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May 17, 2024
ASCD Blog

5 Truths About Brown V. Board of Education

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Seventy years later, we must ensure our students understand the enduring significance of Brown v. Board of Education in confronting racial inequities and advancing educational justice.
Equity
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In the ongoing struggle to confront the shadows of our past and shape a more just future, the lessons of history loom large. As we navigate the tumultuous terrain of modern-day culture wars and deliberate efforts to whitewash America's complex narrative, it becomes increasingly imperative to ensure students know the profound significance of landmark cases like Brown v. Board of Education.
Seventy years ago today, this U.S. Supreme Court case ended legalized segregation in public schools, paving the way for many young Americans to attend integrated schools today. But a stark reality persists: There are still students confined to racially segregated institutions, unaware of the battles fought to dismantle these barriers.
In delving deeper into the aftermath of Brown v. Board of Education, we confront a tapestry of consequences that continue to shape the landscape of American education. Leslie Fenwick, in her illuminating work Jim Crow’s Pink Slip (Harvard Education Press, 2022), uncovers a sobering truth: In the wake of the Brown decision, dismantling segregated schools precipitated the displacement of highly qualified Black educators. These seasoned professionals, pillars of their communities, found themselves sidelined as less-qualified white counterparts assumed positions of authority, perpetuating a cycle of systemic discrimination and inequality. 
Even today, the Black teacher pipeline has still not recovered from the pushout of experienced professionals and the lack of career opportunities once afforded to highly qualified administrators and community leaders pre-Brown. Instead, the teacher workforce continues to be dominated by white teachers and administrative staff. Recent studies show that although Black students represent approximately 15 percent of the nation’s K-12 enrollment, only 11 percent of principals are Black.

There are still students confined to racially segregated institutions, unaware of the battles fought to dismantle these barriers.

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As we grapple with the enduring legacy of Brown v. Board of Education, it becomes abundantly clear that our collective understanding of its implications must transcend mere acknowledgment. It demands a nuanced examination of the multifaceted legacies—both intended and unintended—that continue to reverberate through our educational institutions. Only through such introspection can we begin to unravel the complexities of our past and chart a course toward a more equitable and inclusive future for all. 
We can begin by making five truths abundantly clear to our students:  

1. We’ve not achieved a fully integrated school system. 

Despite efforts to racially integrate U.S. schools, we have not yet reached this goal. In fact, a 2022 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that America’s schools remain segregated. It is important to teach students that since Brown v. Board of Education, both Black and Hispanic students have continued to be disproportionately exposed to educational experiences and school zoning steeped in racial bias, deficit thinking, and poverty-disciplining. To help students recognize what Brown was able to do and what is left to do, they must understand that a truly integrated school system is a place where every student is empowered to learn and reach their full potential. 

2. The promise of Brown has not been fulfilled. 

Integration was largely regarded as an opportunity for all children to experience equal educational resources, assumingly resulting in greater opportunities and learning experiences for all students. However, data shows that Black students remain socioeconomically more isolated than any of their white peers as the achievement gap remains significant. Although learning resources for Black students have dramatically improved post-Brown, progress toward closing the racial achievement gap continues to be stifled because of the poor educational experiences Black students are more likely to have in schools.  
To juxtapose the promise that came with Brown versus the reality of its decision, we must initiate conversations with our students about equity versus equality in the wake of both social and educational disparities that continue to exist for Black students. While Brown attempted to offer equal learning opportunities, it is impossible to achieve equality in the face of historically and institutionally oppressive systems. For the true promise of Brown to be fulfilled, we must embrace systems change to ensure deep equity work that moves society toward social justice and dignity for all. 

3. Brown was about much more than desegregation.  

While desegregation was the primary legal outcome of the Supreme Court case, this case was representative of the larger complexities behind Americans' relationships with race and opportunity. By legally recognizing that separation of public facilities on the basis of race is a direct violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s “equal protection,” this case overruled the “separate but equal” principle established in 1896 following the Plessy v. Ferguson case. In this way, Brown v. Board of Education opened the door for the expansion of the Civil Rights Movement.  
Using this new “separate is inherently unequal” principle first argued in the 1940s by Thurgood Marshall when litigating a discriminatory law school admissions case, civil rights lawyers and organizations like the NAACP were able to legally advocate for equal access and opportunity in ways that were unprecedented. It is essential to paint this picture for students, helping them understand that this Supreme Court case not only changed the face of public education, but also laid the foundation for “desegregating housing, public accommodations, and institutions of higher education.

For Brown to be fulfilled, we must embrace systems change to ensure deep equity work that moves society toward social justice and dignity for all.

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4. Brown remains the legal framework for ensuring equitable outcomes.  

Since the case was decided in 1954, it remains the only legal framework that speaks directly to ensuring all children have access to equitable learning spaces. Although schools continue to experience challenges along the lines of race and socioeconomic status, there has not been another piece of legislation that has shifted the operations of education as this case did. In the absence of comprehensive federal legislation addressing educational equity, Brown remains a touchstone for advocates and policymakers alike. Its legacy serves as a reminder of the ongoing struggle for justice and equality within our education system, compelling us to confront entrenched inequities and pursue bold solutions to address them. 
Moreover, Brown's enduring relevance underscores the need for sustained vigilance and advocacy in safeguarding the gains made since its landmark decision. In an era marked by renewed efforts to roll back civil rights protections and undermine principles of equality, the lessons of Brown remain more pertinent than ever. We must remain steadfast in our commitment to uphold the ideals of educational equity and ensure the promise of Brown is realized for all students, regardless of race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status. These essays compiled by the AIR Equity initiative can serve as anchor texts for teachers aiming to help students grasp Brown v. Board of Education as the legal framework for equity in education today.

5. The work of Brown must continue today.  

The work initiated by Brown v. Board of Education remains as critical today as it was seven decades ago. Across the country, significant racial gaps in achievement and education attainment persist, further fueling racial disparities in workforce accessibility, fair wages, job quality, and other crucial aspects of an individual’s access to economic mobility. Though we have made slow strides in the right direction, it is our responsibility to ensure that the promise of Brown continues.
While the Supreme Court's unanimous ruling that "separate education facilities are inherently unequal" marked a pivotal moment in the struggle for educational equity, it was just the beginning of a long journey toward true racial justice and equality.  
As educators, it is incumbent upon us to debunk myths with our students about the multifaceted nature of issues of inequity, providing them with the knowledge and tools to critically engage with the complexities of racial justice and equality. By integrating additional instructional framing into our curriculum, we can offer a more comprehensive understanding of both the historical significance of Brown and ongoing charges for change.

Phelton Cortez Moss is a senior professorial lecturer of education policy and leadership at American University and a senior policy advisor to Congresswoman Frederica Wilson (FL-24) who serves as chair of the Higher Education and Workforce Investment Subcommittee. Prior, he served as an assistant professor of teacher education at Tougaloo College and as a senior leader at the Mississippi Department of Education.

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