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April 1, 2019
Vol. 76
No. 7

Desegregated Schools, Unequal Assignments

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Instructional Strategies
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More than six decades have passed since Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court decision that ended segregation in our nation's schools. To be sure, Brown did a great deal more than usher in the end of legalized physical segregation in schools. And it did more than just deem any previous legislation about separate but equal unconstitutional. Understood at a deep level, Brown served as the critical education reform measure of the 20th century. Since the Supreme Court determined that separate was inherently unequal, the decision opened the door to challenge conventional expectations for students and student outcomes.
But the legacy of Brown is both inspiring and complicated, especially when examined through the lens of curriculum. First, it is crucial to understand the post-Brown fallout for—and pre-Brown pedagogical ingenuity of—many black educators.

Black Teachers: Protectors, Champions, Casualties

In the years before Brown, school desegregation was not necessarily the central cause in terms of equality that many educators fought for. Just as in the white community, there were calls in the black community to ensure school quality rather than to desegregate schools. With the prospect of desegregation, many black educators feared not only for their own livelihoods, but also for the academic and social lives of their students, recognizing that white America harbored negative attitudes about the intellectual and social capacity of black children. As the push for school desegregation intensified, educators and leaders such as Bishop James Walker Hood of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church questioned its benefits:
It is impossible for white teachers, educated as they necessarily are in this country, to enter into the feelings of colored pupils as the colored teacher does…. I do not think that it is good for our children to eat and drink daily the sentiment that they are naturally inferior to the whites, which they do in three-fourths of all the schools where they have white teachers. (Fairclough, 2006)
W.E.B. Du Bois offered similar objections some 20 years prior to Brown, wondering if black students should have schools dedicated solely to their education without the threat of white teachers' deficit thinking to cloud instruction (1935). Such objections are rarely discussed regarding Brown, which has until recently been viewed as largely positive in intent.
As members of the NAACP lobbied throughout the South to champion full desegregation, they acknowledged that black teachers should expect and be willing to accept job loss for the good of their community (Abdi, 2012; Fairclough, 2006). Ultimately, tens of thousands of black teachers and administrators did lose their jobs after Brown. This sacrifice has had enduring consequences for our nation's teaching workforce as well as for students of color, particularly black students. This precipitous loss of educator capital carries weight today as our nation continues to struggle with the racial disparities in classrooms between teachers and their students. As the U.S. population continues to diversify, the teacher population remains largely white and female.

Filling in the Blanks

The premise of Brown was to offer black students the opportunity to experience a level of education on par with white students. But the story with respect to curriculum is complicated. Prior to Brown, when school districts allocated resources, "colored" schools were last on the list to receive materials, often inheriting cast-offs from white schools. Many times, these materials would have pages deliberately torn out or contain messages of hate—most often the "N-word" (Pellegrino, Mann, & Russell, 2013). This was essentially legislated under- and miseducation.
Nevertheless, black teachers made it their business to ensure their students learned at high levels. They worked to supplement the curriculum, filling in the blanks of the missing pages and attempting to undo the subtle and overt messages of inferiority their students received through the outdated materials they were forced to use.
Black teachers were known to develop lessons that pushed students well beyond the fundamentals of reading, writing, and arithmetic. Such assignments would build students' public speaking skills and culminate with oratory contests featuring recitations of work by black poets. Students also had opportunities to display their talents in school assemblies and develop their own projects that integrated their learning across subjects. These assignments and others like them fostered community involvement in meaningful ways and facilitated interdisciplinary learning.
Then came Brown. The landmark decision opened the door for black students to experience a world of education from which they had been excluded. It was supposed to provide exposure to programs, resources, and facilities vastly different from those of their below-standard schools. Despite such potential benefits, however, the legacy of Brown from a curricular standpoint remains disappointing.

