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Flight from Equality: School Reform in the US since 1983

    Flight from Equality
School reform in the US since 1983

School Desegregation * Curriculum Tracking & De-tracking * A Nation at Risk * The Culture of Poverty "Theory" * Back to the Future * Who Wins, Who Loses?

   From the late 1960s to the mid-1980s the net effect of school reform in the US was to reduce average differences in academic performance between  blacks and whites, between students from low and high income households, and between students in inner-city and suburban school districts.

   The net effect of School Reforms in the US since 1983 has been to increase average differences in academic performance between whites and blacks, low and high income households, and inner-city and suburban school districts.

    Progress toward the goal of ‘closing the gap’ in academic performance during the 1970s and early 1980s was largely a by-product of an accountability system based on the goal of ‘closing the gap’ in academic performance, school desegregation, and a revolt by teachers against "dumbing-down" the curriculum to varying degrees for a majority of students.

   A qualitative change in educational policy at a national level was signaled by the release of a 1983 report entitled A Nation at Risk.


    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.

   The US Supreme Court ruled that racially segregated school systems are unconstitutional in 1954. But very little progress was actually made toward desegregating the schools prior to  1968. A small number of blacks were integrated into white schools in the Deep South through "voluntary" desegregation plans, also know as "choice" plans. By 1968 white schools in the Deep South were still predominantly white schools, e.g., 95 to 100% white, and black schools continued to be all black.  

    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


Curriculum tracking is done by assigning students to separate classrooms and / or separate instructional groups within a classroom on the basis of perceived ability.

     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. Until the 1970s, students who attended  the better elementary schools generally ended up in the college preparatory classes in high school. And with a few exceptions other students were tracked into classes that were generally watered-down versions of the college preparatory classes.

     Ability-grouping in elementary schools was not a common practice in the US prior to the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education.  Curriculum tracking was generally regarded as a way to keep blacks in their place (by racists and antiracists) and was opposed by the leadership of the Civil Rights movement.

    The federal government outlawed some forms of ability-grouping in the early 1970s but did not actively promote efforts to 'untrack' the schools. The policy of the Federal Department of Education has been to "mend, not end" ability-grouping practices.  "Flexible" in class and between-class grouping by ability is still permitted.  Grouping practices are deemed "flexible" if the students are periodically reassessed to determine if a change if group assignment is appropriate. However, reassignment from a non-college bound track to a college-bound track remains a very uncommon event in most schools that do between-classroom "ability-grouping"

    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 many school districts.  


"Our Nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science and technological innovation is being taken over by competitors throughout the world...The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and a people....If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves....We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral, educational disarmament. -- A Nation at Risk, National Commission on Educational Excellence, page 5 (1983)"

     Released on April 23, 1983, A Nation at Risk was the report of a blue-ribbon committee selected by the Reagan-Bush administration. A Nation at Risk warned of "a rising tide of mediocrity" due to educational policies that were ‘closing the gap,’ i.e., the gap was being closed at the expense of the high achievers. However, A Nation at Risk didn’t back up this claim with any hard evidence.  

     The central conclusion of A Nation at Risk was flatly contradicted by the 1990 Sandia Report, a review of educational data from the 1970s and 80s carried out by the Sandia National Laboratories. The Sandia Report was commissioned and later suppressed by the first Bush administration (1989-1992), then quietly released early in Clinton’s first term (1993-1996).

    The Sandia Report found that on NAEP math and English exams, scores for talented fifth of 17 year olds were generally stable, with average scores going up or down a little each year, but trending upward. (NAEP = Natinal Assessment of Educational Progress). It is likely that gains made by high performing students as measured by the NAEP tests were kept down as a result of rising high school completion rates: a growing share of poorer performing students were staying in school, thus lowering the average of the top fifth. (1)


    To support its claim that the public school system had been ‘closing the gap’ at the expense of the high achievers, A Nation at Risk cited the main conclusion of a 1966 study done by sociologist James Coleman and others, entitled "Equality of Educational Opportunity." According to Coleman et. al:

Schools bring little influence to bear on a child's achievement that is independent of his background and general social context; and that this very lack of an independent effect means that the inequalities imposed on children by their home, neighborhood, and peer environment are carried along to become the inequalities with which they confront adult life at the end of school [The Manufactured Crisis, 1995, Berliner and Biddle, page 71]

     School districts have cited the 1966 Coleman Report as evidence that schools have a very small independent effect on academic achievement. The Coleman Report became the main point of support for advocates of racially-segregated school districts in the Courts. If schools have only a very small independent effect on academic achievement, then racially-integrating the schools could not significantly improve outcomes for black students.

     However, by the early 1970s public schools were required to gather and break down standardized test score data by race and income. And by 1983 there was already a general consensus that the schools had made significant progress toward ‘closing the gap.’  

    According to the 1990 Sandia Report, the academic achievement gap between whites and blacks decreased during the 1970s and 1980s. Yet the income gap between blacks and whites generally increased during the late 1970s and early 1980s. (Berliner and Biddle, 1995, The Manufactured Crisis, pages 26).    

    It is also noteworthy that six years after the original Coleman Report was issued, Coleman published reanalyses of the same data using "regression" procedures. (A "regression" procedure is a one-step analysis that estimates the net effect of each variable while controlling for the effects of the other variables.) Based on the reanalyses, Coleman concluded that the original report gave an inflated estimate of the influence of home background characteristics due to unexamined effects of school characteristics. Coleman's later work has been swept under the rug [ibid Berliner and Biddle, p 73].


     Since the late 1980s the gap has been widened at the expense of the low achievers. And George W. Bush is shedding crocodile tears about the children left behind by the school reform movement he supports.

    The No Child Left Behind reforms pushed by the Bush administration promises unlimited choice for students in poor performing schools, which has a huge appeal to many parents with children assigned to really bad public schools. However, the Federal Department of Education has settled for the kind of limited "choice" plans that were used in the Deep South in the 1960s. Examples: the Voluntary School Choice project (funded through a No Child Left Behind grant) and "The Choice is Yours" program for Minneapolis Public School students created as part of the settlement of educational adequacy lawsuit brought by the NAACP against the state of Minnesota. (See "Open Letter to the NAACP" in this pamphlet)

     Public Schools have been getting less diverse racially since the late 1980s, and the better schools generally serve the whiter, more middle class students. In Minneapolis the public elementary schools for the poor, predominantly black neighborhoods have the lion’s share of inexperienced teachers, the highest teacher turnover, and the worst outcomes.    

    Curriculum tracking via ability-grouping is also being promoted in the early elementary grades. Most of the schools in the Minneapolis district assign students to separate classrooms for reading based on perceived ability in Kindergarten or first grade. Students are otherwise assigned to mix-ability classrooms where they are divided into groups by perceived ability for instruction in other subject areas.  The look-say / whole word method (rote memorization) is generally used in the low to medium ability classrooms. Systematic phonics instruction and an enriched reading curriculum is reserved for students designated as the academically able.  (Also see "Why ability-grouping widens the achievement gap" in this pamphlet)


    The public school system in the US has generally emphasized what Horace Mann called "moral education," which involves learning what is necessary for a student to assume their future role in society with a minimum of friction. (Mann headed  the Massachusetts Board of Education in the 1840s). Learning how to read, write, and reckon at all conflicted with the moral education needed by most African slaves in the US.  Today a college-bound education "isn‘t for everyone" because the social and political system in the US is based on exploitation and nourished by racism and other forms of oppression. An educational system that helps to perpetuate racial inequality and a large multiracial underclass works to the benefits of the rich at the expense of most people who have to work for a living.