John King Speaks with College Students About the Nation’s Failure to Fulfill Brown v. Board
Thank you, Sabrina, for the introduction. And thanks to all of you for the warm welcome to Georgetown University and for the honor of engaging in your fall speaker series. I’m heartened that the students here are studying education as a means to promote justice. Every child—regardless of race, wealth, background, zip code, LGBTQ status, or language spoken at home—deserves an education that opens doors to opportunity. Every child deserves an education that can help fulfill our country’s fundamental promise, which is that all people in America can make of their lives whatever they choose. That’s why the pursuit of equal educational opportunity is about so much more than education—it is a fight for social justice.
Six decades ago, W.E.B. DuBois observed that “of the civil rights for which the world has struggled and fought … the right to learn is undoubtedly the most fundamental.” But, today, in far too many schools across our country, we continue to deny disadvantaged and historically underserved students their right to learn by providing them with less. Less access to the most effective teachers. Less access to a rich, well-rounded education. Less access to the most challenging courses. And less access to the resources and supports necessary to thrive.
Low-income students and students of color, for example, are disproportionately located in our nation’s lowest-performing schools. These schools typically have half as many highly effective teachers and 1.5 times as many ineffective teachers as high-performing schools. Students of color also often lack access to a well-rounded K-12 education, including coursework that is a prerequisite for college. A quarter of high schools with the highest percentages of Black and Latino students, for instance, don’t even offer math courses such as Algebra II. And while Black students make up about 15 percent of the graduating high school class in America, they are just about 9 percent of those enrolled in rigorous Advanced Placement classes.
As a result, in part, of these disparities, 30- to 40-point achievement gaps separate low-income students and students of color from their peers on the National Assessment of Educational Progress and state academic tests. And even though we have the highest graduation rate from high school that we’ve ever seen as a nation, students of color and low-income students graduate at rates 10 to 20 percentage points below White and higher income students. Today, the most affluent students are still six times more likely to complete college than low-income students.
Tonight, I’d like to speak with you about the historical context for some of these inequities—especially for students of color—and how that history shapes the work of educators and education advocates. I’d like to discuss how, we, as a nation, have failed to fulfill arguably one of the most consequential promises that we ever made to our children regarding their civil rights in education … which is at the core of the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954. For students of color, disparities in educational opportunity and achievement are inextricably linked to our nation’s continued struggle to grapple with issues of race and bias. It is America’s brutal legacy of slavery and the imposition of Jim Crow segregation that first made the education of Black people a punishable offense and then established separate, inferior schools for Black children’s learning. And, sadly, especially when we bear witness to events such as those in Charlottesville just a few weeks ago—when we hear people chanting racist slogans and see people lifting up racist symbols—we understand that racism is not a relic of a bygone time, but a real challenge we still must confront today.
Georgetown University is doing encouraging work to take steps toward racial reconciliation. The school recently acknowledged that its very existence is tied to a past in which academic scholarship and the enslavement of African Americans are intertwined. In the early to mid-1800s, Georgetown was a young university that relied on Jesuit plantations in Maryland to help pay for its operations. The university also was struggling financially, and in 1838, sold more than 270 slaves to pay off its debts. The enslaved were grandparents and parents, pregnant women, children, and even infants as young as two months of age. The sale caused anguish and ripped apart families.
This past spring, the university publicly apologized for its involvement in the slave trade and rededicated buildings formerly named for those who played a significant role in the 1838 sale. Georgetown also now offers preferential admissions to descendants of slaves held by the university. As a nation, we can look back at our nation’s history and acknowledge that the forced servitude and sale of human beings is morally reprehensible. We can observe the events in Charlottesville and say that we condemn Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan. We can proclaim that we are against Swastikas. We can express outrage at the racism of yesterday and today. But we must do more.
To be true allies of equity and opportunity—and especially as educators—we must feel a collective sense of outrage over the injustices that still deny far too many children the ability to fulfill their God-given potential. We must feel, and then act upon, a sense of outrage that millions of children—especially those who are of color—still don’t receive a quality education. It should be unacceptable that, more than 60 years after the Supreme Court struck down “separate but equal” public schools, as a nation, we have not yet fulfilled the promise of Brown v. Board of Education.
This failure to deliver on educational equity manifests itself in the modern-day segregation of our schools. That many of our public elementary and secondary schools are more segregated now than they were decades ago is heartbreaking. It’s heartbreaking because of the progress that was made—slow and painful as it was—in the first few decades following Brown v. Board. Especially in Southern states—where the vestiges of slavery, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow were, and still are, felt the strongest—integration of public schools came after great struggle.
