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K-12 School Propaganda

  "As another has well said, to handicap a student by teaching him that his black face is a curse and that his struggle to change his condition is hopeless is the worst sort of lynching. It kills one's aspirations and dooms him to vagabondage and crime. It is strange, then, that the friends of truth and the promoters of freedom have not risen up against the present propaganda in the schools and crushed it. This campaign is more important than the anti-lynching movement, because there would be no lynching if it did not start in the classroom. Why not exploit, enslave, or exterminate a class that everybody is taught to regard as inferior?" - The Mis-Education of the Negro, by Carter G. Woodson, first published in 1933

The idea that blacks are inferior is implied when the people who run the schools say it is impossible to adequately educate most black students, that academic programs are designed to maximize the development of all students, and that educational outcomes are largely a reflection of the abilities and efforts of the students.

In Courtroom battles to leading to the 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) argued that educational outcomes for black students were generally inferior because, student for student, a lot more money was being spent on public schools for whites. When it came to applying the "separate but equal" doctrine, the policy of racial separation was rigorously enforced, but nowhere did any segregated system come close to an equal distribution of resources between black and white schools.

Since the late 1960s, school districts taken to court by the NAACP have cited a 1966 report by sociologist James Coleman, who argued that school desegregation cannot significantly reduce the academic performance gap between black and white students. Coleman himself was in high demand as an expert witness for school districts.

Coleman's 1966 report attributed most of the difference between black and white students in measurable outcomes, such as test scores, to a "culture of poverty." The argument goes that conditions associated with poverty diminish a student's ability to learn. The high concentration and persistence of poverty within the black community and the pervasiveness of racial discrimination creates a sense of hopelessness that kills the aspirations of black youth. Neither 'race-mixing' nor efforts to improve black schools will
have much effect on the situation outside of school that holds back and demoralizes most black students. Or so the argument goes.  

What happened after most of the racially segregated school systems were desegregated in the late 1960s and early 1970s?  According to the 1990 Sandia Report, the test score gap between blacks and whites was being closed during the 1970s and 1980s. Prepared by the Sandia National Laboratories, the Sandia report was a systematic review of data collected by the National Center for Education Statistics of the US Department of Education. The report broke down data on academic achievement by race, income and other demographic categories. Academic achievement was primarily measured by math and reading exam scores obtained through a testing program called the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NEAP). The Sandia report was commissioned -- and suppressed -- by the Bush, Sr. administration (1989-1992). -- Berliner and Biddle, 1995, The Manufactured Crisis, pages 26.

From 1971 to 1988, the average difference in scores between black and white 13 year olds on NAEP reading exams declined by about 50%.  However, compared to where it was at in 1988, the gap in NEAP reading exam scores between black and white 13 year olds increased by about 75% in just 12 years. Less dramatic progress toward closing the gap in NAEP math exam scores was registered in the 1970's and 80's, followed by a fairly steady widening of the gap in math exam scores during the late 80' and the 90's. -- The New Crisis (NAACP magazine), September / October 2001."Long Division," p. 25-31, graph on page 28.

From the late 1960s to the mid-1980s the strategic goal of the public school system was to close the academic performance gap between blacks and whites, and between poor and "middle class" students. Schools were required to collect and break down data on academic achievement by race, income (eligibility for free and reduced-price school lunches), sex, and other demographic categories. School policies were deemed effective if progress was made toward "closing the gap."

In addition to changes in accountability systems, as described above, there are 2 other policy changes that can explain why a lot of progress was made toward "closing the gap" during the 1970s and 1980s: 1) Desegregation plans approved by the Courts from 1968 until the mid 1970s. 2) A movement away from instruction based on curriculum tracking / ability-grouping and toward instruction based on a college-bound curriculum and individualized educational planning.


In Green v. County School Board of New Kent County, 391 U.S. 430 (1968), the Supreme Court ruled that segregated school systems had to be dismantled "root and branch." The Green decision required the New Kent County schools to formulate a plan to desegregate facilities, staff, faculty, extracurricular activities and transportation. According to Gary Orfield and others, "Subsequently the Courts used these "Green Factors" as a guide in crafting desegregation plans. -- Dismantling Desegregation, by Gary Orfield, Susan E. Eaton and The Harvard Project on School Desegregation, pp. xxi -xxii  


For about 100 years, the public school system has kept blacks and poor whites in their place through curriculum tracking at the secondary school level. Some students take classes that prepare them for college. The classes for not-college-bound students are generally watered-down versions of the college preparatory classes.

Curriculum tracking in elementary schools was not a common practice in elementary schools prior to the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Curriculum tracking is done by assigning students to separate classrooms and / or separate instructional groups within a classroom on the basis of perceived ability. Curriculum tracking was generally regarded as a way to keep blacks in their place (by racists and antiracists). It was opposed by the leadership of the Civil Rights movement in the late 1960's.

The federal government outlawed some forms of curriculum tracking but did not actively promote efforts to 'untrack' the schools. The federal department of education was in favor of mending, not ending curriculum tracking. However, opponents of curriculum tracking had the upper hand during the 1970's and early 1980's, especially at the elementary level, where curriculum tracking had not firmly taken root in most school districts.


The Education Agenda of most Democratic and Republican Party politicians is now based on conclusions of a 1983 report entitled "A Nation at Risk." According to that report the educational establishment was headed in the wrong direction.  Since the late 1960's too much emphasis had been placed on "closing the gap," resulting in a "rising tide of mediocrity," i.e., the gap was allegedly being closed at the expense of the high-achievers. A Nation at Risk cited the 1966 Coleman report, but did not base its claim on any hard evidence. A conclusion of the Sandia report was that the performance of high was generally stable and steadily improved to a modest degree during the 1970s through the mid-1980s. Progress toward "closing the gap" was due entirely to gains by the poorer-performing students. - The Manufactured Crisis (1995), by David C. Berliner and Bruce J Biddle, pp. 24-30, 139-134.  

Most politicians pay lip service to the goal of 'closing the gap,' but do not support policies that would actually 'close the gap.'  George W. 'leave no child behind' Bush is a case in point. His plan to test the schools, to reward success, punish failure, and give unlimited choice to parents of children who attend failing schools is not going to get the school system back on track toward 'closing the gap.'  -- see Bush's Education Agenda, by Doug Mann

The goal of 'closing the gap' was abandoned during the 1980's because it is not in the interests of the capitalist class to close the gap. A color-based caste system was created to help the rich get a much bigger piece of the economic pie at the expense of workers. And continued progress toward closing the gap would weaken and eventually help to destroy that caste system.

I think the best way to carry out a struggle against institutionalized racism is to focus on the public policies that foster it and the class interests that it serves. Members of the working class of all "races" are more easily victimized to some degree when employers have a large pool of marginalized, low-wage workers at their disposal.  

Unfortunately, many workers of all "races" who want to change the system have been diverted into the blind alley of non-class identity politics. Hopefully political experience will eventually persuade the masses of workers of all "races" that they have more in common with each other than they have with rich people who look like them. - see Keeping Us on the Liberal Plantation: the politics of racial identify, by Doug Mann
-Doug Mann April 29, 2003