WASHINGTON — 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.
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.
This new strategy for closing that gap includes higher pay for teachers to teach in schools serving poor children, as well as new systems to track teacher effectiveness. It focuses more on socioeconomic issues and student achievement than race.
"The new tack is to look at integration in districts more in socioeconomic than racial terms: Kids who are poor ought to have the same opportunities as kids in richer districts do," says Keith Gayler, associate director of the Center for Education Progress, a Washington-based public interest group.
Activists say that the public reaction to Brown v. Board of Education often created perverse results for poor children and minorities. One was "white flight" from inner city schools, followed by the exit of middle-class minorities and the erosion of the local tax base for education. In addition, suburban schools often adapted to busloads of minorities by expanding a policy of "tracking," which often relegated minorities to permanent remedial programs.
"Every minute kids are sitting on a bus, they are not learning. Kids who have fallen through the cracks cannot waste a minute of the day," says Abigail Thernstrom, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. It has left many black families disillusioned with busing and more focused on improving local schools than on integration.
Even programs designed to improve education outcomes for poor children, such as California's mandate for smaller classes, had the unintended result of hiring the best teachers away from inner city schools into more prosperous suburbs.
"It's a very bittersweet lesson we've learned, that the way public education responded to desegregation was not very constructive," says Ross Wiener, who spent five years litigating education cases in the Department of Justice before becoming policy director for the Education Trust, a public interest group that advocates for poor children.
That's why many education and civil rights activists are refocusing on the quality of the teachers in schools serving the poorest students. "That's where the rubber meets the road. Is the curriculum a challenging one? In far too many low-income schools it just is not. And nationwide, you see teachers exercising their seniority rights ... to migrate to the most affluent schools. The least experienced teachers are in the poorest schools," he adds. The Education Trust and the NAACP launched an effort last year to make such data more widely known.
Even as some states are starting to provide more incentives for top-flight teachers to go to poorer schools, private foundations are doing the same. The Milken Family Foundation has launched pilot projects to increase professional incentives for teachers to stay or move into high-poverty schools.
"When you have 60 percent of African-American children still not ready by the fourth grade, it's hard to say that the promise of Brown v. Board of Education has been realized," says Lowell Milken, the foundation's chairman.
Phoenix math teacher Debbie Ong credits such incentives for her decision to move from a prosperous school in the district to one serving many more minorities and low-income students. As a "master teacher," she spends half her day mentoring other teachers. It means more pay, bonuses for improved student performance, and much greater professional satisfaction. "I really like the staff development. It's a nice mix of being still in the classroom but be able to work with other teachers in the school," she says.