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Looking Forward: Linking Educational Opportunity with Social Justice.
In the mid- 1930s, Du Bois (1935) wrote, “the Negro needs neither segregated schools nor mixed
schools but [quality] education” (p. 328). His words have proven prophetic. Limited school
integration in an unequal society has not, in and of itself, meant higher achievement for Black
students. In fact, while there were steady declines in racial achievement gaps on the NAEP in the
1970s and 1980s, it is unclear whether or not this can be attributed to desegregation efforts.
Clotfelter (2004) argues that, while its impact on achievement is inconclusive, desegregation maybe
associated with some modest gains in reading for Black students, no gains in mathematics, and
no impact (positive or negative) for White students. Attending integrated schools may also be
associated with more tolerant racial attitudes (an important issue in the increasing racially diverse
society). However, integrated schools (to the extent that they have existed) have failed to create
equal opportunity for all students, in part, because racial inequality in the society as a whole or
within the schools, in numerous cases, has not been directly confronted. As a result, reforms
designed to address racial inequality have failed on three fronts. Firstly, they have not sufficiently
addressed the racial inequalities that result from contemporary and historic discrimination. Instead,
the educational policies have often treated these inequalities as if they were a separate issue, or, in
an ironic twist of logic, suggested that these broader inequalities result from educational
limitations within communities of color. As the discussion above shows, even in affluent,
ostensibly integrated suburban communities, the racial inequality is stark. Educators need to attend
to this structural inequality if they seek to reduce racial achievement gaps in schools.
Secondly, the institutional inequalities within schools that contribute to educational
disadvantages for Black students have not been effectively addressed. These Black students are
consistently placed in the least advantaged locations for learning while their White counterparts
are often placed in the most advantaged locations. Efforts to transform the institutional practices
that lead to these patterns have often fallen prey to political conflicts driven by those who seek to
maintain their children’s educational advantages (Noguera & Wing, 2006). These school-based
inequities need to be eliminated.
Finally, the deeply ingrained belief that Whites are intellectually and culturally superior to
Blacks has not been fully confronted and dismissed. The intertwining of race and intelligence has
a long and troubling history. There is often a failure to acknowledge the powerful ideological role
that these ideas play in justifying structural and institutional inequality and potentially creating
psychological barriers of achievement for Black students (Steele, 2003).
While these structural, institutional, and symbolic issues are critical to reinforcing educational
inequality, reforms (including those emphasizing desegregation) have often been highlighted as
manipulating school structures. Whether it was the creation of the “one best system” of
bureaucratic school organization in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the push for desegregation,
especially since the 1950s, the move toward decentralization in the 1960s and 1970s, the school
restructuring movement of the 1980s and 1990s, or the current accountability and small-schools
movements, education reforms have focused mostly on changing the organization of schools (e.g.,
governance structures or student composition). In fact, school desegregation efforts have often
equated racial balance in student enrollment with educational opportunity. Bell (2004) writes, “In
school desegregation, the goal of equal educational opportunity became merged with racial
balance and busing as a means to its attainment. The rejection of the means was viewed as a defeat
National civil rights leadership has often resisted efforts to address the educational needs of
Black students by means other than school desegregation. But school desegregation has proven to
be an illusive (and not altogether effective) goal. While some measure of desegregation was
achieved during the period of active enforcement of desegregation laws (particularly in the South),
the current trend is toward increasing re-segregation (Clotfelter 2004; Orfield & Easton, 1996).
Researchers at the Harvard Civil Rights Project have tracked this pattern over the past decade and
found that Black and Latino/a students are currently far more likely than Whites to attend schools
with mostly populated students of color (Sunderman & Orfield, 2006). Whites, however, attend
schools in which the vast majority of students are White. Likewise, the typical Black or Latino/a
student attends a school with much higher poverty rates than the typical White student.
Given current population trends (the expansion of communities of color as a percentage of the
total U.S. and suburban populations), the incremental nature of structural change, and the
resistance to desegregation among Whites (Clotfelter, 2004), the typical school attended by Black
and Latino/a students should be expected to become increasingly populated by other Black and
Latino/a students who are low income. This means that one critical educational challenge that is
faced is to provide quality educational opportunities for students of color regardless of the race
and social class composition of their schools. While educators and lawmakers may push for
integration across race and social class lines and continue the struggle to make integrated schools
and communities as racially equal as possible, they must not allow the commitment to integration
to overshadow the quest for quality education for all students.
That quest can be advanced by studying the historic and contemporary contexts that have led
to success among Black students. Historically, African Americans have shown a strong
commitment to education, being among the earliest advocates for universal public education in the
South following emancipation (Anderson 1988; Perry, Steele, & Hilliard, 2003). Blacks also
created successful educational institutions prior to the Civil Rights era desegregation efforts
(Walker, 1996). The post-Civil Rights era is also full of examples of successful educational
contexts for African American students (Morris 2004; Perry, Steele, & Hilliard, 2003). However,
researchers and practitioners have not sufficiently learned from these successes and applied the
lessons from them to reform efforts.
Because students navigate an educational terrain with distinct advantages and disadvantages
based on race, educational strategies need to be adopted that simultaneously attack the structural,
institutional, and symbolic inequalities that characterize the educational system and society. This
means reconnecting issues of educational opportunity and achievement to the broader struggle for
social justice (Anyon, 2005; Rothstein, 2004). Indeed, the future of quality education for students
of color will depend in part (as it always has) on continuous activism by communities of color
within the political, economic, social, educational, and ideological realms. It will also depend on
an increased commitment among those in powerful positions to create social policies that enhance
rather than inhibit opportunity for all groups. However, given the slow pace of structural change
and the potential permanence of racial inequality (Bell, 1992), a more active search for strategies
that enhance educational opportunities is needed, even in the context of a separate and unequal
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