Beyond integration: Better teaching is post-'Brown' frontier
Half a century after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawed deliberately segregated schools, more than 60 percent of black fourth-graders can't read.Skip to next paragraph
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It's a stark indicator of how the Brown decision, for all its transforming effect on US society, has left America still struggling to educate its least-advantaged children.
That's the grim news. But as the nation remembers the Supreme Court's historic ruling, some signs are more promising. A new generation of equal-opportunity activists is pushing to close the performance gap, focusing not on how to racially integrate classrooms but on how to boost achievement of the poorest kids. And these advocates appear to be winning converts, from teachers' unions to politicians of both parties.
Their recipe for rescuing inner-city schools includes a range of ingredients: More preschool and after-school programs, more funding, more measuring of how schools are performing.
But one element, they say, is the most crucial: How to get better teachers into the neediest classrooms. It's a goal that runs against the grain of nearly every incentive in American public education, from local funding of schools to seniority perks within the teaching profession. Yet this central issue, talked about for years, is starting to take hold now on many fronts.
"Until governors, legislators, and local leaders break the trend of assigning the least qualified teachers to the neediest children, the achievement gap between poor and middle-income children will continue to grow," says Gov. Mark Warner (R) of Virginia, chairman of the Education Commission of the States, which has adopted this reform as a key goal.
The emphasis on teacher quality is wideranging:
• President Bush set new federal mandates in his 2001 No Child Left Behind Act requiring that all children receive a "highly qualified" teacher by 2006. There is debate over who should be deemed qualified, and over whether more federal money is needed to achieve this result, but the act is putting important new focus on teacher training.
• Sen. John Kerry, the presumptive Democrat presidential nominee, recently unveiled a new education plan that includes more pay for teachers in exchange for making it easier for schools to fire ones who perform poorly. In so doing, he risked stirring doubts in teachers' unions, who are among the strongest supporters of the Democratic Party nationally.
• States such as North Carolina and Florida have initiated programs for teachers to provide more incentives at the district level for experienced teachers to opt into classrooms serving poorer students.
• Even teachers' unions - once a fierce opponent of any move to challenge seniority perks or make it easier to fire poorly performing teachers - are opening to initiatives to change such trends. In Denver, an affiliate of the National Education Association recently agreed to a contract that includes controversial new measures of teacher effectiveness, including bonuses for the most effective teachers.
"There are many aspects of the Denver program that are inconsistent with NEA policy, but there is no question that one of the most significant factors in student achievement is teacher quality," says Michael Pons, a spokesman for the NEA, the nation's No. 1 teachers' union. He adds that the NEA backs moves to get more "fully qualified" teachers in schools where high numbers live in poverty, and "compensation has got to be part of that."
The achievement gap between black and white students is still vast. By 12th grade, even those black students that stay in high school average four grade levels behind their white counterparts, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the most comprehensive national test.