The Failures of US Public Schooling: Past and Present

The Failures of US Public Schooling: Past and Present

The current state of public education in the United States is appalling at best. In her 2013 book Reign Of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, Diane Ravitch points to the overreliance on standardized test scores and an emphasis on charter schools as a quick fix for struggling schools as major impediments to the school system and the communities dependent upon it. Ravitch cites the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCBL) and the Race to The Top (RTTT) initiative of 2009 as the root causes of the current educational failures. The NCLB, for example, declared that students be tested in math and reading every year from grades three through eight; 100% of students were expected to pass these tests. Schools that didn’t meet this mark would be classified as failing. Failing schools risked closure, privatization, or being converted into a charter school, among other potential penalties. RTTT, on the other hand, appropriated billions of dollars for schools during a period of deep economic depression. Access to the funds, however, hinged on standardized test scores. Faculty and staff pay also became linked to standardized test scores as a result of RTTT. According to Ravitch, the schools that benefitted most from RTTT were those that already had considerable resources with which to meet NCLB standards. Such schools were more likely to win access to RTTT funds than schools in need the most help (i.e., those serving primarily low-income students, African Americans, Hispanics, and students with disabilities). Ravitch goes on to add that those schools who were awarded the funds often invested the money into private companies (e.g., standardized test preparation consultants, rather than the students and schools themselves). In this way, RTTT was more effective as an economic stimulus than as an educational reform measure. Both NCLB and RTTT were widely adopted without proof of their efficacy or consideration for their impact on the most vulnerable and underserved school populations. What is certain is that in the years following their implementation, public schools have deteriorated rapidly, the impact of which is felt by students, teachers, administrators, and the community at large.1

On April 1 of this year, 11 educators based out of Atlanta, Georgia, were found guilty of bolstering tests scores. According to court documents, the guilty party’s jobs were threatened if their students did not meet target. This, they say, was the motivating factor behind the falsified scores. Not only have the unrealistic goals of NCLB and RTTT contributed to an atmosphere of dishonesty among faculty and staff, but so much emphasis is placed on standardized testing that children are losing valuable class time. US schools have routinely fallen behind the schools systems of other developing and emerging nations. In US schools, children are busy memorizing outdated and often times irrelevant information rather than learning to think critically about and preparing for the world around them. This realization led to the emergence of the Opt-Out movement. Opt-Out organizers demand an end to high-stakes testing, economic and racial segregation, and privatization of public schools, to name a few.

On May 19, 2015, organizers in Charleston, South Carolina, rallied together in support of Burke High, the last traditional public, historically black school in the city. Burke has been under increased scrutiny due to the pervasion of NCLB/RTTT rhetoric. According to Burke teacher Kara Keale, the pervading idea that the school is failing is a myth, and when compared to schools with similar demographics, Burke students routinely out-perform their peers on standardized tests. So why are negative stereotypes and rumors constantly circulating about the school? According to Ravitch’s logic, NCLB and RTTT opened the door way for the privatization of education in that schools like Burke that are labeled “failing” face the threat of being closed, rebranded, and reopened as charter schools. Charter schools are sold to the public as “the salvation for poor minority” students, yet evidence suggests most of the children enrolled in charters are white and well off.


Charter schools “are deregulated and free from most state laws” typically governing schools. This means charters are free to “establish their own disciplinary policies and their own admission rules.” They’re also free “from the financial oversight that traditional public schools receive,” though they accept federal funds. As such, charter schools represent lucrative business opportunities for entrepreneurs who recognize that millions in federal funds are appropriated to them, and they’re free to spend their money how they see fit. With the overreliance on standardized testing, this often means spending money on educational consultants who instruct teachers on how to “teach to the test,” rather than investing in what may be best for students. According to Ravitch, charter schools are “on average, no more innovative or successful than [traditional] public schools.” Those in attendance at the meeting on Burke’s future made it very clear they do not want the school closed and converted into a charter. Instead, they demanded “a more diverse and broad curriculum and more funding for technology and trades.” They also denounced the idea of Burke being a “failing” school. The parents, students, teachers, and community members rallying to support the future of Burke High and those organizing against standardized testing in schools recognize the importance of quality education and the positive impact it can have on communities. It is also equally important to recognize the connection between the history of education, particularly in the African American community, and the current wave of activism in the US.


