Brown v. Board: Is our nation’s education system equal?

A word from Phyllis Nichols, Knoxville Area Urban League President and CEO

I recently attended a conference in Washington, DC aimed at reversing the dropout crisis and closing the achievement gap in minority communities. People from throughout the country were there – Hispanic, African American, Asian, Pacific Islanders and Native American. It was an amazing and informative conference that invigorated my enthusiasm for education, shed new light on the common struggle minorities share in the educational arena, and heightened my sense of urgency to do something about the problem.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 established that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” Nearly 60 years later, our nation still struggles to carry out the legacy of that decision and ensure that all students receive an equal education.

As I listened to my colleagues across the table, I learned that there is still much work to be done. It was eye opening to see that across the spectrum we shared the common thread of a significant problem. Nationally, graduation rates for students of color and Native students hover near 50 percent, lagging up to 25 percentage points below white students.

The problem is largely attributable to the fact that those students are often concentrated in the lowest-performing high schools in the country. A recent study by the Alliance for Excellent Education revealed that students of color or Native students are six times more likely than their white peers to attend a “dropout factory,” one of the nearly 2,000 high schools that produce half the nation’s high school dropouts.

Addressing the problem is more than a moral imperative. Doing so is also an economic necessity. Students of color and Native students are quickly moving from the minority of the student population to the majority. Today’s students are tomorrow’s workforce, and the nation cannot afford to continue graduating just over half of the fastest-growing group of students. We struggle to have an adequate workforce now. Imagine what it will be like in 15 to 20 years if we don’t take action to stem the tide.

So, where do we start? It’s like eating an elephant. One bite at a time. We may not be able to reach the entire country, but we can impact our own communities.

Among our many educational endeavors, the Urban League is part of the Equity and Excellence Project, an initiative designed to build more effective and impactful advocates for educational improvement. One of our partners, the Educational Testing Service, emphasizes: “The family is America’s smallest school.” We share the belief that family is a child’s first teacher. Children do better in school when they depart a stable home where parents are employed, read to them every day and ensure they attend school. Sadly, many families are struggling, and their struggles contribute to the achievement gap separating low income and minority students from their more affluent peers. Education reformers have focused on what happens inside the classroom, but the impact of family means that school reform alone cannot eliminate the achievement gap.

The Urban League is committed to working with parents and students to ensure their academic success. We hope that you will join us in our endeavors.