Minorities & Education in America
This article describes the history of racial and language minorities in K-12 education in the United States. From almost the time they arrived in the United States, minorities such as African-Americans, Hispanics, and Asians have gone to extraordinary lengths in their efforts to seize a piece of the American Dream - some slaves, for example, risked their lives to attend illegal schools, and later free blacks from the north gave of their time to educate emancipated slaves. Each minority group has had a unique set of challenges to face: African-Americans had to overcome the bitter taste of slavery in order to succeed, and Hispanics and Asians faced language barriers and a sometimes subtle, sometimes overt form of racism to rise to become leaders in their communities. However, since the second half of the 20th century, many minority students have found themselves in under-performing or even failing schools as defined by the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act. Parents, community leaders and government officials have sought ways to enhance minority education, with some minority parents choosing public charter schools, private schools and even homeschooling as ways to rediscover the quality minority schooling of the past. Indeed, decades of research have shown that socioeconomic factors are less important predictors of academic success than dedicated communities, challenging curriculum, dedicated principals and teachers, and involved parents.
Keywords African-Americans; Charter Schools; Curriculum; Failing Schools; Hispanics; Homeschooling; Minorities in Education; No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB); Prejudice; Public Schools; Racism; School Vouchers; Under-Performing Schools
One of the abiding myths in America is that it is a melting pot, a great cauldron into which one takes their racial and ethnic heritage, blends it with freedom and opportunity, and creates for themselves a new American persona. The United States has always been a nation of immigrants, and millions of new opportunity-seekers continue to arrive every year. In the 21st century, the United States is becoming more multicultural than ever before, and these trends are being reflected in minority student enrollment:
In 2007–2008, minorities constituted 42 percent of public school students in kindergarten through 12th grade, of which 16 percent were black (National Center for Education Statistics, 2009). Between 1993–1994 and 2005–2006, the percentage of black students in public schools increased from 16.5 to 17.2 percent while the percentage of Hispanic students increased from 12.7 percent to 19.8 percent of public school enrollment (Fry, 2007).
Minority students can be divided into two groups: African American students, whose ancestors suffered from centuries of slavery but who also speak English, and others, such as Asians and Hispanics, who are both racial and linguistic minorities.
Government research indicates that while all these minority groups made educational gains in the past few decades, the rate of improvement was less than that enjoyed by white students. The end result is that while there are many individual exceptions to the rule, minority groups in the aggregate are falling further behind in terms of academic achievement. Those minorities who are showing the greatest academic progress appear largely to be those attending charter schools, private schools and home schools.
African-Americans in the Schools
Perhaps the most regrettable development in American history was the importation of African slaves beginning in the early 17th century. According to the 1860 census, the last conducted before the emancipation of slaves following the Civil War, there were nearly 4 million slaves in the United States, most of them of African ancestry (Historical Census Browser, 2004).
The institution of slavery was the opponent of education. Laws were passed in the South that made it against the law to teach a slave how to read. According to Erickson (1997), South Carolina adopted the first compulsory ignorance law in 1740. It was illegal for anyone to teach a slave to write, and a fine of one hundred pounds would be levied to anyone caught doing so.
"Eventually each [slave-owning] state had similar laws, nevertheless, some Blacks did achieve an education. That great Black orator and writer, Frederick Douglass, was taught to read and write by his Southern mistress. Some large Southern cities had "secret schools," and instances are known in which slaves and free Blacks attended school together, a highly dangerous practice" (Erickson, 1997).
One well-known slave, Henry Bibb, put it succinctly in 1850, "Slaves were not allowed books, pen, ink, nor paper, to improve their minds" (Bibb, 2006 , p. 15). Even so, slaves in many major Southern cities, such as Charleston and Columbia, learned to read - those slaves on large, isolated plantations in the Deep South were the most isolated and stood the least chance of being educated. In the North, institutions such as the African Free School, founded in New York in 1787, produced leaders such as James McCune Smith, the first African American to earn a medical degree.