It came after lawmakers attempted to close schools rather than allow a single Black child to sit in class among White students. It came after school boards denied the enrollment of Black children in White schools based on racially biased psychological and intelligence tests. It came after local governments helped to establish taxpayer-funded private schools for White students, known as “segregation academies.” It came after fire hoses, and beatings, and threats, and school doors held open by U.S. Marshals.
But progress was made. In 1972, for example, just about a quarter of Black students in the South attended the most segregated schools (in which more than 90 percent of students were students of color). Unfortunately, today, we see that progress toward integration and diversity being rolled back. In Southern school districts that emerged from court oversight of their desegregation efforts between 1990 and 2011, more than half of students now attend the most segregated schools. Right here in DC, the vast majority of Black students both in the traditional public school system and in the city’s charter schools attend schools in which they have virtually no White peers. And a recent report shows that, nationally, the number of high-poverty schools that serve primarily Black and Hispanic students more than doubled between 2001 and 2014.
One well-understood reason why students of color are more segregated today in many places than they were a quarter of a century ago is because of White flight—White families moving out of racially diverse communities to neighboring districts with many fewer students of color. Another troubling reason is that communities in a number of states—mostly White and affluent—are separating from diverse and poorer school systems.
Recently, Nikole Hannah-Jones wrote powerfully in The New York Times Magazine about the re-segregation of Jefferson County, Alabama. The succession—or breaking off—of heavily White towns has divided the county into multiple and disparate school systems. The result is a set of districts that, each, is predominantly White or predominantly Black, making the school district boundaries around Jefferson County among the most segregated in America. The problem with the re-segregation of our nation’s schools is not just that students are more racially and socioeconomically isolated. It’s also that students of color who are concentrated in high-poverty schools far too often don’t have the same access to rich, rigorous educational opportunities and excellent teaching as students in other schools. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
We need more champions for equity, more champions for opportunity, more champions for children to stand up and say that all students deserve the very best possible education we can provide to them. That means offering rich educational and enrichment opportunities to all students that inspire curiosity and a love of learning while preparing them for success in college and beyond. That means ensuring students encounter their schools as safe, nurturing, and joyful places to learn and grow. That means providing more access to mentors and counselors and the wraparound services and supports that our most vulnerable children and their families need to survive. That means, as a part of building supportive systems and structures that help all students succeed, we, as educators also must engage in the difficult, but necessary, effort to challenge our own biases.
Especially as educators, each of us must take a critical look at our own attitudes and actions, and understand how they can be tied to assumptions about race and class. Race and class discussions are among the hardest to have, especially in education. Teachers and school leaders enter the profession out of an abundance of care for young people—and it’s painful to be confronted with the idea that what we are doing could hurt the ones we most cherish—our students. But, all of us have difficult work to do. Work to understand and address our implicit biases—which all of us carry. Work to understand what effective and culturally responsive instruction looks like. And work to cultivate classrooms characterized by empathy.
In many parts of our country, children and adults are rarely exposed to people who are different than them. In fact, one recent survey showed that 75 percent of White Americans have all-White social networks. Indeed, people are separated by neighborhood boundaries, school enrollment patterns, and differences in wealth that deny all of us the benefits of America’s rich diversity. But the reality is that the more separate we are, the weaker our society becomes. That’s why a critical part of offering children a world-class education also means increasing school diversity. Especially in today’s world, diversity offers a path to better outcomes and brighter futures for every child in America.
Research supports this notion. Students in socioeconomically and racially diverse schools—regardless of their own economic status—achieve stronger academic outcomes than students in schools of concentrated poverty. Studies have shown that students in integrated schools earn higher test scores, are less likely to drop out of high school, and are more likely to enroll in college. Exposure to diversity in school encourages critical thinking, problem solving, and creativity because students are exposed to peers who have different perspectives, experiences, and cultures. Diversity also offers the kind of contact and meaningful connections with people from various backgrounds that have been shown to boost empathy and reduce bias. Importantly, learning in diverse schools can help prepare all children—children of color and White children—for engaged citizenship, to contribute to our society and our democracy, and for the jobs they will have someday.
