Brown v. Board of Education at 62

On Tuesday, Brown v. Board of Education turned 62. In 1979, when the Brown decision was celebrating its 25th anniversary, I wrote an article about the Social Scientists’ Statement submitted as part of Brown v. Board of Education. Brown v. Board of Education, of course, ordered the desegregation of America’s schools “with all deliberate speed.” Deliberate indeed. As reported in a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) study, segregation of African-American and Hispanic students has increased, not decreased, over the past 15 years. Worse, schools with concentrations of minority students suffer from low funding and few other resources, and they have difficulty attracting and maintaining qualified staff.

The problem is not new, but it has gone underground. After the wars over bussing in the 1970s and ‘80s, concern for school desegregation has been replaced with vague commitments to improve the schools attended by minority students.

The Social Scientists’ Statement was evidence submitted to the Supreme Court noting that desegregation was going to work a lot better at building positive intergroup relations and respect if schools adopted teaching strategies that emphasized cooperative learning, which would give students opportunities to get to know each other as individuals. I wrote my article on this topic in the Minneapolis Public Library, where I happened to have time on my hands. I wrote at a table near a window. Outside the window was a playground in which little African-American and White children were gleefully playing. It was impossible to imagine that 37 years in the future, when those little children would have children of their own, the problems I was writing about would still exist, and would be getting worse.

To be fair, race relations are far better now than they were in 1979, and by many measures minority groups have advanced economically, educationally, and socially. Yet segregation continues to rise, and inequalities continue to grow.

The solution is straightforward, and attainable: Dramatically improve schools and expand economic opportunity to the point where there is no stigma to minority status. We have a lot of evidence about how to improve the school performance of all students. If we invested in these strategies, and in equally proven policies for expanding job opportunities, poverty and inequality would diminish, and segregation would soon follow. It would take a generation or two but there is no question that it could be done.

Could someone explain to me why we don’t get started now? What problem for the social stability and basic fairness of our nation could be more important?

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Spell it Éxito or Success — That’s What Hispanic Students Need

I want to wish everyone a happy and reflective Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15 – October 15). This must be a disturbing time for Hispanics, with presidential candidates competing to say terrible and ignorant things about them.

Americans love to speak with pride about our nation of immigrants, often as a prelude to telling their own immigration story. Our history does record the struggles immigrants had to overcome to find their place in America, but the sad part is that the struggles are often due to our own government, our own people and even (in many cases) immigrants from the same places who got here a little earlier.

In the long run, I think it is certain that Hispanics will become successful, respected and accepted, as the many middle class Hispanics already are. However, our schools could do a lot to help ease the transition so that Hispanics and other immigrants can reach economic security and social acceptance much faster.

The key educational issue with Spanish-dominant Hispanics and other English learners is figuring out how to help them learn English without slowing down their learning of everything else they need to learn in school. For decades, there have been highly contentious and political battles about whether Spanish-dominant children should be taught to read first in Spanish and then transitioned to English by about the third grade, or whether they should be taught in English from the outset. Along with colleagues, I did a large, randomized experiment comparing these strategies. The result? By fourth grade, there was no significant difference between the two groups.

Our findings confirmed a growing sense among advocates for English learners that fighting about language of instruction is not as important as ensuring quality of instruction. Along with colleague Alan Cheung, I wrote a review of research on effective reading programs for English learners. There were many proven and promising programs. Yet still today, there remains far more discussion about language than about effective instruction.

To me, this is one more area in which research and development in education can shift the debate and lead to genuine progress. So often, opposing sides make passionate arguments for or against some aspect of practice. Both sides are only interested in research that supports their preconceived position, and reject all other evidence. Yet often, the evidence points to solutions that are effectively neutral on the contentious issue. In the case of Spanish-dominant students, there is plenty of rigorous research to indicate that they benefit from cooperative learning, one-to-one and small-group tutoring, and instruction in metacognitive and learning-to-learn skills, for example. None of these solutions depends much on the language of instruction, so they do not get the attention the fight over bilingual education gets. Yet if everyone can stay focused on what is best for children rather than winning an argument, we’re likely to see the outcomes that everyone wants.

I’m not saying that language of instruction is unimportant, and there needs to be further research on how to help students who start off with limited English to succeed in school and maintain their home language. But whether you call it éxito or success, that’s what Hispanic kids need in school, whichever language is emphasized in the first few years.