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"Don't Lose the Battle Trying to Fight the War,"

by John H. Jackson In the year that we commemorate the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education and the 40th anniversary of passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Richard Rothstein’s “Even the Best Schools Can’t Close the Race Achievement Gap” highlights the importance of our nation’s commitment to address people of color’s socio-economic ills as a tool for addressing and closing the racial achievement gap.September/October 2004 issue of Poverty & Race

In the year that we commemorate the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education and the 40th anniversary of passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Richard Rothstein’s “Even the Best Schools Can’t Close the Race Achievement Gap” highlights the importance of our nation’s commitment to address people of color’s socio-economic ills as a tool for addressing and closing the racial achievement gap.

In theory, I wholeheartedly support Rothstein’s assertion that it is not by accident or outrageous misfortunes that many of the areas that have the lowest achievement levels are urban areas populated by poor people of color who are confronted with many social challenges—people who often also have the lowest opportunity levels. This has been a challenge that has begged for an answer for over a century.

Immediately following passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, in 1965, Dr. Kenneth Clark, noted expert social scientist in the Brown case, described in his classic text, Dark Ghetto: Dilemmas of Social Power, the psychology and pathology of urban life. Like Rothstein’s, Dr. Clark’s analysis highlighted the outcomes rooted in historical and contemporary forms of discrimination against populations who were blocked access to educational and economic opportunities. That same year, Senator Daniel Moynihan headed up a commission which issued a report, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, that again, like Rothstein’s work, indicated that the lack of socioeconomic opportunity led to family instability in poor black communities and gave rise to a “culture of poverty” which often leads to unfavorable sociological outcomes.

Thus, while Clark, Moynihan and now Rothstein provide an accurate diagnosis of the symptoms that lead to the racial achievement gaps that we see in school systems across the nation, the remedy is not as simple as Rothstein indicates. Rothstein’s approach seems to indicate that by wiping out the social challenges that exist in urban communities the racial achievement gap will also disappear. Its underlying tone suggests, that many of the educational barriers that produce the achievement gaps are centered in the student’s sociological background rather than in the institutions that are charged with educating all students—regardless of socioeconomic background. For example, Rothstein asserts that African American students are “more disruptive” in class than their white peers. His assertion is likely rooted in the fact that these students are more often referred to the office for discipline and penalized more than their white peers. However, as research by the Harvard Civil Rights Project and The Advancement Project indicates, African American students are more often sent to the office for “subjective” offenses and are more often penalized for offenses their white peers are not penalized for. In this case, the bulk of the problem lies less with the student’s actions than the system of discipline which labels a similar act “disruptive” on one hand and “acceptable” on the other. Here, the answer lies in ensuring that teachers have the professional development needed to understand and educate the population that sits before them. Furthermore, removing students from this “culture of poverty” won’t alone close the achievement gap, as numerous studies have proven that even minority students in wealthier areas, on average, have lower test scores than their white peers in similar areas.

While Rothstein’s approach to addressing the problem identifies a significant barrier in addressing the gap, it does not account for the gap, nor should it absolve schools of their responsibility to ensure that there are highly qualified teachers in the classrooms, appropriate class sizes and adequate resources.

If history is to be our guide in addressing this challenge, in 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson launched a national War on Poverty. One of the first steps he took to address it was working to pass the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which outlined the federal government’s role in ensuring equal educational opportunities for all children—through teacher quality, resource equity (Title I) and other components. Today, 40 years later, Title I is yet to have been fully funded, and in 2004 President Bush and Congress failed to fully fund the reauthorization of the Act (The No Child Left Behind Act)—falling more than $8 billion short of the resources required to give states and districts what is needed so that teachers can teach and students can learn in all communities.

Thus, it remains difficult to measure the true weight the “culture of poverty” has on the racial achievement gap in education when the first battle—addressing the “culture of ensuring educational opportunities to some and denying them to others”—has yet to have been won. Nonetheless, the strength of Rothstein’s current work is not in his diagnosis of the war on poverty that stills needs to be fought, but the context that his work provides to energize stakeholders to pick up arms to address the battle that exists in their local schools and districts—the battle to ensure equal access to a high-quality education for all students. If we win enough of these battles, we will surely win the war on poverty.

John H. Jackson is National Director of Education for the NAACP, Charman of the new National Equity Center, and Adjunct Professor of Race, Gender and Public Policy at the Georgetown University School of Public Policy. jjackson@naacpnet.org
 
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