After the Civil War, when the 13th Amendment gave slaves their freedom, black leaders in the South realized that the millions of newly emancipated slaves would not be able to take full advantage of their newfound freedom without educational opportunities. Within a context of political and economic oppression in the post-war South, black educators made the best of an extremely difficult situation by creating a parallel universe of black schools (Anderson, 1988). With help from philanthropists like Sears, Roebuck and Company President Julius Rosenwald, Union generals, and others, historically black colleges and universities were created in the still-segregated South. Black educator Booker T. Washington, who was born in slavery, was pivotal in the movement that established over 5,000 primarily black elementary and high schools across the South.
By the turn of the 20th century, black primary and secondary schools were turning out national and community leaders. In Washington, D.C., Dunbar High School was one of many shining lights. African-American historian and economist Thomas Sowell notes that it succeeded against all odds:
"Back in 1899, when the schools of Washington, D.C. were racially segregated and discrimination was rampant, there were four academic high schools in the city-- three white and one black. When standardized tests were given that year, the black academic high school [Dunbar] scored higher than two of the three white academic high schools. Today, exactly a century later, even setting such a goal would be considered hopelessly utopian. Nor was this a fluke. That same high school was scoring at or above the national average on IQ tests during the 1930s and 1940s. Yet its physical plant was inadequate and its average class size was higher than that in the city's white high schools" (Sowell, n.d.).
African American Educators
From 1865 to 1954, during the time of legally segregated schools, there were many superb African-American educators such as Alice Dunbar-Nelson, a high school teacher at the all-black Howard High School in Wilmington, Delaware, who used her Master's degree from Cornell to instruct her high school English students in Chaucer, Milton, Shakespeare and Coleridge (Gibson, 1997). The quality of African-American teachers in this period was nothing short of amazing, and they produced some of the most well-known leaders in U.S. history. Apart from Dunbar and Howard high schools, Booker T. Washington High School in racially-divided Atlanta produced Martin Luther King Jr., and Frederick Douglass High School in Baltimore produced Thurgood Marshall, the first black justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Achievement at Elementary Level
On the elementary school level, there was not the achievement gap between black and white students that exists today. Indeed, some black schools outperformed their white counterparts. For example, as African American economist Walter Williams notes:
[African-American historian and economist Thomas Sowell compared] test scores for sixth-graders in Harlem schools with those in the predominantly white Lower East Side for April 1941 and December 1941. In paragraph and word meaning, Harlem students, compared to Lower East Side students, scored equally or higher. In 1947 and 1951, Harlem third-graders in paragraph and word meaning and arithmetic reasoning and computation scored about the same - in some cases slightly higher and in others slightly lower - than their Lower East Side counterparts (Williams, 2003).
"Separate But Equal" Educational System
Still, while black high schools like Dunbar were sending graduates to Harvard by the 1920s, in the century between the end of the Civil War in 1865 and the beginning of the civil rights movement in the 1950s, blacks were part of a system of "separate but equal schools" -- whites would attend certain schools, and blacks would attend others. Most black schools achieved what they did despite overcrowding and inadequate resources - Dunbar itself had no school cafeteria for the first forty years of its existence. The 1896 U.S. Supreme Court decision Plessy v. Ferguson declared this "separate but equal" educational system to be constitutional, but that ruling was overturned in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision (Thurgood Marshall won the case on behalf of the NAACP), a ruling that set off more than a half-century of attempts at school desegregation that continue today.
Future of African American Educators
Since Brown, the fortunes of black students and teachers have turned somewhat sour. Since the 1960s and 1970s there has been a steady exodus of white and middle-class black families from urban centers, and now a full one-third of blacks are middle-class suburbanites. This drain of students and resources left the poorest students - traditionally black and now also Hispanic - behind in urban schools that have become pockmarked with violence, crime, and drug use. Making matters worse, local black leaders have lost operational control of...
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