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?
A perfect example of this is the No Child Left Behind legislation. While the goals of NCLB are on target and many states have benefited from NCLB funding, talk to America's teachers and they will tell you that the program has fallen short of expectations.
The rigid standardized-testing requirements of NCLB have resulted in many of our educators "teaching to the test." And when you teach to the test, you neglect teaching the student. So as this new school year begins, I believe it's time we view education through the eyes of our children and start to discuss how best to embrace this truth: Our children want to learn.
Learning While Black
As the Brown decision made clear, "Compulsory school attendance laws and the great expenditures for education both demonstrate our recognition of the importance of education to our democratic society. Today it is a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment. 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. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms."
But the high court also recognized that "[t]o separate them [black students] from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone." In short: "A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn."
And it is that "sense of inferiority" that still haunts African-American students today. Try as it might, the court could not, with the stroke of its pen, erase the systemic and enduring nature of segregation. In fact, such "state-imposed discrimination" would come to manifest itself differently in the latter half of the 20th century: through uncodified racial profiling.
We all have come to know racial profiling as the practice by which some police officers target racial minorities for traffic stops. Often it is referred to it as "driving while black."
There is, however, a more insidious form of racial profiling — one that has been with us far longer, and the impact of which is far more devastating: learning while black. More worrisome is that, for the most part, African Americans have been willing participants in the dumbing down of our own children, allowing them to become locked in a system of educational mediocrity. But why?
More important, as the scholar Dr. Walter Williams has asked, "Why do we tolerate something our ancestors would not?"
How Profiling Hinders Education
The answer to that last question is a dissertation all by itself, but the educational mediocrity that has stigmatized black children for more than a generation can be linked to how we allow our children and the communities they come from to be viewed and treated by both the educational and political establishments.
Look closely at how our society "profiles" minority neighborhoods — from "redlining" by banks and mortgage companies ("The subprime mortgage crisis brought with it a form of reverse redlining — in which lenders provided a glut of credit to neighborhoods once underserved by banks. Minorities also preyed on their own communities," reported the Washington Independent) to streamlining where hospitals and shopping centers are built.
So what makes us think that the schools our children attend will be treated any differently? Haven't you witnessed profiling of where the next school will be built (or what to do with the children while that school is being built), or which services (e.g., bus routes), resources (e.g., classes offered, computers, a library or even repairs) and programs will be provided? I guess it helps to live in the right ZIP code.
But the profiling doesn't stop there. When valuable options in educating minority children are presented (such as charter schools and "opportunity scholarships"), entrenched bureaucratic interests that have protected the current system rear up in protest as if threatened by the mere suggestion of change or choice.
Racial and economic profiling in education has become a clear and present danger to the success of black students and the future of the black community overall. We are leaving far too many children standing at the foot of the academic ladder than are able to climb that ladder.
From Education Week: "Just 12 percent of black male 4th graders nationally and 11 percent of those living in large central cities performed at or above proficient levels in reading on the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), compared with 38 percent of white males in that grade nationwide, according to the report from the Council of the Great City Schools [pdf].
"Among 8th graders, only 12 percent of black males across the country and 10 percent living in large cities performed at or above proficient in math, compared with 44 percent of white males in that grade nationwide. This slice of NAEP data shows just how stark the differences are: Urban black males without learning disabilities had reading and mathematics scores, on average, that were lower than white males nationwide with identified learning disabilities." This is the legacy of Brown?
Hardly. But at some point, African-American political leadership, parents and educators must confront the new reality described by The New Jim Crow author Michelle Alexander: "More African-American men are in prison or jail, on probation or parole than were enslaved in 1850, before the Civil War began," and do something about it.
The Time for Reform Is Now
Attending school board and PTA meetings are important because they are avenues for parents and teachers to engage each other — and more parents have to take this obligation seriously. But if we want to have a real, long-term impact on the education of our children, then it is time to support specific reforms such as expanding the pool of highly qualified teachers by reducing barriers to entry, or simplifying the process of alternative certification for teachers; creating charter schools; increasing the length of the school day and year; and encouraging private employers to provide parents and guardians with the flexibility to attend and participate in school-related functions that support their children's education, among many other reforms currently being discussed.
At some point we must rescue our teachers and their classrooms from an educational bureaucracy (at the federal and state levels) that has become the enemy of the good that is done on behalf of our children.
Nine years after the Brown decision, Martin Luther King Jr. gave us the message of a dream rooted in freedom and equality. That message resonates as much today as it did when it was first delivered. But more than the message are the keys King left behind for future generations to use to unlock the doors to their dreams and to the future of America.
But only one key can open every door; only one key can transform both a nation and a child: education!
Education empowers the mind and strengthens the spirit in a way that moves us from just sitting at the lunch counter to owning the diner; from ignorance of one another to understanding what connects us. This is the legacy of the Brown decision. Our failure to build upon that decision to actually provide high-quality educational opportunity for all of our children is a stain upon all of us.
Government cannot replace good parenting. No amount of money can guarantee student inquisitiveness or good study habits. But high-quality classroom instruction, proven teaching techniques and an educational and policy establishment that cares about more than simply spending levels would be a great way to start the new school year.
Michael Steele is the former chairman of the Republican National Committee and served as lieutenant governor of Maryland from 2003 to 2007. He is currently a political analyst for MSNBC.