Learning While Black

Racial and economic profiling in education endangers black students' success. Why put up with it?


Fifty-seven years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the standard of “separate but equal” in our education system was one that is fundamentally unequal — and, moreover, is un-American, unconstitutional and immoral.

In the nearly 60 years since the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, we have seen incredible progress. But we have also witnessed a steady decline in the performance and self-esteem of our children as they grapple with a cumbersome and often myopic educational system.  

Sadly, far too many students entering classrooms this fall have already been taken hostage by the politics of the moment and a zero-sum mentality in education that serves no purpose. The truth is, there remain inherent disparities in our education system that have eaten away at the very spirit of the Brown decision.

For too long, federal and state bureaucrats have talked about what they want to do for education without an appreciation for what they have already done to education: made it harder to bring our education system into the 21st century.

In my 2005 report on the state of education in Maryland during my term as lieutenant governor, I noted, “The most important work of a free society, other than defending its very existence, is the education of its population. For Maryland to be serious about preparing all of its children to succeed in tomorrow’s America, it must provide for consistent, high quality instruction and stable, effective leadership in all of its schools.

“In the fast-changing world that future generations will inhabit, the highest quality education can no longer be viewed as a privilege of the few. It must be the norm for every child. Any other course of action will doom our future generations in Maryland and our nation to a second-class status.”

Legislation Alone Doesn’t Work

Such clarion calls for reforms and the creation of realistic standards have largely been met with a mixed response from educational professionals and parents. From Maryland to California, we’ve applauded every form of experimental methodology there is, but somehow we’ve forgotten how to do the basics.

As Dr. John Jackson, president of the Schott Foundation for Public Education, recently noted, “We cannot become so affixed on the spotlights that we constructively ignore the larger headlights from the train wreck facing our country by the 1.2 million [American students] we are losing each year [as they drop out of school]. We have too often settled for the sweet taste of minor success over stomaching the bitter taste of the reality that without systemic reform we are winning some battles, but largely still losing the war.”

It’s not enough merely to pass legislation; a lot of people feel good when that happens. But shouldn’t that legislation make sense — and work? And shouldn’t those very same legislators at some point assess the value of their legislation to students and teachers, as well as its impact?