They blamed students who lacked “grit,” teachers who sought tenure, and parents who knew too much. They declared school funding isn’t the problem, an elected school board is an obstacle, and philanthropists know best.
They published self-fulfilling prophecies connecting zip-coded school ratings, teacher performance scores, and real estate values. They viewed Brown v. Board as skin-deep and sentimental, instead of an essential mandate for democracy.
They implied “critical thinking” was possible without the Humanities, that STEM alone makes us vocationally relevant, and that “coding” should replace recess time. They cut teacher pay, lowered employment qualifications, and peddled the myth anyone can teach.
They instructed critics to look past poverty, inequality, residential segregation, mass incarceration, homelessness, and college debt to focus on a few heartwarming (and yes, legitimate) stories of student resilience and pluck.
They designed education conferences on “data-driven instruction,” “rigorous assessment,” and “differentiated learning” but showed little patience for studies that correlate student performance with poverty, trauma, a school-to-prison pipeline, and the decimation of community schools.
Masking the real history of high school in America also helps the DeVoses of the world obscure legitimate problems the education system has always faced—problems that have been deliberately created and maintained. Funding inequality and racial segregation are rarely the focus of these sorts of stories about an ever-unchanging educational system. The dominant narrative instead tends to point to teachers or curricula, or even bells and early start times, as the reason schools are “broken” and that students aren’t being adequately prepared for the future.
Unschooling flow: Twitterstorian threads on the birthday of Ruby Bridges -> Chapter 4 of “Democracy in Chains” on school desegregation and the Byrd machine -> Drunk History on the Children’s March -> Fables of Faubus by Charles Mingus
Thus, charters have become the white flight academies of the South. National corporations whose workforce is diverse should avoid North Carolina, to avoid humiliating their executives and other employees. Jesse Helms, George Wallace, and Storm Thurmond would be proud to see their dream of school choice and segregation revived in North Carolina.
The most salient feature of the United States Public School System – both yesterday and today – is naked, unapologetic segregation.
Whether it be in 1954 when the Supreme Court with Brown v. Boardmade it illegal in word or today when our schools have continued to practice it in deed. In many places, our schools at this very moment are more segregated than they were before the Civil Rights movement.
That’s just a fact.
But what’s worse is that we don’t seem to care.
And what’s worse than that is we just finished two terms under our first African American President – and HE didn’t care. Barack Obama didn’t make desegregation a priority. In fact, he supported legislation to make it worse.
Charter schools, voucher schools, high stakes standardized testing, strategic disinvestment – all go hand-in-hand to keep America Separate and Unequal.
If there is one unstated axiom of our American Public School System it is this: the worst thing in the world would be black and white children learning together side-by-side.
I think of “A Nation at Risk” as the Gulf of Tonkin incident or “Iraq has WMD’s” of education reform, a decades long war launched by a lie.
And like Vietnam and the Iraq invasion, “A Nation at Risk” was motivated not by reason or empirical evidence, but faith and ideology.
“Education is the civil rights issue of our time” has become such a cliché that our most recent three presidents have all invoked it either in spirit or using those exact words, as President Trump in his first joint address to Congress in 2017.
If this is true, we are fortunate to have a remedy for achieving equality, one that has been shown to work previously, desegregated schools.
As journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones outlined in a two part report on This American Life, “The Problem We All Live With,” the single greatest tool for shrinking the achievement gap is desegregation. It is also a solution which we seem incapable of embracing, as demonstrated recently by white parents from New York’s Upper West Side seemingly ready to riot over a proposal to make space for minority students at their high performing school. In these parents’ minds their children had somehow earned the right to a “good” school, and the mere presence of minority students would inevitably be somehow “unfair.”
And yet, research again and again has demonstrated that proximity to white students shrinks the achievement gap for minority students without harming the outcomes for white students.
Separate but equal has always been a lie.
The damage of “A Nation at Risk” is almost too great to reckon with. I believe you can draw a straight line between “A Nation at Risk” and the erosion of public support of public education until we have finally arrived at a point where teachers must put themselves on the line conducting wildcat strikes to save what needs saving.
We have the blueprint for pursuing equality. We had it in 1983 when a desired political outcome dictated policy and overrode the evidence. Hell, we had it 1954 with Brown v. Board of Education and we had it in 1964 with the Civil Rights Act. What needs to be done hasn’t changed. The question is if those in power will be brave enough to step back from the big lie and dig in on the much more difficult truths.
They’ll tell you it was abortion. Sorry, the historical record’s clear: It was segregation.
But the abortion myth quickly collapses under historical scrutiny. In fact, it wasn’t until 1979-a full six years after Roe-that evangelical leaders, at the behest of conservative activist Paul Weyrich, seized on abortion not for moral reasons, but as a rallying-cry to deny President Jimmy Carter a second term. Why? Because the anti-abortion crusade was more palatable than the religious right’s real motive: protecting segregated schools. So much for the new abolitionism.
When the Roe decision was handed down, W. A. Criswell, the Southern Baptist Convention’s former president and pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas-also one of the most famous fundamentalists of the 20th century-was pleased: “I have always felt that it was only after a child was born and had a life separate from its mother that it became an individual person,” he said, “and it has always, therefore, seemed to me that what is best for the mother and for the future should be allowed.”
Although a few evangelical voices, including Christianity Today magazine, mildly criticized the ruling, the overwhelming response was silence, even approval. Baptists, in particular, applauded the decision as an appropriate articulation of the division between church and state, between personal morality and state regulation of individual behavior. “Religious liberty, human equality and justice are advanced by the Supreme Court abortion decision,” wrote W. Barry Garrett of Baptist Press.