considering race in making school assignments for K–12 students. “Racial balancing is not transformed…to a compelling state interest simply by relabeling it ‘racial diversity,’” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts, in the plurality opinion. Roberts went on to note that social scientists were—surprise—divided about the supposedly salutary effects of diverse schools. In their friend-of-the-court briefs, he wrote, the litigants in Grutter “dispute whether racial diversity in fact has a marked impact on test scores and other objective yardsticks or achieves intangible socialization benefits.”

Live by the social science, die by the social science. Minow obviously opposes Roberts’s opinion, mentioning it each time that she bemoans the “disappointing” persistence of racial segregation in our schools. Without a real theory of civic education, however, she cannot rebut Roberts. Under the current educational model, which prizes individual rights above all, integration by race—or by gender, disability, or anything else—can be justified only if it yields tangible benefits to the individual; and surely some individuals will benefit more—or less—than others.

But schools have a civic purpose, too, which might help us imagine a new line of argument. Perhaps integrated education would be better for all of us, as citizens of a common polity, regardless of any personal advantages we might derive from it. Whatever you think of our public schools, they remain our central vehicle for deliberating on and transmitting the values we want future generations to absorb and believe. Right now, the central values are individual equality and achievement; but schools should promote collective goals, too, that can’t be measured by a standardized test. To make a fresh case for schools integrated by race, especially, we need to think less about race—and more about schools.

  1. 1

    See “Statement by US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on the 56th Anniversary of the Landmark Brown v. Board of Education Ruling,” May 17, 2010, at www.ed.gov.

  2. 2

    Herbert Ravenel Sass, “Mixed Schools and Mixed Blood,” The Atlantic Monthly, November 1956, p. 49; quoted in James T. Patterson, Brown v. Board of Education: A Civil Rights Milestone and Its Troubled Legacy (Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 6.

  3. 3

    See, for example, Rebecca M. Blank et al., Measuring Racial Discrimination (National Academies Press, 2004), p. 164.

  4. 4

    See “Secretary Paige Swears in Members of Brown v. Board of Education 50th Anniversary Commission,” November 13, 2002, at www.ed.gov.

  5. 5

    For a vivid and disturbing account of this trend in an inner-city elementary school, see Linda Perlstein, Tested: One American School Struggles to Make the Grade (Holt, 2007).

  6. 6

    See, for example, Sharon L. Nichols and David C. Berliner, Collateral Damage: How High-Stakes Testing Corrupts America’s Schools (Harvard Education Press, 2007), and Diane Ravitch, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education (Basic Books, 2010), Chapter 8.

  7. 7

    Jonathan Kozol, “Why I Am Fasting: An Explanation to My Friends,” The Huffington Post, September 10, 2007.

  8. 8

    For the best historical account of these developments, see Brian Balogh, Chain Reaction: Expert Debate and Public Participation in American Commercial Nuclear Power, 1945–1975 (Cambridge University Press, 1991).

  9. 9

    On this point, see David F. Labaree, The Trouble with Ed Schools (Yale University Press, 2004), Chapter 4; for a history of the quest for a “science” of education, see Ellen Condliffe Lagemann, An Elusive Science: The Troubling History of Educational Research (University of Chicago Press, 2000).

  10. 10

    For a brief, suggestive account of how schools might teach these skills, see Ronald Dworkin, “Three Questions for America,” The New York Review, September 21, 2006.

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