Sixty Years after Brown: Where is the Outrage?

Remarks of U.S. Secretary of Education to the Education Writers Association Annual Conference
Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee


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Press Office, (202) 401-1576, press@ed.gov


It's a pleasure to be back, talking with education writers again.

I know it can be tough with cutbacks in news operations to keep the beat thriving. But you do a great service to your communities, to teachers, to parents, to children, and to the full-range of education stakeholders by digging deep into our nation's educational challenges.

I want to give a special shout-out in this regard to Stephanie Banchero, EWA's previous president. She covered CPS when I was in Chicago and covered education throughout the Obama administration. She is a top-notch journalist—tough and fair—and I know she will carry her talent for examining education policy to the Joyce Foundation.

Today I want to take a few minutes to talk about a landmark moment that transformed our nation's schools. Sixty years ago, this past Saturday, the Supreme Court issued the Brown v. Board of Education decision, striking down Jim Crow school segregation.

I believe in my heart that education is the civil rights issue of our generation. I want to elaborate on what that means—and how the pursuit of equity runs like a ribbon through our Education Department's programs and the initiatives launched by President Obama.

We have all followed the backlash against Donald Sterling's bigoted remarks. It's a backlash that was entirely fitting. But as outraged as we are by the words of one man, where is our collective outrage over our nation's achievement gaps and the fact that millions of our children still don't receive equal educational opportunity?

In Brown, the Supreme Court struck down the "separate but equal" doctrine, affirming the value of integration. But a Supreme Court opinion can't fully make equal opportunity a reality on the ground—in schools, in classrooms, or in hearts and minds. So, Brown is not just part of our history. It is part of our future.

Sixty years after Brown, education remains an urgent civil rights issue for four reasons.

First, while Brown struck down de jure segregation as unconstitutional, de facto school segregation has worsened in many respects in the last two decades. Since 1991, all regions of the nation have experienced an increase in the percentage of black students who attend highly-segregated schools, where 90 percent or more of students are students of color.

Here in the South, more than a third of black students attend such racially-isolated schools; in the Northeast, more than 50 percent do.

As you know from your own reporting, educational opportunity and diversity can vary widely among urban and suburban districts within a very short drive of each other. In New York City, even a few blocks can make a huge difference, as state commissioner John King recently pointed out.

John called the achievement gaps between affluent and poor students "a disgrace." I agree. That disgrace is painfully at odds with the American promise that if you study hard and work hard, you should have an equal opportunity to get a quality education, no matter your zip code or skin color.

Second, education remains a civil rights issue because the Brown ruling sparked a sweeping expansion of the entire concept of educational opportunity. Brown helped propel the passage of IDEA. It helped drive the adoption of Title IX. It helped lead to the creation of Title I and Pell Grants.

This sweeping expansion of equal educational opportunity to protect disadvantaged students, girls and women, students with disabilities, LGBT students, and English-language learners means that education remains an urgent civil rights issue in ways that would have been unimaginable 60 years ago.

To take just one example, when Brown was handed down—in fact, as late as the 1970s—millions of children with disabilities were routinely denied access to the general classroom. Thankfully, that reality has fundamentally changed.

Today, we also have a much more sophisticated understanding that ensuring equal opportunity means more than just striking down Jim Crow laws.

That's a third reason why education remains the civil rights issue of our generation.

Today, we worry about both achievement gaps and opportunity gaps. Because we haven't provided access to high-quality early learning to all families, millions of children enter kindergarten already behind their peers at the starting line of school. That is profoundly unfair and educationally unsound. We don't do a great job of playing catch-up.

That's why President Obama's groundbreaking Preschool for All plan is not just an early learning proposal—it's a critical civil rights initiative.

And when children aren't getting the full benefit of educational technology because of their income or zip code, it's an injustice. That's why President Obama's Connect Ed initiative to expand high-speed Internet access to 99 percent of American students is also an equal opportunity initiative.

When students of color and students with disabilities are disproportionately suspended or expelled, and when that disciplinary action stems from discriminatory policies or practices, it's a civil rights violation.

We've known about this inequity for years. But not until March, when we released the Civil Rights Data Collection, did we find out that black preschool students—essentially four-year olds—are also much more likely than white children to be suspended. To learn that the school-to-prison pipeline appears to start with our youngest students stunned and horrified me.

Our expectations of what constitutes a world-class education have risen dramatically since Brown.

When I was growing up on the South Side of Chicago, you could drop out of high school and still land a job in the steel mill, the stockyards, or a factory. That's no longer the case. Now, you need a postsecondary credential or degree to have a fair chance of succeeding.

That's why, in a knowledge-based, globally-competitive economy, access to STEM courses and AP classes is also a civil rights issue.

The CRDC results showed that Black and Hispanic students account for close to 40 percent of high school students, but constitute just a quarter of students taking AP courses and exams, and only 20 percent of enrollment in calculus classes.

A new analysis that we have run of student access to advanced STEM and AP classes shows that American Indian and Native Alaskan students are much less likely than students in other ethnic groups to attend high schools that even offer AP classes, calculus, or physics.

