Education Policy in the US

In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled that “separate but equal” was unconstitutional Brown v. Board of Education. Unfortunately, education integration remained more complex than a legal decision. In fact, “[s]ince the mid-1970s, the American public schools have become more segregated, and have regressed to a pre-Brown pattern of segregation” (Ikpa & McGuire 2009). A perpetuator of re-segregation remains the Race to the Top initiative. The reason for the disconnect between the legal decision to end segregation, and the actual integration of schools comes down to “de jure” segregation versus “de facto” segregation.

De facto, in actuality, segregation remains in place long after de jure, legal segregation, has been eradicated. Race to the Top unintentionally reinforces de facto segregation by allowing wealthy school districts to get wealthier, because they can afford test preparation for their students. Teaching to the test raises scores in schools to a measurable standard to outcompete other schools in the race to receive grant money. This reinforces segregation by rewarding wealthy school districts and punishing the ones that need help the most. In order to achieve true education equality, money should be provided to schools in need, so that they may catch up to affluent districts. Ironically, this approach would raise our nation’s overall test score by eradicating outliers in our data. They key to school success therefore lies in the1954 realization of Brown vs. Board of Education: separate but equal is inherently unequal.

 

What Have We Learned From The Past?

Jack Dougherty’s More Than One Struggle examines comprehensive literature on civil rights concerns such as busing. It examines the proponents of hiring black teachers in the 1930s, school integration during the 1960s, and a counterrevolution resulting in private school vouchers during the 1990s. This analytical narrative effectively captures that Brown vs. Board of Education was not a singular moment that brought about equality in education for which the black community had ferociously fought. The complexity of school integration involves dimensions such as housing segregation that is controlled by real estate agencies. Dougherty summarizes, “the sum of black educational history cannot be cast as a one-dimensional struggle for integrated schooling” (Dougherty 2004). Dougherty approaches the multi-faceted topic of school integration by looking at school reform efforts from the 1930s through the 1990s in the singular town of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Dougherty also describes that the civil rights movement was not a singular unified movement, but a collection of many different movements. Dougherty therefore takes a comprehensive approach in dissecting it, and argues that “scholarship on the recent era of black freedom struggles—especially regarding education—needs an interpretive framework that satisfies both our historical and contemporary needs” (Dougherty 2004). Dougherty certainly practices what he preaches, because his writing method includes a collection of primary sources taken from activist’s attics, official reports from Washington bureaucrats, as well as a collection of photographs and recordings. This comprehensive approach makes More Than One Struggle an enjoyable read, with good information, that is no struggle to understand.

Dougherty succeeds in his argument to paint education as the vehicle through which social change must happen. Dougherty explains that the Urban League, unlike the NAACP, fights for equality “through quiet negotiations rather than public protests” (Dougherty 2004). Rather than focusing on fighting violence with violence, Dougherty highlights that providing a proper education for black students will empower black citizens to achieve what they desire. Another way that Dougherty believes that this should be done is by hiring black teachers (Dougherty 2004). Dougherty notes that “the size of a city’s black population influenced the number of black teachers employed by its public schools” (Dougherty 2004). However, there is still a need for more black educators regardless of the number of blacks living in that community.

Statistical Data certainly reinforces Dougherty’s focus on school integration for long-term equality. The National Assessment of Educational Progress studies achievement changes in relation to school racial composition. One study indicated that seventeen year olds in segregated schools from the Southeast decreased in achievement, but those who attended schools that were 10% European American showed an increase in achievement (Ikpa & McGuire 2009). Furthermore, those who attended 2.5 % European American schools during the 1972-1973 school year gained 2.5 percentage points when compared to 1969-1970 (Weinberg, 1983). Numerous studies confirm that there is a positive correlation between black academic achievement and integration of schools.

According to Mahard and Crain from a 1978 study, two main findings have proved consistent when evaluating large-scale desegregation studies. The first is that minority students in predominantly European American schools score higher on achievement tests. The second is that this factor seems to result form predominantly European American schools having student bodies with a higher socioeconomic status (Ikpa & McGuire 2009). These findings suggest that the best desegregation plan is one that creates predominantly European American schools using European American students from relatively affluent families.

