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Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site

In Topeka, Kan., the Brown v. Board of Education site is managed by the National Parks Service, marking the historic 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision that ordered an end to segregation in American schools. 

The data is clear. In the classroom, student achievement is closely tied to teacher effectiveness. And teacher effectiveness is closely tied to teacher experience. But in the city of St. Louis, where most students are African-American, one-fifth of teachers are new to the profession — compared to just 7 percent across Missouri.

On May 17, 1954 — 65 years ago this month — the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka that racial segregation in public schools is unconstitutional. Yet de facto segregation, in the form of educational inequalities, persists today. And if we fail to address the inequalities head-on, we’ll be having this same conversation 65 years from now.

The lack of veteran teachers in communities of color helps to produce an achievement gap that echoes throughout our educational system. For example, according to the National Education Assessment Program, the average math scores among African-American and Latino students are 24 and 33 points lower, respectively, than scores for white students. In areas of reading, scores are 20 to 26 points lower.

Such inequalities persist even within gifted programs. In 2017, Missouri served 38,870 gifted students. Though African-Americans make up nearly 12 percent of the state’s population, just 7.15 percent of these students were black.

But in another area, students of color are consistently over-represented. In 2015, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection, enrollment in the Juvenile Detention Center School, within the Special School District of St. Louis County, was 87 percent black and just 12 percent white.

That trend extends to some of Missouri’s top school districts. In Clayton, according to the 2015 Civil Rights Data, enrollment is 16.4 percent African-American and 63.6 percent white. But black students comprised only 3.4 percent of gifted and talented programs, while blacks received out-of-school suspensions at more than twice the rate of white classmates.

The situation is even more problematic for black students with disabilities. In Clayton, white students comprise 62.8 percent of those served under the Individual with Disabilities Education Act programs, and receive 24 percent of out-of-school suspensions. African-American students comprise 28.9 percent of the enrollment but receive 68 percent of suspensions.

Similar disparities exist in other top Missouri districts, and indeed across the United States.

There are solutions — if we have the will to implement them. For example, research indicates that exposure to same-race teachers reduces school disciplinary infractions for African-American students. Sadly, in Missouri, just 5 percent of teachers are African-American, while 93 percent are white.

Equity is not a la carte. We don’t get to pick and choose how and when it’s offered. It must be embedded in our institutions, and we must hold systems accountable. Every child deserves an equitable learning environment.

In moving forward, we must ask ourselves difficult questions. Why do such inequities continue to exist in our educational system? What role am I playing in providing an equitable environment? Who is benefiting from our educational system? Whom do we hold accountable? How do we ensure that our educational systems benefit all of Missouri’s children?

Sixty-five years after Brown, no child should have his or her educational trajectory shaped by skin color.

In the words of Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, “The future which we hold in trust for our own children will be shaped by our fairness to other people’s children.”

Sheretta Butler-Barnes is associate professor in the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis. Maya Williams is a second-year doctoral student at the Brown School.