And just 68 percent of black students—only two-thirds—attend a high school that actually offers calculus. By comparison, 81 percent of white high school students have the option of taking calculus, as do 87 percent of Asian-American students.

The bottom line is that students of color, students with disabilities, and English language learners don't get the same opportunity as their white and Asian-American peers to take the math and science courses that figure so importantly in preparing for careers and college.

This dummying down of expectations is devastating to young people, their families, their communities, and ultimately to our nation. We can't continue to relegate talent and potential to the sidelines.

The CRDC survey is an incredibly rich resource, a survey of every public school in the United States. I encourage you to dig into it aggressively to report local stories on educational equity, or the lack thereof.

The urgent need to close opportunity gaps is why the President's $300 million Race to the Top-Opportunity proposal is essential. It would provide money to states and districts to use data to identify and correct these disparities.

And it would drive resources—such as more AP classes, or behavioral supports that improve school climate—to the schools, teachers, and students that need them the most.

I would add that no one has been hurt more in recent years by low standards and a lack of accountability for student learning, growth and gain, than our most disadvantaged students.

Without accountability, there's no expectation that all children will learn. Without accountability, there's no urgency. Without accountability, without meaningful assessments of student learning, parents don't have an objective way to know whether their children are getting the education they need and deserve.

Without accountability, there's no imperative to face hard truths about our education system. And the hard truth is that our low-income students are less prepared than middle-income students, and our middle-income students are less prepared than students in many high-performing Asian and European countries. Accountability isn't just about low-income students—it's about all students.

Without accountability—without a straightforward system of knowing which students are learning—we cannot fulfill the promise of Brown. I know new evaluation systems are imperfect and can be unsettling for teachers. But tell me another way to figure out which teachers are succeeding and which are struggling, and how we can help more teachers excel.

We need to learn from states and districts where meaningful evaluation and high expectations are coupled with real support and teacher leadership—places like right here in Tennessee, and back in DC, Hillsborough County, Florida, and Denver, Colorado. Good things are happening for teachers and students in these places.

So, as you cover state and local efforts to implement higher standards—and efforts by some on the political right and left to walk away from high expectations and accountability for effectiveness and results—I hope you will ask the hard questions:

Tell us how low standards and a lack of accountability can benefit poor children?

Show us where children at risk will be better off if we just stop setting high standards, stop evaluating, and stop pushing for better assessments of learning?

We all know what that looks like—tragically, in too many places, it's the education system we have had for decades. Proficiency rates in some schools in the single-digits; high schools where half the students drop out.

In between my junior and senior year at college I took a year off to work in my mom's after-school tutoring program in inner-city Chicago.

One of the students I tutored was a basketball player at the local high school, studying to take the SAT. He was a great kid who had done all the right things, including staying away from the gangs. He was an honor roll student with a "B" average.

Tragically, I soon discovered that he was basically functionally illiterate. He was reading at a 2nd or 3rd grade level, and unable to put together a written paragraph. He had been led to believe, and honestly thought, he was on-track for college success.

The system—his schools—had failed him, not the other way around. But there was no transparency, no accountability for the system. Where was the outrage? The distance between perception and reality for him, and for untold thousands and thousands of our nation's students, is heartbreaking.

Ask parents, and they'll tell you that they are big believers in accountability and evaluation. So to my friends, my colleagues, my allies in public education—school board members, administrators, unions, and teachers—I want to say this as clearly as I can: Avoiding accountability will undermine public confidence in public schools. It will propel more parents to look elsewhere for educational options, and it will weaken the very system we all want to strengthen.

Since the time of Brown, what might be called the paradox of progress has played out in our schools.

Our students have made enormous progress, and yet the rising significance of education in the global economy has made America's large achievement gaps so much more consequential.

The progress since Brown has been nothing short of phenomenal—and it's obviously not just limited to the fact America has its first black president.

In 1950, fewer than 25 percent of young black adults completed high school; in 2012, almost 70 percent of black students graduated from high school on time.

During the same time-span, the percentage of young black adults who earned a bachelor's degree or higher increased seven-fold, from about 3 percent to 21 percent. But the catch is that for all our progress, it's not nearly enough to fulfill the promise of Brown.

The fourth and final reason that education is the civil rights issue of our generation is that sadly, discrimination continues to exist in too many places. Our department's Office for Civil Rights receives roughly 10,000 complaints every year.

OCR's job is to enforce the law. And that means telling a school district in Texas that they cannot punish a young woman for lewd conduct because another student raped her in a school band room.

It means telling a district in Colorado that they cannot ignore a hostile environment for Latino students and staff.

It means telling schools in a New York county that they cannot systematically reduce the grades of students with disabilities by a multiple of 0.69.

And it means telling a principal in rural Alabama that he cannot justify disparities in offering AP courses at predominantly-minority high schools because he feels black students can't succeed in advanced courses.

So for these four reasons, education is very much the leading civil rights issue of our generation: School re-segregation; the expanded reach of laws regulating equal opportunity; the elevated importance of education and opportunity gaps; and the continued persistence of discrimination. All combine to make closing opportunity gaps an educational, economic, and moral imperative.

