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Fifty Years After Kerner, the Nation Is Still Separate and Unequal, But It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way

John King: Fifty Years After Kerner, the Nation Is Still Separate and Unequal, But It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way

This blog is part of the series, Education and the Path to Equity, examining issues of education and equity 5 decades after the Kerner Commission issued its seminal report on racial division and disparities in the United States.

Fifty years ago, the Kerner Commission, appointed by President Lyndon Johnson, issued a seminal report that highlighted racial disparities in America. A half-century later, striking disparities in opportunity—too often drawn along lines of race and class—still exist throughout our nation.

It is important to note that these disparities are a reflection of choices that we have made as a society: As a nation, we are not acting on what we know is in the best interest of our children.

Researchers point to the nation’s “double segregation” in which, in community after community, low-income students and students of color are consistently concentrated in a subset of schools, and then those schools are systematically and significantly under-resourced.

This segregation is evident in our nation’s capital, where a public school with 11% low-income students and another public school with nearly all low-income students are only 1 mile apart. And in New York City—where I grew up, which is home to 4 million White residents—a Latinx high school student may not encounter White classmates until she goes to college.

A high-quality, well-rounded education—one that includes mathematics and reading as well as the sciences, social studies and civics, world languages, physical education, and the arts—prepares our children to thrive in college and careers, and as engaged members of our democratic society. And yet, students of color and students from low-income families continuously are denied their right to learn because we choose, as a society, to provide them with less.

Gaps in access remain, with students of color and low-income students disproportionately likely to attend a school in which Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses and even subjects such as Chemistry, Physics, and Algebra II are not offered.

According to the latest release from the Civil Rights Data Collection, while 50% of all American high schools offer calculus, just 38% of high schools with high enrollments of Black and Latinx students do so. Certainly, it is unacceptable that just half of our high schools offer calculus; it is also deeply troubling that the vast majority of high schools serving large percentages of students of color do not provide this core course. 

We also know from a wealth of research that quality preschool is critical to a child’s development. Yet, our most vulnerable children far too often arrive at kindergarten underprepared to thrive because we provide them with less access to robust early learning programs.

Reams of research and years of experience show that students succeed when they learn in schools with strong teachers and leaders. Yet, historically underserved students are far more likely to attend schools with novice or less effective teachers.

We also understand the vital, positive impact that school counselors make on the lives of our youth, yet too often students of color and students from low-income communities are provided with little access to the necessary social-emotional and college planning supports that school counselors provide. In fact, 1.6 million students across the country attend a school where there is a sworn law enforcement officer and no school counselor. It’s hard to ignore the underlying message about our values that this sends to our youth, particularly youth in under-resourced communities.

Finally, we know that students who frequently miss school will have trouble succeeding academically. While exclusionary discipline practices—including suspensions and expulsions, which take students out of the learning environment—are declining across America, there are disturbing disproportionalities in school discipline nationwide. Black male students, for example, represent 8% of all k–12 students, yet they account for a quarter of students who receive one or more out-of-school suspensions.  

It is clear: America is failing to fulfill consequential promises that we made to our children regarding their civil rights in education. It should be unacceptable that, more than 60 years later, as a nation, we have not yet fulfilled the promise of Brown v. Board of Education. It should be unacceptable that, 50 years later, we have not heeded the warning bells of the Kerner Commission.

It is clear: America is failing to fulfill consequential promises that we made to our children regarding their civil rights in education.

But it does not have to be this way.

While it is important for our society to grapple with the reality of what we aren't doing, it is also crucial for us to learn from the places that are choosing to provide equitable educational opportunities to students.

Consider the choices that leaders in Montgomery County, MD—where my daughters attend school—are making to ensure meaningful school diversity.

The county operates the nation’s oldest and largest inclusionary zoning program, a policy that ensures mixed-income housing. That’s a choice rooted in the understanding that housing and education are inextricably linked. The county also has an extensive public school choice program designed in a way that substantially increases diversity in school enrollment.

Montgomery County demonstrates that students who go to diverse schools can perform better over time than students who attend schools in areas of concentrated poverty. In fact, a recent study of the county’s housing policy highlights the interconnectedness of inclusionary zoning policies and academic performance. Through random assignment, researchers tracked the performance of elementary students in the county, including those in its inclusionary zoning housing units. The study found that by the end of elementary school, initial achievement gaps between affluent students and the low-income students who attended schools with less poverty were cut by half in mathematics and by one third in reading. And the presence of children from low-income families in the more advantaged schools did not negatively impact the academic performance of the more affluent students.

The reality is that diversity matters, and when districts are intentional about policy levers to advance school diversity, students succeed.

Other initiatives, such as dual-language programs, magnet arts and science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) schools, and regional career and technical high schools, also are proving to be powerful tools in increasing socioeconomic and racial diversity in schools, as well as in reducing achievement gaps.

Consider North Carolina, one of the earlier adopters of dual-language immersion programs. A study found that African American students enrolled in “two-way” dual-language programs significantly outscored their peers who did not participate in the dual-language programs on the state’s reading and math tests.

This blog is part of the series, Education and the Path to Equity, examining issues of education and equity. More from the series >

When students attend diverse schools, it can increase empathy, improve their problem-solving skills, and contribute to positive academic outcomes, especially for students from low-income families and students of color.

Given the re-segregation of our schools and our current national climate, it is perhaps more critical than ever to ensure that diversity and integration are priorities in our public schools.

Diverse schools also must include diverse educators. 

Research shows that students of color do better when they have access to diverse teachers and school leaders. In fact, one recent study shows that Black students from low-income families are more likely to graduate from high school and to consider enrolling in college if they are taught by just one Black teacher in elementary school.

To be sure, students of color and all students benefit when they are taught by diverse educators who represent a variety of backgrounds, perspectives, and experiences. Indeed, it is important for White students to see teachers and leaders of color in their classrooms and schools.

It’s also important to recognize that while diversity at the schoolhouse door is important, it’s not good enough. We must make sure that students have a diverse curricular experience and that individual courses—especially those that are most rigorous—are not segregated by race or class.

As a nation, we need to recommit to changing our public policies to produce integrated schools.

If education is liberation, then it’s our job to knock down barriers and make sure that we are getting every student the educational opportunities that he or she deserves. We can’t let another 50 years go by and let down another generation of students. Our kids can’t wait. Our future as a nation is at stake. So, let’s get to work.

John B. King, Jr. is the President and Chief Executive Officer of The Education Trust, and former U.S. Secretary of Education.