Warren Simmons
Federal education reauthorizations must balance equity and excellence if we – as a nation – are committed to achieving the goals envisioned 60 years ago in Brown v. Board.


May 17 marks the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court decision that declared the unconstitutionality of state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students. This major victory for the civil rights movement paved the way for integration.

But how relevant was the framing of Brown v. Board to the current demographic social, cultural, and educational challenges facing urban school districts today?

Integration has many shortcomings as a path to equitable education. The Brown v. Board plaintiffs clearly understood that race was actually a crude proxy for equal access to funding for textbooks, curriculum materials, high-quality programs, and updated facilities. Segregation – whether by law or by practice – resulted in an inequitable distribution of fiscal resources for African American students, seriously hampering and undermining their academic achievement.

Brown v. Board proved challenging to implement, particularly since the justices could not have predicted the voluminous migration of African Americans to cities during the 20 years immediately following the decision. By the mid-1970s, most urban school districts were predominantly black – so despite the illegality of de jure school segregation, de facto segregation was widespread.

Today, trying to integrate populations in urban districts where whites and middle-income students are rapidly decreasing in numbers doesn’t address the real problems of inadequate resources for urban communities and the opportunity to learn challenge. Today’s solutions are much less focused on the social and cultural benefits of integration. They are concentrated more on how to build the kinds of learning opportunities necessary to close existing achievement gaps and ensure that all students have the opportunity to become proficient, based on our national standards.

I believe, however, that we, as a nation, have backed away from the commitment inherent in Brown v. Board and in the significant legislation that closely followed – to create a more equitable education system, particularly for students of color. At the time, our leaders were prepared to enforce federal policy in very real and visible terms, including enlisting the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division to escort the “Little Rock Nine” into Central High School.

In addition to that very public enforcement, the Civil Rights Act (1964), the Bilingual Education Act (1968), and Title IX of the Education Amendments (1972) each had sizable federal resources tied to them, and each was driven and supported by broadly based coalitions.

Furthermore, in the early days of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), passed as part of Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty,” and in the 20 years that followed, federally funded housing, economic development, community revitalization, and health programs were inextricably linked with education reform. These federal initiatives reflected the commitment to lifting the economic, social, and cultural well-being of poor communities. In short, there was a significant moral imperative to address the plight of African Americans.

However, since the early 1990s, education reform has been stripped of the kind of supports that families need for their children to have a legitimate opportunity to succeed academically.

The National Commission on Excellence in Education, which released its influential report A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform in 1983, shifted the focus from addressing the educational and social needs of disadvantaged African Americans and Latinos to achieving the goal of national economic competitiveness. The economic imperative argument, which would be powerful if everyone benefited, faltered as the wealth gap has exponentially widened in this country since the mid-1980s.

In the early 1990s, ESEA shifted focus again from a formula-based grant designed to provide supplemental federal resources to districts serving large concentrations of poor African American and Latino students to building the infrastructure for the standards-based reform movement: resources to states to develop assessments; accountability systems that provide incentives and rewards for educators, students, and parents to collaborate to help students reach the standards; and data systems to examine performance. But reauthorization in 1994, through the Improving America’s School Act, also fostered the emergence of charter schools – envisioned as an innovation incubator for traditional schools – though frequently used as an escape route from failing schools.

Even though the No Child Left Behind Act (2001) provided additional resources for standards and assessment development, it also provided the federal architecture for states to assume control over chronically failing districts, as recently seen in New Orleans, Detroit, and Providence.

So instead of ESEA serving as an equity lever where the federal government provides additional resources to target services and supports to disadvantaged students and promote racial integration, those resources were shifted to the development of the infrastructure for standards-based reform, with standards and accountability becoming the major lever for the achievement of academic excellence.

The problem with that approach is that those levers are very broad and don’t convey how those strategies can be used to address the learning needs of African American and Latino students, students with disabilities, and English language learners. It does not address teaching and learning models or requirements; in short, it’s not culturally responsive to the populations that comprise our urban school systems.

So now, in a more complex demographic environment, where excellence has replaced race as the banner of education reform, there are fewer levers to generate a moral imperative. We’ve tried to enact nationwide reforms aimed at achieving national education goals, supported by coalitions of business groups, policy leaders, and elite foundations, but those measures have failed to generate the political will to develop solutions that are more responsive to cultural and social conditions and aspirations.

Today and going forward, we need a new imperative that serves the needs of those living in poor communities and the rapidly shrinking middle class. We need schools that not only serve our country’s economic objectives but that also strengthen our young people and their families and revitalize whole communities. That imperative must be based on broad family, community, and economic development.

In East Baltimore, where portions of HBO’s crime drama The Wire were filmed, a new public school in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods aspires to serve as a community campus, featuring a library, community center, auditorium, and gym, as well as a hub for economic renewal. Operated by Johns Hopkins University, the school is the centerpiece of a $1.8 billion redevelopment plan that includes new science and technology buildings, a park, retail space, and mixed-use housing. The school, Henderson-Hopkins, opened in January and it remains to be seen if it – and the rest of the renewal project – will succeed. But as a New York Times article by Michael Kimmelman recently noted, it “flips the usual urban imbalance of power and changes the status quo of public education steeped in blight.”

What you see in East Baltimore is a school explicitly designed with a set of services that foster not only educational development, but also community and economic revitalization in an urban area where the poverty level was twice the city average. Henderson-Hopkins represents a broader and richer version of the community school concept, featuring not only services to students and adults but activities and programs that foster economic community development and housing revitalization.

In looking ahead to future federal education reauthorizations, the challenge will be how to achieve greater balance between aiming for excellence – by applying a generic set of strategies, high standards, and richer assessments to all students – and differentiating those approaches with supports that serve specific populations’ efforts to meet those standards. There needs to be a balance between equity and excellence if we – as a nation – are committed to achieving the educational goals envisioned 60 years ago in Brown v. Board. 

Prepared by:

760  Warren Simmons
 Executive Director
 Annenberg Institute for School Reform
 warren_simmons@brown.edu