Unfortunately, in 2014, we don't treat inequality and inequity in schools with the urgency and seriousness of purpose it deserves. Too many Americans today have become complacent about our educational performance. And it wasn't always that way.

After the tribulations of the Civil War, Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote that the freedman, "pleaded for teachers as a necessity of life."

When America was buffeted by a massive wave of immigration a century ago, parents started a grass-roots movement to create public high schools. The book Middletown, a classic study of life in Indiana, reported that education then "evoke[d] the fervor of a religion, a means of salvation, among a large section of the population."

During the desegregation orders of the 1950s and 1960s, people marched to protest Jim Crow schools. They were beaten, spat on, fire-hosed, and even killed.

Can we honestly say today that in the U.S., education "evokes the fervor of a religion and a means of salvation?" Can we honestly say that we plead for great "teachers as a necessity of life?" I don't think so.

Regrettably, education is a second-tier or even third-tier issue in many local, state, and national elections. It rarely comes up in presidential debates. My guess is that some reporters in this room share my concern that education isn't treated with more seriousness at the local or national level.

Nor is the problem limited to K-12 education.

The federal government provides more than $150 billion a year to college students and institutions of higher education. And yet parts of the higher education establishment have reacted with dismay at the very idea that the federal government—with significant public input—would seek to create a ratings system that gives students and families a better sense of the value of their college education and taxpayers' $150 billion investment.

So I want to encourage you to use your knowledge, expertise, and passion to combat complacency, to ask the hard questions about accountability, and to awaken more people to the real-world toll of educational inequity.

Your colleague Amanda Ripley came up with an innovative way to study education in America. She spent time both with U.S. students who did a year abroad, and with students from other countries who went to school here.

She concluded in her recent book that students in high-performing countries are doing better than in the U.S. because they are more serious about school. And that seriousness, that sense of educational purpose, has its roots in policy and culture.

The high-performing counties she looked at set high standards for what students should learn, and measured mastery with tests that mattered—just as states in the U.S. are starting to do.

At a panel I moderated with Amanda, students from South Korea, Brazil, Germany, and Australia all said that school here was easier than at home, even if they were attending top high schools here.

Korea is one nation that takes education seriously. Korean teachers get extra pay and career rewards for working with the neediest kids. Their children who need more, get more; our children who need more, get less.

Now, both Korean and U.S. citizens believe that the caliber of teachers matters tremendously. The difference is: They act on their belief. We don't. We talk the talk, and they walk the walk.

Here in the U.S., I don't know of a single school district out of more than 15,000 that identifies the most successful, hardest-working teachers and principals, and systematically provides incentives and support so that they can help the communities and schools who need the most help.

I don't know of a single district that systematically identifies every student who needs longer school days, after-school enrichment, and longer school years to be successful, and provides it to them.

We have well-documented achievement gaps and opportunity gaps. But more importantly, we have a courage gap and an action gap.

What is outrageous is that we don't have a knowledge gap—we know the importance of extra time and getting great teachers and principals before the children who need them the most. Until adults show the courage to close the action gap, we won't be putting children's needs first. We will simply continue to admire the problem.

My challenge to you would be to either find districts that are striving to close the action gap, or prod districts about why they aren't doing a better job of getting students the support they need to close achievement gaps.

President Obama's Race to the Top-Equity and Opportunity proposal asks states, districts, and schools to take a hard look at expenditures against outcomes to answer exactly that question.

In fact, nearly every major educational initiative that the Obama administration has advanced aims to improve outcomes for underserved students—from the Preschool for All initiative to expanding Pell Grants.

For all the challenges in ensuring equal opportunity, the history of Brown also provides optimism for thinking we can make genuine progress in expanding equity.

In the years of massive resistance after Brown, it is easy to forget that many people thought that the South would never integrate its classrooms. But as it turned out, Southern schools made substantial progress toward integration in the mid-1960s.

It's true that the fight for equity requires political courage and hard work. Even common-sense steps can take uncommon courage.

In fact, that's the path that leaders here in Tennessee have followed in recent years, tackling the tough issues head-on. First, a Democratic governor, and now, a Republican governor of the state committed themselves to doing better and challenging the status quo. They wanted to walk the walk.

Tennessee, which had one of the lowest bars in the country for proficiency, raised its academic standards in 2010—even though the proportion of students rated proficient in math dropped from 91 percent to 35 percent, in grades three through eight. We all know true proficiency didn't actually go down—honesty simply went up.

The results for student achievement? Those controversial but common-sense decisions helped make Tennessee the only state that reported a striking jump in math and reading achievement in both fourth grade and eighth grade on the 2013 NAEP. While it still has a long way to go, Tennessee is now the fastest-improving state in the nation.

Tennessee's example, and the history of Brown, gives me great optimism, to paraphrase Dr. King, that the moral arc of our schools is long but it bends toward justice—and justice means true equity and opportunity for all.

Your reporting, your truth-telling can help make our nation and our school leaders fulfill the promise that in America, education is, and must be, the great equalizer.

Your investigative skills and your expertise can make Brown not a hallmark of the past but a harbinger of the future.

Thank you—and now I'd like to open up for questions.