Today’s column consists of excerpts from “Escalating Downward: The Collapse of Public Schooling in the United States of America,” a paper by Floyd D. Hayes III, Ph. D., Senior Political Science Lecturer and Coordinator of Africana Studies, Johns Hopkins University. His analysis offers important information for better understanding how public urban education continues to fail Black children, in particular.
In April 1983, the National Commission on Excellence in Education, U.S. Department of Education issued a report which stated unambiguously, “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, A Nation at Risk, likened the devastation of public education to “an act of war.”…..”We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament” (Not a new discovery.)
The collapse of public education in many big cities can be traced to the U.S. Supreme Court’s momentous, but flawed Brown v. Board of Education decision, 1954. Terminating state-sanctioned racist apartheid in America’s public schools was correct; reasoning that all Black schools were inherently inferior was not. Evading the court’s decision, many urban school systems outside of the South began tracking students which effectively re-segregated many schools by channeling the majority of Black students into the lowest track in their early years.
Black parents in many big cities fought urban public school regimes’, tracking policy. Residents in Washington, D.C. labeled the policy “programmed retardation.” Reasoning 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; they demanded quality education.
However, like residents in other urban areas, Washington’s Black community lost the political struggle for quality education. In 1967, the school system’s tracking policy was terminated but the court claimed racial integration automatically improved the educational performance of Black students. Civil rights leaders and educational managerial elites began to implement various racial integration policies, e.g., racial balance using magnet schools and other education experiments. Because integration is not an end in itself, but 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 public education, as if sitting next to whites automatically would enhance Black students’ learning, overlooking the issue of quality education. As a result, effective 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, America allowed its urban areas and their schools to deteriorate. School districts bused African American children to an expanding system of largely white and affluent suburban schools to achieve “racial balance.” This helped to destroy a sense of community in urban areas, as inner-city life became increasingly characterized by economic impoverishment, political disenfranchisement and cultural despair. The consequences are evident with the collapse of public education in urban areas across the 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 America’s Blacks as “culturally deprived,” or “culturally disadvantaged.” This compounded and continued the legacy of cultural domination and denial of Blacks’ 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,” given the historic and systematic conspiracy to deny them public education, is comparable to breaking a person’s leg, then criticizing them when she or he limps!
What is to be expected of youngsters from any racial, ethnic or class background if they have never been taught to read effectively, never developed responsibility for carrying out an assignment, never learned to follow directions, never acquired respect for knowledge or its purveyors and who never became masters of their own fate with self-discipline?
In the current stage of American post-industrial, managerial development, the collapse of public schooling is frightening. Continued public school experimentation with charter schools and policies supposedly designed to “leave no child behind” have had minimal success in large city school systems. And technical knowledge and the management of people have become the major sources of political and economic power. In this new age, failure to obtain a quality education will render the masses of people destitute.
Learning, therefore, needs to be increasingly understood as an indispensable investment for social development. Educational credentials, more and more, will be the key to a person’s role in society. But simply possessing certificates is not sufficient to effectively practice one’s knowledge. In today’s high-tech, increasingly global society, culturally responsive, knowledge-based performance and decision-making are necessary attributes of the educated person.
Educational, professional-managerial elites have betrayed a generation or more of urban Black American students whose educational underdevelopment undercuts their ability to develop and survive in a society that has grown cynically indifferent to human suffering. Faced with the possibility of an increasingly chaotic future, America, Black Americans, especially, may have few options—educational renewal, societal decadence or national decline.
Larry Aubry can be contacted at l .firstname.lastname@example.org