The main obstacle to school integration came from white individuals that were resistant to change. Although schools were legally required to integrate black and white students in 1954, numerous factors held the segregation of schools in place. One factor that upheld school segregation was the role of real estate agencies in perpetuating white neighborhoods that only welcomed other white citizens. This enforced that only white students could attend the schools in affluent white communities. A research study published in Voices of Freedom points to a black family that attempts to move into a white neighborhood but is told there are no vacancies. A white family enters the same day and is told that multiple options are available to them (Voices of Freedom 1991).

Another obstacle to the integration of schools that upholds de facto segregation is the cycle of poverty inherent in these environments. Once a black student is born into a poor neighborhood, the lack of wealth from property tax prohibits the purchase of new textbooks, and dissuades quality teachers from working in this area. The lack of funding in these education environments gets passed along, because it is hard for these students to compete for college spots, or sometimes even graduate from high school.

Even after a school effectively integrates black students into the white community, the work toward educational equality remains far from done. Voices of Freedom provides first hand accounts of those who survived with historical bravery. One example occurs in Little Rock, Arkansas. This oral history reveals that the Little Rock Nine originated due to teachers asking students from the Little Rock community to raise their hands. This number quickly dropped to seventy-five, and then twenty-five, until only nine were left by the following school year. This occurred in 1957, just three years after Brown versus Board of Education declared “separate but equal” as unconstitutional.

Another interesting piece of historical trivia revealed in Voices of Freedom is that Governor Orval Faubus, who had previously expressed support of education integration, changed his stance when asked to stand up against white individuals opposed to the integration of Little Rock, Arkansas. On the day before school started, it was announced that blacks would not be welcome in the school, and Governor Faubus hired a guard to prevent the individuals from entering the school. One black female named Elizabeth Eckerd was actually alienated from the other eight students who first enrolled in Little Rock Central High School due to the fact she missed the phone call saying they would meet before school started (Voices of Freedom 1991).

Far from dying down, the violence in Little Rock only escalated. In fact, one short week later, these nine students may well have re-thought their fight to be there. White citizens stormed into the school making threats on the black students’ lives. The Little Rock Nine were ushered down to the basement and had to escape home in a taxi. The hatred was so vile that “someone made a suggestion that if they allowed the mob to hang one kid, they could get the rest out” (Voices of Freedom 1991). The prejudice makes one question why anyone would subject their children to forced integration. Parents interviewed in the oral history cite that they know deep down that where the white kids go, that is where the money goes. They assume that the best way to provide a good education for their child is to place them with white children, regardless of the danger it places on that child.

The backlash shown in Little Rock, Arkansas was not an isolated act of white supremacists. Black parents spoke outwardly about a desire to keep their children in schools that celebrate black history rather than discounting it. Additionally, primary source articles detail media resistance against the civil rights evolution and school integration. The goal of equality fought for during the civil rights movement has been replaced by a version of the motto of Animal Farm, “While people are all equal, minorities are more equal than others.” It seems to assume a power and a transformation in American life of which most minority people are unconscious (Broadside 77).This historical article demonstrates the rebuttal of white citizens; that being forced to integrate schools was actually a form of reverse discrimination similar to the reaction of policemen in Deslippe’s article “Do Whites Have Rights?” (Deslippe 2006). This primary source continues:

The charge of reverse discrimination alleges that a switch has taken place    in         American life. The laws and institutional practices that heretofore disqualified or             limited minority access to the goods and opportunities of society now limit the     majority racial community instead. Whites, the doctrine asserts, are now the victims of “reverse racism.” (Broadside 77)

Telling the story of a black mother who comments on a child’s unconscious decision to drink from the water foundation as vastly different from her own experience growing up in America, Broadside claims that society’s memory for unpleasant facts is short. “Even the victims desire to forget. But they do so at their peril, not only because ‘those who forget their history are doomed to repeat it,’ but it is not history yet” (Broadside 77).

