Today’s column is Escalating Downward: The Collapse of Public Schooling in the United States of America, by Floyd D. Hayes III, Ph. D., Senior Political Science Lecturer and Coordinator of Africana Studies, John Hopkins University. It is a straight-forward illuminating analysis of factors that deny quality public education to the children most in need.
“In April 1983, the National Commission on Excellence in Education of the 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.” Entitled, A Nation at Risk, it likened the devastation of public education to an act of war. “We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral disarmament.”
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 the South, installed the pupil management policy of tracking that effectively re-segregated many schools by channeling the majority of Black students into the lowest tract early in their educational careers. These judicial and policy decisions, and reactions to them, set in motion a continuing crisis in public schools 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 policies. Reasoning that poor education ultimately would hurt Black and white working-class children in Washington D. C., community leaders called for neither integration nor segregation; rather, they demanded quality education. They defined this educational goal unambiguously: 1) the distribution and mastery of 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’s system tracking policy, but the court claimed that racial integration automatically improved the educational performance of Black students. Liberal, and civil leaders, as well as educational managerial elites won the day and began to implement various racial integration policies using magnet school programs and other educational 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 enhanced Black students’ learning, overlooking the issue of quality education. 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 bussed 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 the nation. Ironically, (until recently) school budgets rose with 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 for Black students by applying various theories of cultural deprivation. Categorizing African-descendent as “culturally deprived” or “culturally disadvantaged” merely compounds and continues into the contemporary era, the legacy of cultural domination and the denial of Black’s 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 a historic and systematic conspiracy to deny them quality education is comparable to breaking a person’s leg then criticizing that person when she or he limps! This is a strategy for keeping the oppressed in a condition of oppression.
Since the late 1960s and 1970s, 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 were never taught to read effectively, never developed the responsibility of 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 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 left 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 political, 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 destitute.
Learning, therefore, needs to be increasingly understood as a life-long project an indispensable investment for social development. Educational credentials, more and more, will be the key to a person’s role in society. In the evolving post-industrial, 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 and 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 post-industrial, 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 can be contacted at e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.