This “wait” has almost always meant “never.” … “Justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
—Martin Luther King Jr., Letter From Birmingham Jail
In honor of Dr. King’s legacy, a mentor-friend of mine, Peter Meyer, sent me an EducationNext report that shows that the achievement gap between blacks and whites first documented in the 1966 government-sponsored Coleman Report has hardly budged some 50 years later when compared to the most recent student achievement data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP):
In both math and reading, the national test-score gap in 1965 was 1.1 standard deviations, implying that the average black 12th grader placed at the 13th percentile of the score distribution for white students. In other words, 87 percent of white 12th graders scored ahead of the average black 12th grader.
What does it look like 50 years later?
In math, the size of the gap has fallen nationally by 0.2 standard deviations, but that still leaves the average black 12th-grade student at only the 19th percentile of the white distribution. In reading, the achievement gap has improved slightly more than in math (0.3 standard deviations), but after a half century, the average black student scores at just the 22nd percentile of the white distribution.
According to research by Eric A. Hanushek and Paul E. Peterson, the nationwide achievement gap is narrowing at a rate so slow that it would take 250 years to equalize the math learning outcomes (and a few years less in reading) of black and white children in America.
I think Dr. King would agree that such a long delay is justice denied.
The Coleman Report
I once read that Dr. King was worried that the groundbreaking Brown v. Board of Education school integration decision in 1954 would harm black children because it would remove them from supportive black teachers and place them in classrooms with white teachers who might think low of them and hold low expectations.
However, Coleman, a die-hard racial integrationist, asserted that the family backgrounds of students (i.e., education level, size, structure, amount of reading material), had a greater impact on student achievement than teachers and schools.
He wrote that “a pupil’s achievement is strongly related to the educational backgrounds and aspirations of other students in the school.” Therefore he sought to further the call for desegregation—in particular, court-ordered busing of black students to diversify white urban schools.
By 1975, however, Coleman realized that pushing for urban school desegregation had incited white flight, creating a new residential segregation between the city and the suburbs. Meanwhile, any integration that was left in the city was among poor blacks and poor whites, not the diversity of educational backgrounds Coleman hoped for.
Today, the education debate still rages as to whether forces outside of school influence student achievement more than schools themselves. While Coleman attempted to measure the impact of family backgrounds on student achievement, today’s debate has twisted his argument into pitting “poverty” against a child’s ability to academically achieve—something Coleman never did. In fact, Coleman never factored families’ income into his research and only mentioned the word “poverty” once in his 737-page report.
Educating Despite Poverty
Were Dr. King still alive would he have told Mississippi sharecropping parents that letting their kids walk three miles barefoot to a one-room schoolhouse was futile because the parents’ poverty and illiteracy would impede their children’s learning?
No, he championed the need for people of color to have equal educational resources as whites, to help sharecroppers’ children lift themselves out of poverty.
Dr. King also fought for fair wages, employment and housing for blacks in the South to curb poverty, but he never asserted that high-quality schools would be ineffective without those things being in place.
No one can do it all, so my strategy as a freedom-fighting educator is to focus on making schooling a rich and worthwhile endeavor for poor children of color, through equal funding, rigorous curriculum, high expectations and spiritually healthy teachers.
My fight is based on my being a Chicago Public Schools student who was born into poverty. I cringe when I hear statements that lump all low-income black families into one bucket, usually stereotyping them as placing too little value on education when the real problem is the lack of opportunity.
Numerous research studies today have proved Coleman wrong on one point—the biggest impact on student learning in schools is the quality of the teacher. Helping schools get better—not trying to end poverty—is where educators will see the immediate returns for their activism. Let the freedom-fighters who work in housing and economics focus on making their industries less poverty-prone.
I was born six years after Dr. King’s death and eight years after the Coleman Report, and the educational outcomes for black children as compared to those white children have virtually gone unchanged.
So I ask, “How long?”
It took nearly 250 years and a bloody Civil War for slavery in America to end, and if we don’t make education equity our top national priority it will take another 250 years (and perhaps bloody riots and street wars) to bring socioeconomic liberty and justice to African-American communities.
Waiting another 250 years to achieve educational equity might as well be an eternity.