According to a recent analysis from The Century Foundation, there are 100 school districts and charter schools—educating more than 4 million students—across the country pursuing socioeconomic integration. In Montgomery County, Maryland, where my two daughters attend school, data show that children in public housing who attended the district’s most advantaged elementary schools performed better over time than those attending higher-poverty schools. These results were achieved despite additional per-student funding provided at the higher-poverty schools. And the presence of low-income children in the affluent schools did not negatively impact the academic performance of the more affluent students. Socioeconomic diversity policies often can lead to racial diversity in schools.
Cambridge, Massachusetts, for example, has implemented a socioeconomic integration plan for the last 16 years, and over 80 percent of students in the district attend “racially balanced” schools. Cambridge students also outperform their peers in demographically similar districts in English, math, and science. It’s important to note that integrating students in school buildings is only a first step toward increasing diversity and providing our children with the education they deserve.
To truly promote equity of opportunity, we also must do two other things. First, we must work to reduce segregation in individual classrooms. That means, for example, making sure that students of color and low-income students are considered for, enroll in, and get support to succeed in AP and International Baccalaureate and other rigorous courses. My organization, The Education Trust, recently released a brief showcasing how educators are expanding access for students traditionally shut out of college-level courses such as AP, and ensuring that they thrive.
Second, promoting equity of opportunity also means ensuring that our children have the opportunity to learn from diverse educators. Today, a majority of the students in our public schools are students of color, but only 18 percent of our teachers are teachers of color. Excellent teachers come from all backgrounds, yet there also is substantial evidence that exposure for students of color to teachers who share their background and experiences can have a profound effect. A recent study shows that Black students from low-income families are more likely to graduate from high school and consider enrolling in college if they are taught by just one Black teacher in elementary school. And other research shows that Black students are less likely to be suspended or expelled by Black teachers and are more likely to be identified for gifted programs by educators of their same race. But it’s not just students of color who experience positive effects by being taught by diverse educators. All students benefit when they learn from adults with a variety of backgrounds, perspectives, and experiences.
And for White students, it’s important to see people of color in leadership positions and as mentors and role models in their classrooms and communities. We need more policymakers, educators, and school leaders to take the lead in creating voluntary initiatives that increase diversity in our schools, especially because diversity can play an important role in helping our most disadvantaged students—from preschool to college—succeed. We have a moral imperative for this work.
In the early 1950s, the total U.S. population was nearly 90 percent White. Today, our population increases by more than 8,000 people each day—and nearly 90 percent of that growth consists of people of color. As I indicated earlier, a majority of children in our public schools are now students of color, and most students also are eligible for free and reduced priced lunch. If we fail to educate our young people of color and our young people living in poverty, we have no future as a country. And, so too, if, as educators, we fail the children who are in front of us every day, it is their lives that are at stake. I know this is true from my personal experience.
I grew up in Brooklyn in New York City. My mother passed away when I was eight in October of my fourth-grade year. Afterward, I lived with my father, who was very sick with undiagnosed Alzheimer’s disease. From one night to the next, I didn’t know what home was going to be like. It was an unpredictable and, sometimes, even a scary time. My life, at that point, could have gone in many different directions. But I am here today because I had amazing teachers in my public schools—at PS 276 in Canarsie, and Mark Twain Junior High School on Coney Island. My teachers, quite literally, saved my life. My teachers could have looked at me and said, “Here is a young African-American, Latino boy with a family in crisis. What chance does he have?” But, instead, they chose to invest in me. And they gave me hope. My teachers made school a place that was engaging, and challenging, and interesting. They made school a place where I could be a kid when I couldn’t be a kid at home. Through school, I was exposed to a whole world of learning and possibility beyond my home and my neighborhood. The investment that my teachers made in me saved my life. Those experiences in school saved my life.
I share this story with you because many of you are educators, aspiring to become educators, or will work on policies that will affect educators and schools. Know the indelible impression that you will leave on the lives of students—especially if you view your calling as one of increasing social justice. This past spring, at the Liturgy of Remembrance, Contrition, and Hope, in which Georgetown University apologized for its involvement in the institution of slavery, Georgetown President John J. DeGioia noted, “This is a moment for all of us to more deeply understand our history, and to envision a new future informed and shaped by our past and the values we uphold.”
Indeed, in examining our history we can glimpse a fundamental truth. It’s a truth that Martin Luther King Jr., illuminated when he said, “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.” It is this sentiment that each of us should carry throughout our work—for if we do, we can revive the promise of equal educational opportunity for a new century and for all of our children.