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Lenses on Brown's Legacy

These charts illustrate what research has made clear: that schools and communities remain racially segregated 60 years after Brown, and economic and educational inequities continue to divide along lines of race. But these charts also raise questions for me—about why, how, and what else—that complicate any simplistic rendering of Brown's "legacy." I offer below three lenses that I hope will help to trouble the conversation.


Kevin Kumashiro

Lens #1: Interconnected Problems. Brown, together with the Civil Rights Act, did increase school integration in the 1960s and '70s, but when desegregation programs began expiring in the 1980s and districts returned to residence as the basis for school assignment, schools resegregated because neighborhoods are segregated and have been increasingly so over time. Racial inequities permeate all social institutions, and therefore, addressing inequities in education cannot be done without addressing inequities in other connected arenas.

Lens #2: Problematic Scripts. When steeped in the rhetoric of "equal educational opportunity" and "leaving no child behind," it is easy to conclude that the persistent economic and educational inequities illustrated in these charts are signs that public education has failed. But throughout history schools have been designed to sort students (by race, social class, gender, and so on) and have functioned successfully so, even if how they do so has changed over time, which means that achievement gaps are actually signs that public education has succeeded. This does not mean that we give up on public education because history also tells us that schools are sites of struggle, of culture wars, of ideological battles over who we are and what we are to become. To enter this struggle, we need to insist on naming the ways that schools continue to benefit some more than others, and ways that certain "reforms" are actually widening these gaps, in coordinated ways, even while claiming to close them.

Lens #3: Coordinated Strategies. During the 1960s-'80s, as schools were becoming increasingly integrated, we also saw the rise of multicultural curriculum in classrooms, more communities of color growing their own teachers, more community involvement in governance, more federal funding targeting underserved students, and a narrowing of the achievement gap. But opponents of the civil rights movement were similarly (and more effectively) coordinated in their efforts to shape policy and public consciousness, eventually turning attention in the 1980s-'90s to public education. They called, for example, not for desegregation programs, but school choice programs; not multicultural curriculum, but "back to basics;" not diversity among teachers, but alternative routes to teaching; and not increased federal funding for targeted groups, but state disinvestment of public schools. We are now in the third decade of an era when standards, testing, rewards, and punishment have become the "common sense" of school reform.

The last 60 years reveal a complex picture of how a new common sense has emerged that masks the real problems and possibilities of public education. The legacy of Brown calls on this nation to once again build a movement to remake public education to advance equity and justice for all.

Kevin Kumashiro is the dean of the school of education at the University of San Francisco, and the president of the National Association for Multicultural Education.  He is the author of several books on education and social justice, including most recently, Bad Teacher!: How Blaming Teachers Distorts the Bigger Picture (Teachers College Press, 2012).

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