The results of, or lack thereof, education desegregation efforts was significantly impacted by the Coleman Report. Published in 1966, it was originally titled the “Equal Educational Opportunity” (Coleman 1996). Dr. James Coleman conducted research that included over 650,000 students and received its funding from Congress. It was revolutionary at the time due to its focus on equality of outcome, rather than just the equality of input. Dr. Coleman examined test scores to accurately gage success of integrated schools versus segregated schools. Surprisingly, Coleman pointed more to socioeconomic status than integration as playing a major role in achievement of students. Dr. Coleman summarizes:

Only partial information about equality or inequality of opportunity for education            can be obtained by looking at the schools’ input. It is necessary to look also at         their output, or the results they produce…. how much the students learn as           measured by their performance on standardized achievement tests (Coleman      1966).

 

Where Are We Now?

The focus on student achievement parallels the modern Race to the Top initiative. Race to the Top was initiated in 2009 under the Obama administration. This competitive grant program permits states to apply for funding, and a large part of evaluation is attached to standardized test scores. The school therefore places additional pressure on teachers to raise their students’ scores by awarding bonus checks to teachers with the highest performing students. This initiative has also instilled fear in teachers that they might lose their jobs if their students do not perform well on these tests. A pitfall of this initiative is that it encourages teachers to “teach to the test,” meaning to center their teaching around what will be covered on these tests. A criticism of this method is that students are taught what to think instead of how to think. As a result, students are graduating equipped with pristine resumes but an impaired ability to think innovatively in an employment setting.

Obama introduced this platform with the inspiration words: “America will not succeed in the 21st century unless we do a far better job of educating our sons and daughters… the race starts today” (Boser, 2012, p. 70). On the surface, this heightened focus on educating our country’s future, along with a 4.35 billion government subsidized dollars (Boser, 2012) that is funneled into United States schools seems to be a positive step forward. However, this initiative has been the source of controversy since its parturition five and a half years ago.

In this initiative, states apply for competitive grants. States have to commit to several key reforms. The first reform is to raise academic standards, and attach the standards to new assessments. The teachers and schools have greater accountability as a result of this initiative. Another change is an increase in the number of proposed charter schools per state. This is done by making it easier for charter schools to open and operate. A third change within this initiative is to encourage more highly qualified teachers by altering the credentials to teaching certification. The initiative promises to narrow the achievement gaps and raise the graduate rate.

“Race to the Top came under fire in a 2013 report by Joy Resmovits:

By not targeting out-of-school factors like nutrition and parental income, the          report says, and by focusing on teacher evaluation systems that often result in harsh consequences without much useful feedback, Race to the Top goals are         severely mismatched with its policies” (Resmovits 2013).

She bases her report on a since-disappeared article by The Broader Bolder Approach that claimed the Race to the Top initiative will not effectively alleviate the academic barriers faced by low-income students (Resmovits 2013).

Education researcher Elaine Weiss points to three mismatches between what the initiative set out to accomplish, and what is actually possible to achieve (Weiss, 2013). The first mismatch between Race to the Top policy and the education system claimed to bring every student up to proficiency. There is no evidence to support that any program could do this in the course of four years. There is an inevitable divide between what states promise, and the resources and time available to do them. The second mismatch is the policy agenda (Weiss, 2013). There is a third mismatch between the positive picture painted by the department of education and the skepticism actuality when actually speak with school leaders.

The Administration claims, “Race to the Top promises to help states and districts close achievement gaps and get more students into college” (Boser, 2012, p. 1). In March of 2010, the United States Department of Education announced Delaware and Tennessee as the winners of Phase 1 (Boser, 2012). In August of 2010, the Department of Education announced the winners of Phase 2. Among them was that the District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, and Rhode Island. The initiative is lacking research on the initiative, but the Department of Education has set a research team to uncover the effectiveness of the program.

Based upon the data currently available, Maryland has done well with the grant awarded to the state. It has trained a team of teachers and a principal from every school on the Common Core standards. On the other end of the spectrum, Hawaii has not made good use of the grant and in late 2010, the Department of education placed Hawaii in a “high risk” status. The pushback from some teachers and parents has not dissuaded Obama on this issue. He has requested that an additional $1.35 billion dollars be funneled into the Race to the Top program (Boser, 2012). In addition, the President also initiated a new program entitled the RESPECT project which was awarded $5 billion to “help schools attract, support, and reward great teachers” (Boser, 2012, p. 12).

