Living up to Brown v. Board

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Veronica Anderson, editor

Veronica Anderson, editor

This month, as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision on racially separate schools, you have to wonder what Justice Thurgood Marshall would say about student retention if he were alive today.

Retention, a popular strategy used by urban school districts to end social promotion, is favored by policy makers and the public despite definitive evidence that it does no good for the kids who are held back. Retained kids do not improve academically and are more likely to drop out of school. And a recent study of the policy as it has been implemented in Chicago shows a disproportionately negative effect on black students.

Parallels can be drawn to how racial segregation was viewed in the 1950s. The policy was widely practiced and supported by large segments of the population, especially in the South. History certainly documents that black students were shortchanged academically.

The difference, though, lies in how people feel about what those policies represent. All but the most ardent of racists would have to admit, then and now, that Jim Crow schools were wrong. By contrast today, people feel, in their hearts, that for poorly prepared students, retention is somehow right.

A national survey of parents found 68 percent would support promotion policies that could result in their own child being retained. Another survey of Chicago teachers shows most are on board with the Chicago Public Schools promotion policy. How then, are we to combat such misguided faith placed in a dubious practice? What would Justice Marshall, who argued Brown before the high court, do?

“Thurgood Marshall was an activist,” says professor Carl Grant, director of the department of curriculum and instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. To challenge segregated schools, he helped bring together the best minds, who decided on a mission and then, took action. “I do not see that kind of effort and energy and activism today to help black kids learn,” notes Grant, who believes retention should be used only as a last resort.

A Brown-inspired effort to undo retention would begin with soul-searching dialogue about why so many black children are being held back, Grant offers. According to the Consortium on Chicago School Research, CPS retains more black kids in 3rd, 6th and 8th grades because their test scores are lower and because they attend the lowest-performing schools. The study also notes that the amount of support minority students get from teachers and parents can also affect retention rates.

Next, policymakers would tap experts on the front line—teachers, principals and student leaders—who know best what works and doesn’t work for kids on the fringes of academic life. And then the community would rally around the proposals and noisily demand that Illinois live up to its responsibility for educating all of its children by providing the necessary funds.

A solid infusion of financial support from wealthy individuals and institutions would pick up where government dollars leave off. (The costs associated with some solutions, such as smaller class sizes and hiring better teachers, are steep.)

Most difficult of all, however, would be changing the attitudes that bolster support for retention.

Stereotypes that say the kinds of kinds who are retained can’t learn give teachers and schools a pass, Grant argues. “We have to believe that kids can make it. We just have to teach them how.”

Replacing retention policies with the help kids need would take this country one step closer to realizing the equal education opportunity goals of Brown.

ABOUT US It’s good to be back, taking on the challenge of juggling editorial work with taking care of an energetic baby girl. I’m pleased to report that Lorraine Forte, who returned to Catalyst Chicago shortly before my leave, will rejoin the staff permanently as consulting editor. In that capacity, she will serve as editor of our new Notebook department and as a host on our monthly radio show, “City Voices,” and will oversee special projects.

More good news. Associate Editor Maureen Kelleher has won the public service award in the national contest sponsored by the Society for Professional Journalists. Her March 2003 cover story on guidance counselors won in the newsletter division.