Politics & Policy

The Promise of Brown

Schools are no longer legally segregated — but that doesn’t mean they do well by their students.

Today marks the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Topeka Board of Education, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 9 to 0 that “separate but equal” schooling was unconstitutional. But while the Court’s decision ended legal segregation in our schools, it has done little to ensure that all children have an opportunity to attend schools that open the doors of opportunity.

For decades, education reformers have sought to fulfill the promise of Brown, with limited success. Efforts to take bureaucratic systems designed to warehouse children in an industrializing economy a century ago and retool them into engines of world-class schooling have repeatedly come up short. Not such a shocking development, at that. This approach has been painful, entailing a series of bitter political fights in order to win modest reforms of school boards, tenure laws, teacher pay, school calendars, and much else.

Transformative change generally isn’t the product of bureaucratic dictates or endless policy fights. In sector after sector, the American experience is that it has been the product of imaginative entrepreneurs succeeding when given room to build anew. Education reformers have largely eschewed this dynamic recipe, confident that their next hot idea will finally make the system “work.” One result has been an endless cycle of hot reforms — site-based management, block scheduling, new math, new new math, professional learning communities, small high schools, and what have you — that come and go without seriously denting the carapace of our education system.

#ad#The Obama administration has been hailed for its “reform” chops, but the agenda has unfortunately been larded with mandates, directives, new federal programs, and the familiar confidence in bureaucratic solutions. Obama’s crown jewels in K–12 reform have been the Race to the Top program and the School Improvement Grant program, which relied on airy promises about professional development, teacher evaluation, data systems, and “turnaround” plans.

Meanwhile, the administration seems determined to stymie efforts that provide the fullest opportunity to rethink and reimagine our system of schooling. Attorney General Eric Holder sued to stop a Louisiana voucher program that promised to give students trapped in abysmal schools access to private options. President Obama has consistently opposed new funding that would allow the successful D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program to resume operations. The Department of Education ironically excluded for-profit enterprises from its Investing in Innovation fund.

A more promising path forward is one marked by liberalization and deregulation. Rather than ask federal officials to compel state officials to compel school districts to transform themselves — a task that would be beyond the ken of most Fortune 500 CEOs — policymakers might better serve the nation’s children by creating room for new entrants to thrive.

New school models like Rocketship Academies, Carpe Diem, and Summit Public Charter Schools have pioneered smarter ways to blend technology and talent. By having students tackle routine material on computers, they free up time for richer student–teacher contact, even while shaving personnel costs. It’s a no-brainer, but it’s tough to do in school districts hamstrung by legacy contracts, balky information-technology departments, and worries about resistance from teachers or school-board members.

Online providers like Florida Virtual Schools and Khan Academy are providing instruction or invaluable instructional resources online. Yet traditional schools and districts are not configured to take advantage of these resources. In fact, it’s worse than that. State regulations can smother efforts to leverage online teaching, as “teacher of record” and “seat-time” requirements make it tough to give students credit for these courses.

Meanwhile, well-intended new teacher-evaluation systems, frequently adopted with aggressive federal encouragement, can serve to make these new teaching models functionally impermissible. How so? Well, teachers in “blended” learning environments (where technology, online teachers, and classroom teachers mix and match) won’t necessarily have a traditional class of 30 students for 180 days, and they won’t be teaching in traditional settings. This can make it tough for them to succeed under new regulations that demand reading and math gains that may not reflect what the teachers actually do, or that require observations that may be ill suited to new-style classrooms. The predictable result: Risk-averse school districts will stick to what they know the bureaucrats will okay.

There are two paths to fulfilling the promise of Brown. More than a half-century of traversing the path of bureaucracy and regulation has come up short. It’s time to strike a bolder path, one more attuned to the American genius for reinvention.

— Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy at the American Enterprise Institute.

Frederick M. Hess — Mr. Hess is the director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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