The History of Unequal Education
The History of Unequal Education —While the Brown v. The Board of Education, 1954 decision has generally been viewed as a landmark development in the struggle to dismantle racial inequality in American education and society at large, it was in many ways limited. The court’s rulings were unendorsed, loosely defined, and, by some accounts, underfunded as a federal mandate for public schools.
Institutionalized resistance by southern states prevented full implementation of the court’s rulings until 1968, when schools in the rural South were given a mandate that they must desegregate in order to be in compliance with federal law. Additionally, because of the Court’s focus on de jure segregation common in the South, the de facto segregation that had been practiced in the northeastern and midwestern states remained largely intact until the 1970s, when concerns were expressed about the education of minority schoolchildren in such cities as Pasadena, Chicago, San Francisco, and Boston.
The Brown ruling and the subsequent reexaminations of the American educational system it inspired called attention to the complex intersections of race and class in American education and their effects on academic achievement. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, which provided additional federal monies to schools with a significant proportion of poor or disadvantaged students, grew out of the concerns expressed in Brown.
Perhaps one of the most influential works of social science research in the immediate post-Brown era was James Coleman’s Equality of Educational Opportunity (1966), sponsored by the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare and commonly referred to as the Coleman Report. The study’s specific purpose was to evaluate indicators of educational opportunity among white and minority students (blacks, Puerto Ricans, Mexican Americans, Asian Americans, and Native Americans) by assessing educational quality in terms of the availability of curricula, school facilities, academic practices, and the academic characteristics of teachers and student bodies in schools.
Among Coleman’s chief findings were that while persistent and unequal separation by race was found to be detrimental as per the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown, it was the combination of the socioeconomic composition of the school, the familial and socioeconomic background of the students, and the nature of their peer groups that accounted for the majority of the differences observed in academic achievement between white and minority schoolchildren. Racial integration alone, Coleman and his associates concluded, could not improve the academic performance of poor minority children.
In a context where explanations for patterns of social inequality favored concepts of “cultural deprivation” among poor and minority communities, the report’s widely cited findings proved to be controversial. Commentators recognized that schools in and of themselves were limited in their power to change society at large. Conservative critics of educational reform argued that social science research had justified their resistance to increased educational spending for underachieving populations. They argued that this underachievement was the result of a “cultural mismatch” between schools and targeted populations. Others, such as Jencks et al. (1972), noted that only by addressing the underlying economic causes of race and class inequality could patterns in education be remedied.
Ultimately, federal educational policies continued to favor funding compensatory programs such as Head Start and remedies such as busing under the assumption that they would address the twin problems of differentials in academic performance and differential access to educational resources among minority and poor schoolchildren. In addition to encountering resistance from various segments of the population, these programs received mixed reviews of their long-term effectiveness, and the persistence of the gap in educational achievement for much of the 1970s continued to trouble reformers and policymakers.