Today’s column, “Escalating Downward: The Collapse of Public Schooling in the United States of America,” is an exception to academia’s accustomed disconnect with “real world” problems. The author, Floyd D. Hayes III, Ph. D. is Senior Political Science Lecturer and Coordinator of Africana Studies, Johns Hopkins University. Dr. Hayes’ analysis is straightforward, illuminating factors that deny quality public education to the children most in need.
“In April 1983, more than two decades ago, the National Commission on Excellence in Education of the U.S. Department of Education issued a report which stated unambiguously that “The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and a people.”
The report, entitled A Nation at Risk, likened the devastation of public education to “an act of war.” “We have in effect,” the report warned, “been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.” Many Americans seemed shocked for a time by the report’s findings. However, they were not a new discovery.
The source of the present crisis and collapse of public education in many of America’s big cities can be traced back to the late 1950s and 1960s, following the U.S. Supreme Court’s momentous, but flawed, Brown school desegregation ruling of 1954. Terminating state-sanctioned racist apartheid in America’s public schools was correct; reasoning that all Black schools were inherently inferior was incorrect. In a deliberate attempt to distort and evade the Court’s decision, many urban school systems outside of the South installed the pupil assignment policy of tracking that effectively re-segregated many schools by channeling the majority of Black students into the lowest track early in their educational careers. These judicial and policy decisions and reactions to them set in motion a continuing crisis in public school systems throughout urban America.
Interpreting the Brown ruling as an opportunity to improve their children’s education, Black residents in many big cities across America fought urban public school regimes’ tracking policy. For example, community activists in Washington, D.C. labeled the policy “programmed retardation,” declaring that tracking was more harmful than the conservative practice of racist segregation in the Old South.
Reasoning that poor education ultimately would hurt Black and White working class children in the nation’s capital, community leaders called for neither racial integration nor segregation; rather, they demanded quality education. Washington, D.C. community activists defined this educational goal unambiguously: (1) the distribution and mastery of the fundamental tools of learning: reading, writing, computational skills and thinking; (2) academic motivation and (3) positive character-development. Each of these elements was supposed to advance as students matriculated from elementary through high school.
Like residents of so many other urban areas, Washington, D.C.’s Black community lost the political struggle for quality education. In 1967, the celebrated Hobson v. Hansen case terminated the school system’s tracking policy, but the court claimed that racial integration automatically improved the educational performance of Black students. Liberal civil rights leaders and educational managerial elites won the day and began to implement various racial integration policies-racial balance using magnet school programs and other education experiments. Because integration is not an end in itself but only a means to achieve an end, the contradictions and dilemmas quickly became apparent.
Thus, educational managers and civil rights elites put forward racial integration as the singular goal of education and imposed it on public schools at all costs, as if sitting next to Whites automatically would enhance Black student learning. They overlooked the issue of quality education. As a result, good classroom teaching declined, the fundamental tools of knowledge were abandoned and positive character building was perverted.
Moreover, as White and later middle-class Black flight from cities to suburbs accelerated in the late 1960s and 1970s, America allowed its urban areas and their schools to decay and deteriorate. In the process, school regimes bused African American and Latino children to an expanding system of largely White and affluent suburban schools in order to achieve “racial balance.” This tactic helped to destroy the sense of community in urban areas, as remaining inner-city life became increasingly characterized by economic impoverishment, political disenfranchisement and cultural despair.
The consequences of this course of events are now evident with the collapse of public education in urban areas across this nation. Ironically, school budgets have continued to rise along with a growing ossification and inefficiency of urban school bureaucracies.
Adding insult to injury, liberal members of the educational managerial elite rationalized the denial of quality education to Black students by applying various theories of cultural deprivation. Categorizing African-descended Americans as “culturally deprived” or “culturally disadvantaged” merely compounds and continues, into the contemporary era, the legacy of cultural domination and the denial of Black human dignity originally articulated by Whites during the Atlantic slave trade and chattel slavery in colonial America.
To refer to Black Americans as “educationally handicapped” when there has been an historic and systematic conspiracy to deny them quality education is comparable to breaking a person’s leg and then criticizing that person when she or he limps! This is a strategy for keeping the oppressed in a condition of oppression.
These unfortunate educational trends and developments characterized urban and less affluent public school systems in the 1960s and 1970s. Since then, many suburban and more affluent public school systems also have been experiencing an educational crisis. They confront a growing rate of complex problems: functional illiteracy, violence, drop/push outs, discipline, drug use, teenage pregnancy, gang activity, teacher burn-out and bureaucratic ossification.
What is to be expected of youngsters from any racial, ethnic or class background who never were taught to read effectively, who never developed the responsibility of carrying out an assignment, who never learned to follow directions, who never acquired respect for knowledge or its purveyors, and who never became masters of their own souls with self-discipline? Under these circumstances, generations of young people are being educationally sabotaged in many public schools across America.
In the current stage of American post-industrial-managerial development, the collapse of public schooling is frightening. Continued public school experimentation with privatizing strategies or policies supposedly designed to “leave no child behind” have not proved successful in big city school systems. Yet, in the emerging society, knowledge and the management of people are supplanting money and manufacturing as the only sources of politico-economic power. Resisting the professional-managerial class’s cultural domination and intellectual imperialism requires that the people themselves come to view knowledge and its utilization as sources of power. In the new age of knowledge, science and technology, failure to obtain a quality education will render the masses of people destitute.
Learning, therefore, needs to be increasingly understood as a life-long project and an indispensable investment for social development. Educational credentials more and more will be the key to a person’s role in society. However, more than more possession of certificates will be the requirement to practice one’s knowledge. In the evolving postindustrial-managerial society that is becoming increasingly global, constant learning and knowledge-based performance and decision-making will be the necessary attributes of the educated person. Survival, development, and even struggle will depend on knowledge-based action.
Indications are that educational professional-managerial elites have betrayed a generation or more of urban Black American and Latino students, whose educational underdevelopment is undercutting their ability to survive and develop in a postindustrial-managerial American society grown cynically indifferent to human suffering. Faced with the possibility of an increasingly nihilistic future, America may have very few options: educational renewal, societal decadence, or even national decline.”
Larry Aubry n can be contacted at e-mail