Racial Justice 101

Racial Justice 101

In a presidential election year, few issues inspire more citizen anguish and less political substance than public education. This year is no exception.


In a presidential election year, few issues inspire more citizen anguish and less political substance than public education. This year is no exception. Although there are some important differences between the candidates–Bush likes private school vouchers, Gore wants public school choice–there’s a remarkable consensus about some common buzzwords: accountability, charters, standards, high-stakes testing.

While not without meaning, these slogans are a distraction from the real challenges and problems facing public schools. Both candidates, like too many educators, are particularly eager to evade serious discussion of the subject of this special issue (initially conceived by longtime Nation contributor Herbert Kohl): the ways that American schools perpetuate racial and economic inequality. The racial achievement gap–for which students and their families are too often blamed–is a national civil rights scandal of many dimensions: persistent imbalance of resources between urban and suburban schools despite a decade of slow-moving lawsuits; racism embedded in educators’ diminished expectations for students of color; exploitation of parents’ frustration by cynical politicians.

In that last camp, put the school privateers who have spent the past decade selling Milwaukee’s voucher experiment to desperate inner-city parents. Vouchers are now under consideration in twenty states, even though, as Barbara Miner (page 23) makes clear, they drain money from public schools, and there is no proof that they produce better-performing students.

But the fraught relationship between race and education also poses a profound challenge to liberal school reformers, whose own record of imposing top-down schemes is nothing to take pride in. At worst, such efforts turned into debacles like Boston’s school desegregation experiment of the seventies, pitting the most impoverished black and white neighborhoods against each other while leaving suburbs safely insulated. Well-intentioned progressive educators have also given the impression of not caring about the ordinary standards by which all parents measure their children’s success. As the experience of African-American parents in Montclair, New Jersey, recounted by Lise Funderburg (page 26) suggests, neither integration nor upward mobility is enough to eliminate the lowered expectations that often greet black students when they walk through the schoolhouse door.

Progressive education reform has always been about insisting on equality of aspiration. Yet the narrow reduction of “standards” to a battery of computer-scored tests has actually blocked that goal. Testing has precise, limited utility in identifying troubled schools, but high-stakes testing is now such a fetish that real teaching is being replaced by “teaching to the test,” particularly in poor and minority schools. In this national cram session, schools’ attention–as usual–goes to already high-performing students who can most easily raise a school’s average and make administrators look good. Struggling students are neglected, while some low performers–disproportionately African-American boys–are relegated to the special-education track. Test cramming is also colliding with well-established classroom curriculums and discouraging the most creative and effective teachers. Worst of all, as Gary Orfield and Johanna Wald observe (page 38), states and districts that have tied promotion and graduation to student test scores are now seeing a spike in dropout rates. It’s time to replace the testing fetish with redefined school performance standards that use tests as one among many measures, and that require all schools to achieve racial equity (Texas began doing that under Governor Ann Richards, although George W. Bush claims the credit).

The diverse educators and writers who speak in this special issue do not agree on everything–the forum, which continues a conversation that began at an Open Society Institute roundtable last November, airs a range of progressive views–but they do share bottom-line convictions about what really works. Schools should be small, supported by a close-knit community, responsive to the individual needs of students and respectful of the creativity of good teachers. Teachers’ unions need to expand their mission to serve the interests of students as well as members, and school district bureaucracies that stifle experimentation must be cut down. Charter schools, the reform catch-all of the moment, are not to be written off: Although some are the educational equivalent of ValuJet, crashing and burning at entrepreneurial speed, others–if governed by knowledgeable educators and subject to public review–have shown real promise. But while charters at their best are valuable laboratories, they are no substitute for sweeping reform of big school systems.

As Jonathan Schorr argues in these pages, liberals should not be defending school failure. There is a state of outrage among communities of color about the condition of schools and a crisis of confidence in education reform not limited to the parents of the poor. This special issue is designed to face that outrage and to engage the broad progressive community in an inclusive crusade for solutions.

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