There has always been a struggle for quality education in the African American community. Two reoccurring themes in this history include the high value African Americans place on education and the adverse impact of white America’s economic and political interests on black educational pursuits. Reaching back to the slavery era, Africans and African Americans sought education as a means of social, personal, and, in many cases, economic elevation in society. Yet, wealthy, influential slave owners saw the education of blacks as a direct threat to their wealth and power. They understood that educated Africans and African Americans would be more likely to demand improved quality of life and working conditions. South Carolina was the first to enact slave codes (1740) outlawing the education of enslaved people. Colonial South Carolina—like its sister colony Barbados. from which it adopted its slave codes—had a majority (enslaved) African population. Thus, the decision to deny blacks education meant poor whites, who neither owned land nor enslaved people, had no access to education either. The majority of white America fell into this category as other slave holding territories (and later states) took their lead from South Carolina. Education in the white community was left up to individual families and private organizations, a trend that persisted through Reconstruction, the brief period of black enfranchisement immediately following the war. However, though slavery had formally ended, black education still remained a controversial topic. Former slave states were forced to spend money on African American children and black schools and, as a result, felt the need to do that much more for the previously educationally neglected poor white population. Many black schools emerged during this time. Some were funded by freed people, but the majority were funded by both public and private white organizations who saw black education as another means of exerting control on black lives. For example, the American Missionary Association, which funded numerous black schools throughout the South, printed a series of teaching materials for freed people and, more specifically, their children. The materials, aimed at maintaining the status quo, showed black people in positions of subservience and promoted notions that African Americans were inherently inferior culturally, mentally, and even morally. This type of education was actually quite successful in that little changed for most African Americans after slavery. Black lives across the South, in particular, were controlled by whites at every level in society. Their education was a reflection of this. However, though black schools were also overwhelmingly underfunded, poorly staffed, overcrowded, and under-resourced, the subpar curriculum was something they shared in common with their white counterparts. White students and the white community at large suffered from white supremacy in education and the tendency to inflate European contributions to society and the world.2

By the early 1940s, a movement for quality education in the black community took shape. In Charleston, South Carolina, African American community members, activists, educators, and parents worked together with the NAACP to improve conditions in area schools, for students and educators, by equalizing salaries and demanding access to better resources. White officials in the city resisted their demands. Ahead of the Brown v. Board of Education decision that overturned Plessy v. Ferguson and the concept of “separate but equal,” whites in Charleston came up with more “sophisticated…rational, legally defensible, and durable” ways to maintain the status quo of “white supremacy in education.” In The Paradoxes of Desegregation: African American Struggles for Educational Equity in Charleston, South Carolina, 1926-1972, R. Scott Baker sheds light on the roots of current trends in education. Baker explains that standardized tests were adopted as a covert way “to restrict black access…to white institutions and the profession. This form of exclusion, he goes to add, was also meant “to confine the overwhelming majority of African Americans to separate, if increasingly equal, schools and colleges.” He argues that many other southern states followed South Carolina’s lead. After the Brown decision, conditions in schools across black America deteriorated significantly as the government turned its focus toward enforcing integration rather than improving educational quality. During the civil rights movement, community-based alternative schools emerged to meet the needs of the African American community.3

