A r c h i v e d  I n f o r m a t i o n

Education Reforms and Students at Risk: A Review of the Current State of the Art - January 1994

Separate and Unequal

Throughout much of U.S. history, the separate and unequal schooling of diverse groups has been reinforced by social mores, justified by pseudo-science, and, in many cases, mandated by law. Ethnicity and class have been perhaps the most obvious and contentious bases for discrimination, but other student characteristics, such as gender and disability, have also been used to isolate and track students into "appropriate" courses regardless of potential or interest.

Children of color. Arguments for the separate and unequal schooling of various races have not come just from backwoods bigots -- racism has pervaded the nation's major institutions. The framers of the U.S. Constitution, albeit eloquent in their defense of freedom and equality, sanctioned the separate and unequal treatment of blacks and Indians (Hirschhorn, 1976; Lynd, 1968). In the early 20th century, passionate speeches against educational equity were well-received on the floors of Congress, rationales for separate and unequal were expounded by scholars at prestigious universities, and pseudo-scientific articles about the ineducability of certain races appeared in leading research journals (Newby, 1968). Ellwood P. Cubberly, an influential force behind the Pedagogy and School Administration Program at Stanford University, proposed a model of education that envisioned separate schools for the "overage, defective, delinquent, or the Negro Race" (as quoted in Mohraz, 1979, p. 49). Institutionalized racism elevated bigotry to respectability, fostering racial misconceptions and inequities that linger, in subtle and not so subtle ways, to this day.

As a result, the school experiences of African-Americans, American Indians, Mexican-Americans, and other ethnic minorities have often been harsh and alienating. During the early part of this century, it was widely argued that highly educated blacks were "not a force for good" -- to prepare blacks for their station in life, schools were directed to teach black children simple skills and values that prevented them from aspiring to "the white man's condition" (Odum, 1910/1968, pp. 65, 69). Teachers' salaries, school facilities, and classroom supplies given to black schools were generally inferior to those provided for white schools (Anderson, 1988; U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, 1976, p. 2). Southern educators, black or white, who challenged this status quo sometimes risked their lives.

As African-Americans migrated to the North in search of better jobs and living conditions, they found de facto if not de jure segregation. Northern whites had more or less tolerated the small numbers of black professionals, tradespeople, and servants who had always lived among them. However, as impoverished blacks from the South flooded Northern cities, white flight and residential segregation ensued. Settling into poor areas occupied by white immigrants, African-Americans were forced to compete with the immigrants for education, housing, and jobs. Black parents discovered that the needs of their children were often regarded with hostility or indifference by school boards (Mohraz, 1979).

Similarly, the education of American Indian children was often insensitive to the needs of these children and their communities. Schools for these children often suffered from insufficient funding and intolerance to indigenous cultures (Berry, 1972; Mathieu, 1976, pp. 3-33; Okakok, 1989). The credo of one boarding school for American Indians, "kill the Indian, save the child," was intended to crush the children's allegiance to their Indian nation and replace it with a reverence for white culture (Noley, in press). To achieve this objective, children were removed from their parents, dressed in European-style clothes, discouraged from speaking their native languages, and subjected to strict discipline.

Although those who founded schools for American Indian children were zealously dedicated to their mission, the effects of their "help" often harmed children. A study conducted in the 19th century found that the work demands placed on students in Indian boarding schools would violate child labor laws in most jurisdictions (Noley, in press). Alienated and overburdened by the military-style discipline in these schools, some Indian children succumbed to diseases, while others suffered emotional injury.

Bias also significantly shaped and limited the educational opportunities of Mexican- Americans. Unlike the school segregation of Southern blacks, which was sanctioned by state laws, the segregation of Mexican-American children in the Southwest was controlled by local customs and school board policies (San Miguel, 1987a, p. 469). Some school boards worried that Mexican-American enrollments would financially burden their districts. One superintendent who asked his school board if he should enforce the compulsory school attendance laws for Mexican-American children was told to "leave [Mexican-American children] alone" (San Miguel, 1987b, pp. 50-52).

