Saturday, September 10, 2011

Education for Social Equity

The first two landmarks in American education in the post-WW2 era are Brown v. Board of Education and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).  Both were reflections of a new focus, during a period of economic growth, on using the education system as a tool to promote social equity.

Brown v. Board of Education marked the beginning of the Civil Rights movement.  The result of this 1954 Supreme Court case was an active effort to desegregate schools, with the intent of improving the quality of education for African American children.  As the saying goes, separate is inherently unequal, and segregated black schools suffered from lack of funding and resources.  In actuality, though, the project of school desegregation was another excellent way of placating those who might challenge the system, without significantly altering any social reality.  Desegregation did not close achievement gaps or erase the correlation between race and poverty.  What did end up happening was that African American students were often relegated to lower academic tracks (the tracking system, in which students within a single school receive differential education, supposedly according to their abilities and needs, was still popular for several more decades) and were subject to lowered expectations and discrimination by their teachers.  Of course, I do not believe that desegregation in itself is bad, nor do I wish to see the schools resegregated, however schools alone cannot solve structural racism.  To the contrary, educational reforms are limited by structural racism.

The ESEA of 1965 was part of President Johnson's "War on Poverty."  Among other things, it provided funds (the famous Title I funding) to impoverished schools and districts.  The hope here was that poverty, and the educational achievements gaps that went along with it, were simply the result of a lack of money.  Hence, providing money to those in need would eliminate these gaps and help raise children out of poverty.  Once again, this did more to make people feel good that something was being done, rather than do anything about poverty - or the quality of education received by those living in poverty.  Poverty is a structural problem and cannot be solved with money.  Even with Title I funds, children from blighted areas do not reach the same levels of proficiency, on average, as their more well-to-do peers.

"Panacea" is a word that is commonly used in the field of education.  That is because educators constantly have to remind themselves and others that education is not a panacea for social problems.  In fact, it is quite the opposite:  educational equity begins with social equity.

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