Boser admits that Race to the Top is still early in its birth to have conclusive results; however, there are conclusive findings even at this stage. One of these conclusive steps forward is the advancement of the Common Core standards in states like Maryland: “RTT has done a lot to move forward the implementation of the Common Core, helping states develop robust professional development opportunities around the new standards” (Boser, 2012, p. 49). Although Hawaii stands out as not progressing at the expected rate, “most of the states appear to be meeting expectations” (Boser, 2012, p. 71). Boser cites poor communication efforts and political missteps as being behind the slower progress of Hawaii and Florida.

The overall positive outcomes rest upon objective standards, primarily the positive increase in standardized test scores. This quantitative research does lack crucial elements in determining whether we can call this plan “successful.” A closer examination at this program uncovers that “in New York, more than 1,000 principals have signed a petition protesting the new teacher-evaluation system” (Boser, 2012). School administrators find that this quantitative approach to evaluating teachers is not holistic enough to account for the natural acuity of some students that skews data from one year to the next without the teacher having changed any part of his or her curriculum. Feeling that this pressure on teachers to be the only unit responsible for the test scores of her students has initiated pushback from teacher’s unions as well: “teacher’s unions and other groups have taken issue with some of the program’s priorities, with teacher evaluation almost always being the most contentious issue” (Boser, 2012, p. 4).

Another important change resulting from the Race to the Top initiative has been increased power in the hands of the United States Department of Education. The department has “rejected amendments as well as made it clear that some states are not doing enough to execute their promises” (Boser, 2012, p. 71). This is very new. “Historically, the Department of Education has not had either the tools or the political will to push states in this way” (Boser, 2012, p. 7). In other words, there are strings attached to the financial grants. Along with accepting money, the states are also receiving stricter constraints on how to organize their curriculums. The fieldwork conducted for this project hopes to shed light on how the stricter policy is received by a school in Norwich, Vermont.

Backlash against Race to the Top also points to a hidden agenda to privatize school systems. The personal opinion of Professor Emerita, Nancy Carlsson-Paige, is that the competitive environment created in schools is “fundamentally demoralizing” (Resmovits, 2013, p. 3). Carlsson-Paige trains future teachers and claims that this program creates a top-down environment where teachers and parents are shut out of the conversation. This is especially concerting when one considers that teachers are the ones actively in the classroom, so they have the greatest viewpoint as to what will actually be both affective and achievable.

Carlsson-Paige expresses that currently fifty percent of teachers are retiring within the first five years now due to how unfulfilling the profession has become (Resmovits, 2013). In the past, the low salary attracted those who genuinely desired to make a difference in students’ lives, but the increased pressure to stick to tight curriculums that cover exactly what will be covered on the test has created an unrewarding environment that is not worth the low cost of living associated with the profession. One concern is whether enough time has gone by since the initiative’s inception for Carlsson-Paige to accurately determine the cause of the high turnover rate. Due to the fact that the initiative was put in place in 2009, and this interview took place in 2013, less than five years had gone by and makes the claim that Race to the Top has burnt them out a skeptical assessment. However, the rest of her points are very well articulated, and her focus on the demonizing of teachers is particularly effective.

Carlsson-Paige expresses that in order to push this initiative through, the government portrayed the education system as flawed with unqualified teachers that require higher accountability. The reality, she explains, is that the increase accountability does nothing except force teachers to teach to the test and this is not always in the best interest of the students (Resmovits, 2013). If anything, it forces teachers to think less of the students, and more about how the students will represent her as an educator which is not the same thing. While in the past, there was a good amount of time for an extension after a unit to expand on what the students learned in a fun and hands on manner—the part of learning that is actually fun and rewarding. Additionally, subjects such as social studies that are not covered on exams are dropped entirely from the curriculum. This is an extreme disservice to students who miss out on key geographical concepts as a consequence of the school achieving higher test scores.