Politically influential ranchers and farmowners often discouraged the education of Mexican-Americans because illiterates were more likely to be content with manual labor (Carter and Segura, 1979, p. 15; San Miguel, 1987b, pp. 50-51). They worried that well- educated Mexican-Americans would unionize and ask for higher wages, or migrate to the cities in search of better jobs.

"Good" racially separate schools? Segregated schools, in many ways, perpetuated institutionalized racism. However, by studying certain aspects of these schools, we can perhaps learn better ways of addressing the needs of children of color and fostering a sense of community within schools. As early as the 1930s, black researchers warned that the psychological harm inflicted on black children in prejudiced "integrated" schools might be worse than the harm inflicted by segregated schools (DuBois, 1935). Although segregated schools often lacked adequate facilities and materials, parents and teachers struggled to provide an education that instilled self-esteem and social responsibility in children of color.

Some researchers now call for a careful re-examination of the practices, resources, and impact of the racially separate schools of the past. For example, Siddle-Walker (1992) argues that it is wrong to assume that segregated African-American schools were, without exception, inferior to white schools. In a case study of a segregated high school, she examines the ways in which congruent expectations, shared goals, and mutual respect between parents and educators produced successful students.

Segregated school systems may have inadvertently strengthened cultural identification and cohesiveness. While educational segregation primarily served to reinforce the racial caste system in the Southwest, segregated Mexican-American schools may have actually bolstered Mexican-American culture (San Miguel, 1987a, p. 470). And not all racially separate schools were "segregated" schools set up by whites. Some American Indian nations -- most notably the Cherokee and Choctaw -- instituted their own school systems, with initial help from missionaries, in the 19th century. Unlike the educational institutions managed by missionaries or the U.S. government, these school systems were controlled by the Indian nations and supported through tribal funds. The aim of these schools was to provide bilingual education and teach children useful knowledge about white ways. At the same time, a pre-eminent emphasis was placed on instilling the culture of their Indian nation (Noley, in press; Berry, 1972, p. 36).

Impoverished children. At the turn of the century, schools that emphasized repetitive drills and harsh discipline alienated many poor children -- a 1913 survey of immigrant children in Chicago found that, if given the opportunity, most would choose the long hours and hard work of sweatshops to the stultifying conditions they faced in school (Kliebard, 1986). Some researchers argued against placing poor youth into college-track courses because they would not be able to afford higher education; to improve the employability of poor youth, educators were encouraged to teach them trades (Eckert and Marshall, 1938, p. 210; also, see Katz, 1971). Most policymakers who proposed separate tracks for rich and poor children probably did not consider themselves to be "anti-poor." Rather, given the realities of family obligations and limited scholarship opportunities, vocational training was seen as a necessity for poor children. Whatever the original motives for tracking might have been, many people today charge that tracking stifles academic engagement and perpetuates social inequalities.

Early reform efforts. At the turn of the century, schools were charged with the responsibility of channeling the flood of European immigrants into mainstream society. These demands were often inspired by reform movements -- dating back to the 19th century - - to provide all students with a "common" and equal education that cut across ethnic, religious, and class differences (Lannie, 1971).

Many reformers had egalitarian motives. Some educators -- inspired by the writings of John Dewey and other reformers (e.g., Dewey, 1916) -- attempted to transform traditional passive, autocratic classrooms into active learning environments. Reformers believed that to cultivate the skills and individual initiative necessary for a free society, schools must reflect America's democratic ideals. However, the drive towards "Americanizing" immigrant and nonwhite children was, ironically, often fueled by intolerance to the expression of divergent ideas, religions, languages, and customs.

Simultaneously with the influx of immigrants, the country began to expand its urbanized, industrial economy. Similar to the current reform movement, schools were called upon to prepare students for the job requirements of a new era. Unlike today's reform efforts, however, developing poor children's "higher order thinking skills" was not a priority. Children destined for low-wage labor were required to learn basic skills and disciplined work habits suitable for factory positions (Tyack, 1974).

[SECTION I: Becoming At Risk of Failure in America's Schools] [Table of Contents] [Equity, Excellence, and Relevance ]