Things Are Different, Yet Remain the Same

Schooling is anything but neutral. Many scholars believe that education carries the weight and responsibility for both content delivery and cultural transmission. That is, curriculum—the content of what students learn—is the primary vehicle through which most students acquire knowledge about our core beliefs as a nation. If we are to think critically about what Brown was meant to do—desegregate schools—we must also think about the ways in which schools, through the curriculum writ large and assignments in particular, have advanced imbalanced ideas about who students of color are and their place in society. In the pre-Brown era, assignments crafted by black teachers who worked around hand-me-down curricula made the difference in providing avenues for black students to find a connection to content that was not meant for them. Assignments mattered then—and they matter now.
A 2015 study by The Education Trust highlighted the current state of affairs regarding the questionable quality of assignments that many students, especially students of color, encounter in school (Santelieses & Dabrowski). The study examined four domains of school assignments: alignment to standards, centrality of text, cognitive challenge and writing output, and motivation and engagement (discussion and scaffolding were later added to the assignment analysis framework.) Of the nearly 6,000 assignments examined, only one-third were found to be aligned to grade-appropriate standards, and less than 15 percent pushed students to think beyond basic application. Worst of all, only 12 percent were considered relevant to students' lives.
In other words, the assignments many students are experiencing in today's schools do the opposite of what those assignments created for black students in segregated schools did for them. Students, particularly black students, are being asked to work on assignments that are unrelated to their lived experiences. And research has confirmed that relevance matters. When students have assignments that connect to their lives, they are more likely to be motivated to complete those assignments with a higher degree of excellence (Dabrowski & Reed Marshall, 2018).
While Brown required schools to physically desegregate, it made no provisions for what or how students were taught or what they would learn. Thus, black students entered white schools encountering a curriculum focused on a single story of America along with a marginalized perspective of where blacks fit in that story. Many curricula continue this way.
A subsequent study by TNTP (2018) revealed a more sinister story about the curriculum many black students face. Researchers found that nearly four out of ten classrooms with majority students of color did not engage with grade-level assignments. Classrooms of mostly white students, on the other hand, were 1.5 times more likely to receive grade-appropriate assignments and nearly four times more likely to receive grade-appropriate lessons.
For example, in an English language arts classroom in a white middle school, students read Carlotta Walls LaNier's Little Rock memoir A Mighty Long Way and were asked to write an informational essay analyzing historical events. Contrast this with an assignment given in a comparable majority-black classroom, in which students were asked to read an excerpted text, complete multiple-choice vocabulary questions, and fill in missing vowels on a worksheet, all of which was unrelated to their grade-level standards.
The data on teacher beliefs in the TNTP study is even more startling: The researchers found that more than two-thirds of teachers of color held high expectations for their students of color compared with just over one-third of white teachers. Given the stark differences in expectations, as shown through the assignment quality, it is clear to see that while a lot has changed, too much remains the same.
Harken back to Bishop James Walker Hood, who worried that white teachers would be unable to let go of their thoughts about the inferiority of black children. Unfortunately, research and history have proven Bishop Hood correct.
Despite calls for higher expectations and culturally responsive and relevant pedagogy, black students remain under- and miseducated. Research demonstrates that many white educators, through inherited bias or inadequate support, continue to harbor deficit perspectives (Ford et al., 2002) and question the intellectual capacity of black students (Perry, Steele, & Hilliard, 2003). Six decades after Brown, black students still face an education system that was neither designed for them nor seems to have their well-being at heart. The Brown decision opened many doors and offered black students academic opportunities they would not otherwise have had. But despite legalized desegregation, we have yet to achieve true integration, especially within the curriculum.

The Legacy We Leave

Brown still offers both hope and challenges. Given the results of The Education Trust and TNTP studies, it is clear that much work is left to be done. As educators, we feel the weight of standardized testing, mandated curricula, and what often feels like an unending call to be all things to all children. We enter this profession espousing a belief that every child can learn, and many of us embrace the need for cultural competence and equitable learning environments. Unfortunately, in the midst of these declarations lie the vestiges of inequality and ongoing deficit thinking, which manifests in our uneven distribution of learning opportunities.
As we pause to mark the 65th anniversary of this historic decision, educators must do so with an eye toward practice and curriculum. If Brown is to be fully realized—with speed and determination—then we, as educators, owe it to our most marginalized students to offer them assignments that are aligned to grade-appropriate standards, offer high cognitive challenge, and are motivating and engaging. Our students deserve educators who dispel and disrupt age-old deficit models about them based on their skin color, and they deserve curricula that authentically and unstereotypically represents the vast humanity of all those who enter the classroom. Anything less, and we'll be discussing the legacy of Brown in this same way another 65 years from now.

Abdi, A. (2012). Decolonization philosophies of education: An introduction. Rotterdam: The Netherlands: Sense Publishing.

Dabrowski, J., & Reed Marshall, T. (2018). Motivation and engagement in student assignments: The role of choice and relevancy. Washington, D.C.: The Education Trust.

Du Bois, W. E. B. (1935). Does the Negro need separate schools? The courts and the Negroes separate school. The Journal of Negro Education, 4(3), 328–335.

Fairclough, A. (2006). The costs of Brown: Black teachers and school integration. The Journal of American History, 91(1), 1–12.

Ford, D. Y., Harris, J. J., Tyson, C. A., & Frazier Trotman, M. (2002). Beyond deficit thinking: Providing access for gifted African American students. Roeper Review, 24(2), 52–58.

Pellegrino, A., Mann, L. J., & Russell, W. B. (2013). Historical examination of the segregated school experience. The History Teacher, 46(3), 355–372.

Perry, T., Steele, C., & Hilliard, A. (2003). Young gifted and black: Promoting high achievement among African-American students. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Santelieses, S., & Dabrowski, J. (2015). Checking in: Do classroom assignments reflect today's higher standards? Washington, D.C.: The Education Trust.

TNTP. (2018). The opportunity myth: What students can show us about how school is letting them down—and how to fix it. Retrieved from

End Notes

1 The six domains of an effective assignment can be found in The Education Trust's 2016 report "Checking in Update: More Assignments from Real Classrooms."

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