Thomas J. Sugrue: School Daze

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Thomas J. Sugrue is David Boies Professor of History and Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania.]

It's been more than a half-century since the Supreme Court issued its landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision. "Separate educational facilities," the court ruled, "are inherently unequal." But for all of our celebration of a "post-racial" America, separate and unequal education is still the norm--and by all measures it's getting worse. In his 2008 race speech in Philadelphia, then-candidate Obama recognized the problem. "Segregated schools were, and are, inferior schools: we still haven't fixed them, fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education, and the inferior education they provided, then and now, helps explain the pervasive achievement gap between today's black and white students."...

The grim reality is this: the biggest gains in educational achievement for minority students, especially African Americans, occurred in the 1970s. With the exception of a few years at the turn of the century, progress has stalled nearly everywhere, despite all the hope we've put in charter schools and in fads like a much-touted but now-discredited New York experiment (one of the more absurd manifestations of our faith in markets), offering cash incentives to families whose children regularly attend classes.

Why did the racial gap narrow so much in the '70s--and why has it stalled since? It's not because the '70s was a period of great educational innovation. Instead, it was the one moment in recent American history when there was still political will to support educational integration. Around the country through the mid-'70s, school boards, state departments of education, and the federal government supported plans to desegregate schools....

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