Carlsson-Paige does desire accountability to ensure high quality teachers; however, she finds fault with the method in which teachers are evaluated on their proficiency. Test scores alone are not enough to determine if a teacher is good at his or her job. In addition to this concern, the program has created alternative means of certification, and Carlsson-Paige condemns the ability for a five week training course to permit individuals to teach in high need areas (Resmovits, 2013). Carlsson-Paige finds fault with the alternative means of certification as producing unqualified teachers, which is the opposite of what the program set out to do.

A final concern with Race to the Top is explored in Maimone Attia’s 2009 documentary “Race to Nowhere.” The film interviews past and present teachers, as well as students and administrators about the downfall of the increased academic pressures due to Race to the Top. Twelve year old student Devon takes her life after failing a math test (Attia, 2009), and Attia claims this inspired her to create the film. The documentary examines how the increased demand of what is covered on these tests to inform the teacher’s curriculum. The result of this is too much material to effectively cover in one year of school, and teachers compensate by piling on additional hours of homework. The result of this is that parents and students suffer arduous homework and struggle to teach themselves what the teachers don’t have time to cover in enough length (Attia, 2009).    The lack of time to cover everything and bring every student up to the same level is the exact opposite of the claim to narrow achievement gaps as Weiss explains in her article that is entitled “Mismatches in Race to the Top Limit Educational Improvement.”

In addition to the more material and tighter deadlines, students wrestle with a great un-fulfillment now that school is all about assessment instead of a genuine love of learning. While assessment was always part of the curriculum, the shift of it as the only requirement to not only obtain funds for schools, but to be accepted into top universities after graduating high school, has devastating consequences on the students’ psyche.

One female student dropped out of high school and alters her plans to attend college after spending four years killing herself to succeed, and still receiving one failing grade in an advanced math course her senior year (Attia, 2009). Ultimately, the un-achievability of the program’s goals, and the placement of regulatory power in hands other than those in the classrooms, creates a mismatch between what is desired and what is obtainable. Even in the areas where strides can be made, too much emphasis on quantitative assessment leads to burnt-out students, and an increase in the number of student suicides (Attia, 2009) and depression.

Race to the Top remains an inadequate resolution to de facto segregation, because it fails to bring black students out of the cycle of poverty that holds de facto segregation in place. Despite these challenges, hope exists to break the de facto segregation that Vivian Ikpa and Kent McGuire claim makes America regress to a pre-Brown level of segregation (Ikpa & McGuire 2009). In order to conquer our goals of educational success, we need to reach beyond practices that have been used and failed. Inspiration must come from adopting strategies from more successful countries.

Other countries possess similar ideals for their nation while simultaneously accomplishing success in schools and reducing US’s concerns. For example, Finland possesses a program that identifies high performing students in high school, and pays for their college education on the condition that they become teachers. This strategy results in a high incentive to pursue a career in education, and may be preferable to countries like Norway that invest heavily in education by raising taxes. Another positive approach includes increasing teacher salaries like Belgium does. The humility required to admit that we made a mistake, and to adopt practices held in other countries, immensely pays off in the form of a country that excels in education.

 

Sources:

Abeles, Vicki & Congdon, Jessica. Race to Nowhere. 2011. DVD.

 

Boser, Ulrich. Race to the Top: What Have We Learned from the States so Far? N.p.: AmericanProgress.org, 2012. 1-77. Print.

 

Coleman, James. The Coleman Report. Washington D.C.: ERIC.ed.gov, 1966. 1-736. Print.

 

Government. “History- Brown v. Board of Education.” United States Courts. Print.

 

Ikpa, Vivian & Kent, McGuire. Narrowing the Achievement Gap in a (Re)Segregated Urban School District. Charlotte, N.C.: Temple University, 2009. 1-182. Print.

 

Resmotivs, Joy. Race To The Top Competition Deemed ‘Impossible’ In New Report. N.p.: HuffingtonPost.com, 2013. 1-3. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/12/race-to-the-top-report_n_3910922.html

 

Traynham, Warner. “Reverse Discrimination.” November 1977. Broadside. Primary Source. Print.

Weiss, Elaine. Mismatches in Race to the Top Limit Educational Improvement. Washington D.C.: BoldApproach.org, 2013. 1-111. Print.

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