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

Equity, Excellence, and Relevance

After World War II, divergent trends intensified demands for quality education. People of color who had participated in the "fight against fascism" abroad were loath to suffer racism at home, sharpening demands for social equality and cultural sensitivity in schools. And cold war rivalries over technological superiority prompted calls for excellence in math and science achievement. The post-World War II era quickened the pace and broadened the impact of school reforms, yet many of the ideas underpinning school reforms - - and resistance to reforms -- were not new. School reforms for poor children and children of color, for example, continued to be shaped by educational and social movements with a long and complex history.

Battles for school accessibility. The legal battles against the segregation of black students, culminating in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, are relatively well- known. The struggles of other groups for accessible, high quality education are less extensively studied, although these judicial and legislative battles also have an interesting history. The victory of Mexican-Americans in the Lemon Grove case has been called "the first successful desegregation court case in the United States" (Alvarez, 1986). And demands by American Indian groups pressured the refinement and enforcement of the 1934 Johnson- O'Malley Act, a congressional mandate that encouraged public schools to enroll and address the needs of Native children customarily served by Bureau of Indian Affairs schools (Noley, in press, pp. 26-27).

Not all of those who fought to make high quality education accessible shared the same philosophy and aims. Some reformers emphasized psychological and social concerns, arguing that segregated schools fostered feelings of racial inferiority in children of color and encouraged racial divisiveness; other activists emphasized educational equity issues. And while some desired court-ordered desegregation, others wanted parents and children to have a choice between high-quality integrated schools and high-quality racially separate schools.

Compensatory education. During the sixties, demands increased to improve the education of all impoverished students, including poor whites. Influenced by President Johnson's War on Poverty and studies that documented huge school expenditure disparities, some educators and policymakers began to see the "black/white problem" as a "poor/rich problem." Public pressure to remedy perceived educational and social disadvantages resulted in various compensatory education programs for poor children, of which Title I/Chapter 1 remains the most extensive and highly funded. (For an overview of Title I/Chapter 1, see Chapters 7 and 8.)

Calls for community control. Despite provision of compensatory education funds and legal victories against segregation, many people during the late sixties charged that schools for children of color were still separate and unequal. Even in desegregated schools, tracking often created dual systems of education for white children and children of color (Lowe, 1992). Furthermore, according to many parents and community activists, debates over school integration and fiscal equity addressed only parts of the problem -- the content of textbooks and instruction must also be made relevant to and supportive of children of color. Instructional materials and practices that belittle the backgrounds of children of color may be internalized as attacks on their self-worth and abilities (Noley, in press; Okakok, 1989).

Community activists argued that although policymakers, educators, and researchers were increasingly sympathetic to the plight of children of color, they often emphasized alleged family and community "pathologies" to explain children's problems -- school deficiencies were often ignored. Angered by the cultural insensitivity of those who came into their communities to "help" their children, many parents and activists demanded community control of schools (Carmichael and Hamilton, 1967, pp. 164-171). Some activists fought for increased community power and school integration, while others believed that community-controlled, racially separate schools were necessary to foster cultural pride and awareness (Carter and Segura, 1979, pp. 21-25). The pros and cons of these divergent approaches are still being debated.

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