Janresseger: New Brief Examines Injustice in U.S. Public Education Fifty Years After the Kerner Commission Report

Fifty years ago, on March 1, 1968, President Lyndon Johnson’s National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders released what has come to be known as the Kerner Commission Report (named for the Commission’s chair, Otto Kerner, then governor of Illinois), which concluded that the United States was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.”  This week, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the release of that report, the Milton Eisenhower Foundation published a new book-length report, Healing Our Divided Society: Investing in America Fifty Years after the Kerner Report.  The new book is a multi-disciplinary assessment, to be accompanied by a series of academic conferences, beginning this week at the University of California at Berkeley, and—specifically on the report’s conclusions about public education—at George Washington University.

We can read about the new report’s findings about public education—from the chapter written by Stanford University’s Linda Darling-Hammond—in a short brief released this week by the Learning Policy Institute. Darling-Hammond begins: “Without major social changes, the (Kerner) Commission warned, the U.S. faced a ‘system of apartheid’ in its major cities. Today, 50 years after the report was issued, that prediction characterizes most of our large urban areas, where intensifying segregation and concentrated poverty have collided with disparities in school funding to reinforce educational inequality. While racial achievement gaps in education have remained stubbornly large, segregation has been increasing steadily, creating a growing number of apartheid schools that serve almost exclusively students of color from low-income families. These schools are often severely under-resourced, and they struggle to close academic gaps while underwriting the additional costs of addressing the effects of poverty-hunger, homelessness, and other traumas experienced by children and families in low income communities.”

Most of us construct our understanding of the world as we observe our own particular communities.  If one doesn’t live in one of America’s big cities, it might be possible to have missed the following trends:

  • “U.S. childhood poverty rates have grown by more than 50% since the 1970s and are now by far the highest among OECD nations, reaching 22% in the latest published statistics.”
  • “In most major American cities, a majority of African American and Latino students attend public schools where at least 75% of students are from low-income families… For example, in Chicago and New York City, more than 95% of both Black and Latino students attend majority-poverty schools….”
  • “Today, about half as many Black students attend majority White schools (just over 20%) as did so in 1988, when about 44% did so.”
  • “In most states, the wealthiest (school) districts spend at least two to three times what the poorest districts can spend per pupil…. Furthermore, the wealthiest states spend about three times what the poorer states spend.”

Certainly public policy has failed to address these trends.  Since No Child Left Behind was signed into law in January of 2002, our society has tested all children in grades 3-8 and once in high school, and then imposed sanctions on the schools unable quickly to raise test scores. The idea was to press teachers to expect more and work harder. The consequence has instead been a rush to blame the schools and teachers where scores remain low and to punish the lowest-scoring five percent of schools with mandated turnarounds—fire the teachers and principal or close the school, or turn it over to a charter school manager.

Darling-Hammond traces a mass of factors showing that as a society we identified the wrong problem, satisfied ourselves with blaming somebody, and ignored our responsibility collectively to confront primary social injustices that are the real cause of achievement gaps.  What we accomplished instead was discrediting public education and undermining support for teachers.

Darling-Hammond believes our problem is that we have stopped trying to do anything about racial and economic segregation: “In a study of the effects of court-ordered desegregation on students born between 1945 and 1970, economist Rucker Johnson found that graduation rates climbed by 2 percentage points for every year a Black student attended an integrated school… The difference was tied to the fact that schools under court supervision benefit from higher per-pupil spending and smaller student-teacher ratios… During the 1960s and ’70s, many communities took on efforts like these.  As a result, there was a noticeable reduction in educational inequality in the decade after the original Kerner report…. (S)ubstantial gains were made in equalizing both educational inputs and outcomes. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 targeted resources to communities with the most need, recognizing that where a child grows up should not determine where he or she ends up… However, the gains from the Great Society programs were pushed back during the Reagan administration, when most targeted federal programs supporting investments in college access and K-12 schools in urban and poor rural areas were reduced or eliminated, and federal aid to schools was cut from 12% to 6% of a shrinking total…By 1991, stark differences had reemerged between segregated urban schools and their suburban counterparts, which generally spent twice as much on education.”

About our current era, Darling-Hammond is very clear: “Despite a single-minded focus on raising achievement and closing gaps during the No Child left Behind era (from 2002 until 2015), many states focused on testing without investing in the resources needed to achieve higher standards.”  One investment that is affected by school funding is in the credentials of the teachers, explains Darling-Hammond: “In combination, teachers’ qualifications can have substantial effects. One large research study demonstrates: (S)tudents’ achievement growth was significantly higher if they were taught by a teacher who was certified in his or her teaching field, fully prepared upon entry (rather than entering through the state’s alternative… route), had higher scores on the teacher licensing test, graduated from a competitive college, (and) had taught for more than 2 years, or was Nationally Board Certified.”

Darling-Hammond concludes that to support our most vulnerable children and their schools, we will need radically to rethink our foundational values: “To survive and prosper, our society must finally renounce its obstinate commitment to educational inequality and embrace full and ambitious opportunities to learn for all our children. Although education is a state responsibility, federal policy is also needed to ensure that every child has access to adequate school resources, facilities, and quality teachers.”

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Jan Resseger

Before retiring, Jan Resseger staffed advocacy and programming to support public education justice in the national setting of the United Church of Christ—working to improve the public schools that serve 50 million of our children, reduce standardized testing, ensure attention to vast opportunity gaps, advocate for schools that welcome all children, and...