Feb 27 2018

Education and the Path to One Nation, Indivisible

In 1967, President Lyndon Johnson established the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (also known as the Kerner Commission) to examine racial division and disparities in the United States. In 1968, the Kerner Commission released a report concluding that the nation was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” Without major social changes, the Commission warned, the U.S. faced a “system of apartheid” in its major cities. Today, 50 years after the report was issued, that prediction characterizes most of our large urban areas, where intensifying segregation and concentrated poverty have collided with disparities in school funding to reinforce educational inequality (see Figure 1).

 Of all the civil rights for which the world has struggled and fought for 5,000 years, the right to learn is undoubtedly the most fundamental. ... The freedom to learn ... has been bought by bitter sacrifice. And whatever we may think of the curtailment of other civil rights, we should fight to the last ditch to keep open the right to learn.
—W.E.B. DuBois, The Freedom to Learn ([1949], 1970, p. 230)

While racial achievement gaps in education have remained stubbornly large, segregation has been increasing steadily, creating a growing number of apartheid schools that serve almost exclusively students of color from low-income families. These schools are often severely under-resourced, and they struggle to close academic gaps while underwriting the additional costs of addressing the effects of poverty—hunger, homelessness, and other traumas experienced by children and families in low-income communities. For all these reasons, research has found that the extent to which students attend schools with other students from low-income families is one of the strongest predictors of their achievement.

These trends once again threaten the very fabric of our nation, as gaps in educational opportunity and attainment continue at a time when those without education are locked out of the knowledge-based economy we face.

This brief is drawn from a chapter on education in the United States in Healing Our Divided Society: Investing in America Fifty Years After the Kerner Report, the update to the 1968 report commissioned by President Lyndon Johnson. The chapter, written by Linda Darling-Hammond, is published in excerpted form with permission from Temple University Press. The full report examines what has happened over the last half-century in our schools, our neighborhoods, our prisons, and our nation, and what work remains to be done to heal our divided society.