From Citizenship Schools to Freedom and Liberations Schools, civil rights organizers took education of the community into their own hands. Charleston native and Avery Normal Institute graduate (1916) Septima Clark helped establish Citizenship Schools throughout the Charleston area beginning in the 1950s. The purpose was to teach literacy and self-sufficiency, and encourage voter registration by helping people to pass the discriminatory literacy tests, which was a mandatory prerequisite to registering to vote at the time. Literacy tests were a particularly large deterrent to black political involvement given the deplorable state of schools in black America. As an educator herself, Clark understood the connection between access to quality education and improved quality of life for blacks throughout the Charleston area. During the 1960s, Clark went on to establish the Citizenship Education Program, through which she trained other organizers to teach citizenship education in their communities, and in this way, her network expanded across the South. The Freedom Summer of 1964 saw the emergence numerous Freedom Schools in Mississippi, which had the lowest number of black registered voters at the time. In addition to the citizenship aspect, Freedom School teachers also taught an early form of black studies. That same year, Malcolm X’s Organization of Afro-American Unity founded a Liberation School. The school became a platform allowing OAAU members to teach African and African American history and culture almost exclusively. James Campbell, a founding member and educational director of the Liberation School, said the school was a natural outgrowth of Citizenship/Freedom School movement, though it varied significantly with regard to its political objectives. Campbell’s work in the Liberation School helped pave the way for his later work in helping to legitimize black studies as an academic discipline. The alternative school movement is an example of community taking action and filling educational voids not met in traditional school settings.4

As organizers continue to advocate on behalf of meaningful, measurable educational reform, it is important to keep in mind the historical context surrounding the movement, to recognize and understand the United States has a history of undervaluing and underfunding public education. Examinations of so-called educational reforms like NCLB and RTTT only drive this point home further. As unrest continues to grow in the community, inevitably other reform measures will be proposed, and it is up to the community to demand such measures be tried and tested before sweeping changes are implemented without real consideration of their impact. This process will take time, and understandably so. In the meantime, the organizers, activists, and community at large should feel empowered and inspired to take matters into their own hands. For example, Black Lives Matter Charleston recently met at the Avery Research Center for History and Culture for what they called a Liberation School planning meeting. During the two-hour long session, the history majors in the group answered questions on a variety of topics relating to African American studies. Resources were shared and plans were discussed for going into local communities and offering workshops centered on black history and culture, as well as the history of policing/police brutality and knowing your rights when interacting with law enforcement. The exploration of such subjects, they felt, were essential to improving the quality of life for, not just African Americans, but all Americans. As organizers continue advocate on behalf of the future of Burke High, to end standardized testing, and so forth, we must not only draw on the lessons of past movements, but the strength of those who carried these movements because history has shown us the fight for quality education is an uphill battle.

1 Diane Ravitch, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013), 11-17; 158.

Carter G. Woodson, The Education of the Negro: An Essential Preface to Understanding the Mis-Education of the Negro (Brooklyn: A & B Publishing, 1998), 1; Michele Foster, Black Teachers on Teaching, (New York: The New Press, 1997), xxvii; xxiv; Heather Andrea Williams, Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005), 1; 5; 44; 78-79; 81; James D. Anderson, The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988), 1-3; 30; 280; Eric Anderson and Alfred A. Moss, Jr., Dangerous Donations: Northern Philanthropy and South Black Education, 1902-1930, (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1999), 9-11; Robert DeFina and Lance Hannon, "The Legacy of Black Lynching and Contemporary Segregation in the South," Review of Political Economy 48 no. 2 (2011): 166

Edmund L. Drago, Charleston's Avery Center: From Education to Civil Rights to Preserving the African American Experience, (Charleston: The History Press, 2006), 133-136; R. Scott Baker, The Paradoxes of Desegregation: African American Struggles for Educational Equity in Charleston, South Carolina, 1926-1972, (Columbia: The University of South Carolina Press, 2006), 125-138

Stephen Schneider, "The Sea Island Citizenship School: Literacy, Community Organization, and the Civil Rights Movement," College English 70 no. 2 (2007): 153; LaVerne Gyant and Deborah Atwater, "Septima Clark's Rhetorical and Ethnic Legacy: Her Message of Citizenship in the Civil Rights Movement," Journal of Black Studies 26 no. 5 (1996): 577-578; William W. Sales, Jr., From Civil Rights to Black Liberation: Malcolm X and the Organization of Afro-American Unity, (Boston: South End Press, 1994), 120-121; Katherine Mellon Charron, Freedom's Teahcer: The Life of Septima Clark,  (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2009), 250-274; 302.