Progress and Challenges 60 Years After Brown v. Board

Anniversaries that commemorate milestones in our nation’s history give us the opportunity to reflect and also to look ahead. For me, this week provides such a moment, as we mark the 60th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in the case of Oliver Brown et al. v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansaswhich struck down Jim Crow segregation in our public schools.

Secretary Duncan stands with students at the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site during the 2012 Back-to-School Bus Tour. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

Secretary Duncan stands with students at the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site during the 2012 Back-to-School Bus Tour. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

Has our country made progress since the 1950s? Absolutely. Nationally, our high school graduation rate is the highest ever, boosted especially by increases for black and Latino students. In our larger cities, where low-income families and students of color are concentrated, growth in student achievement is outpacing the rest of the country. And at America’s colleges and universities, non-white students now represent 40 percent of enrollment—more than double their proportion in 1980, shortly after the U.S. Department of Education opened with a mission to ensure equal educational opportunities for all students.

As someone born a decade after the Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board, I wish I could say that I can only imagine what a segregated school looked like. But in the 50 states and more than 300 schools I have visited as Secretary of Education, far too often I see lingering opportunity gaps, in communities isolated by race and income.

Brown outlawed the notion of “separate but equal” schooling or legal segregation, but it did not stop de facto segregation. Many school districts today are intensely segregated–as much as they have been at any time since after the death of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Many school districts that were desegregating in the 1960s and 1970s have since resegregated. And within metropolitan areas, educational opportunity and diversity can vary widely among dozens of urban and suburban school districts within a short drive of each other.

Today, about four in 10 black and Latino students attend intensely segregated schools, and white students are similarly isolated from their peers of color—only 14 percent of white students attend schools that you could consider multicultural.

By another measure — the roughly 10,000 complaints that my department’s Office for Civil Rights receives each year — inexcusable discrimination continues in too many places. Last year we resolved a case in an Alabama county where the predominately black high school did not offer the same level of challenging college prep courses as the district’s mostly white high school, which offered an array of Advanced Placement classes. In other places, harassment of students, teachers and school administrators has involved the use of Ku Klux Klan robes, nooses, and racist epithets.

Those are anecdotal instances of blatant discrimination and inequity in schools, and fortunately they are rare. Still, new civil rights data from all U.S. schools shows that as early as preschool, black students are disproportionately suspended and expelled. Students of color continue to attend schools that are disproportionately staffed by inexperienced teachers, with fewer resources and opportunities. These schools are commonly among the lowest-performing in their state.

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In May 1954, the Supreme Court concluded that the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ had no place in U.S. public education. In May of the following year, the Justices handed down a plan for how schools were to proceed with desegregation. (Photo credit: National Archives and Records Administration)

As the most flagrant examples of race discrimination have declined, new examples of discrimination and inequity have emerged. Cases involving mistreatment of LGBT students and immigrants learning English are all too common. And earlier this year, our civil rights office stepped in to end the practice in a New York school district of systemically reducing the grades of students simply because of their disabilities. So, if your child who needed accommodations due to his difficulty with reading got an A+ on his math test, that accomplishment got knocked down to a demoralizing D. What parent would be OK with that?

As a father, I want my children to attend school in a place that looks like where they will one day work, a school that reflects the diversity of the country in which they were fortunate to be born. Today’s de facto segregation denies students the many benefits that come from diversity, including the opportunity to learn from students of different backgrounds and prepare for the mix of viewpoints, abilities and global cultures they will encounter in their careers.

I reject the notion that we can’t reduce or eliminate the opportunity gaps that we see today. There are big things we can do, and there are big things we are doing now at the federal level.

Nearly every major policy initiative that the Obama Administration has advanced in education aims to improve outcomes for underserved students—from partnering with states to expand preschool programs to raising expectations for all students, ensuring quality teaching in every classroom, expanding the opportunities of technology through broadband, turning around chronically low-performing schools and expanding Pell Grants to pay for college. For the upcoming year, we are proposing a new program called Race to the Top-Equity and Opportunity, which would help states and districts close opportunity gaps and support teachers, leaders and students in high-need communities.

In 1954, Brown v. Board may have seemed like the end of a long struggle for educational equality. In fact, it was the beginning. We face a lot of challenges today in our communities, our country and on our planet. To solve the big problems we need everyone to be able to work together. No one’s talent can go to waste.

Arne Duncan is the U.S. Secretary of Education.

For teaching and learning resources about this landmark court case, head here.