Our much deplored “crisis” in public education includes an educational achievement gap between blacks and whites. However, the gap in educational attainment has actually narrowed dramatically. Our black population has sought and made tremendous educational progress, while “coming from behind.”
Consider the history. Slavery, a worldwide, centuries-old, inhumane labor system, was introduced here in colonial times. With rare exceptions, slaves were illiterate and it was illegal to educate most of them. That was a huge “gap.”
The 1863 Emancipation Proclamation did not instantly cure illiteracy. To be readmitted to the Union after the Civil War, Southern states had to write new constitutions. Newly enfranchised former slaves pressed for public schools. The Freedmen’s Bureau during its brief years (1865 to 1872) established the core of the South’s public education system on a racially segregated basis, including teachers. Howard University was established in 1867, in part to educate teachers for black schools. Howard’s Law School educated the black lawyers who later won the Brown v. Board of Education lawsuit.
Until the early 20th century, most black people lived in the South and worked on farms. When Reconstruction ended in 1873, Southern white elites reduced public school funding, especially for segregated, all-black schools that had inferior physical facilities, poorly paid teachers and few books. Black children, working in the fields with their families, attended school for fewer days of an officially shorter year than white students attended during a longer school year. This was an early education gap.
In the early 20th century, when blacks sought employment and a better life away from the rigid Southern caste system, the “great migrations” northward led to open racial hostility. Racial covenants in Northern real estate deeds barred blacks from living in certain neighborhoods. Restricted to residential ghettos, black children attended neighborhood segregated schools that were not as well funded as white schools. Segregated all-black Northern schools had poorer facilities than white schools just as in the South, continuing a gap in education.
Lawsuits, based on state constitution education provisions, might win claims for more funds, but legislatures did not always comply with the legal decisions. Local school officials used administrative devices to maintain segregated schools or segregated classrooms within schools.
In the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, legally segregated schools were declared unconstitutional. After a federal lawsuit in the 1980s, Buffalo was required to desegregate its schools. The process was closely supervised by the local federal district court judge until October 1995, when the case ended. It was not a top-down imposition like school reforms attempted today. The desegregation process was carried out thoughtfully, by people who knew and involved the whole community. The process was peaceful here, in contrast to turbulent anti-desegregation protests in other cities. But it was accompanied by “white flight” to the suburbs, with the consequences of unequally funded suburban and urban schools, and schools segregated in fact, even if not by law.
Segregation and discrimination left their marks. The centuries-long education gap should give pause to proponents of quick solutions. Social changes, still ongoing, have resulted in remarkable educational progress. Government census statistics provide a historical perspective on actual educational attainments.
• In 1870, 80 percent of the black population was illiterate as were 11.5 percent of whites. By 1979, illiteracy for both races fell below 2 percent.
• In 1920, among those ages 25 to 29, 44.6 percent of blacks and 12.9 percent of whites had fewer than five years of elementary schooling. By 1990, fewer than 1 percent of blacks or whites had less than five years of schooling. The gap had closed sharply.
• In 1870, only 5 percent of white children ages 14 to 19 were enrolled in high school. There were too few blacks enrolled to even be recorded. Today about 90 percent of children of all races in the appropriate age range are enrolled in high schools – another gap closed.
• In 1920, 6 percent of blacks and 22 percent of whites ages 25 to 29 had completed high school. By 2012, about 89 percent of blacks and almost 95 percent of whites had completed high school, but not necessarily in four years. Another sharp reduction in the gap.
• In 1920, only 1.2 percent of blacks had a bachelor’s degree or more, compared to 4.5 percent of whites. By 2012, 23 percent of blacks had a bachelor’s degree or more, as did almost 40 percent of whites. Though a gap remains, it is growing smaller proportionally.
The changes in education level are remarkable, but they came slowly. While there was regular progress, on average just a few percentage points changed from decade to decade for either blacks or whites. From 1870 to the present, educational reforms came and went, but larger social and economic changes, reflected by laws curtailing child labor and mandating school attendance, resulted in increased educational attainment.
Our public education system is not “broken,” at least not yet. There are no secret ways to “turn schools around” swiftly. The public education system, with all its flaws and deficiencies, has served our nation well. Well-meaning educational reformers, test-obsessed and impatient as they are, may break the system beyond repair, and that would be a disaster for all.
Adeline Gordon Levine, Ph.D., D.Lit., is a professor emerita in the Department of Sociology at the University at Buffalo. Murray Levine, Ph.D., J.D., is a distinguished service professor emeritus in the Department of Psychology at UB.