In January, U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige proclaimed that No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is the "logical step after Brown v. Board of Education ended segregation." With the 50th anniversary of Brown upon us, it's not surprising that the Bush Administration would claim NCLB is a tool of racial justice.
Admittedly, both NCLB and the Brown decision are examples of dramatic shifts in federal education policy that reflect an increasing national concern for the educational inequality of their respective times. And both draw on a widespread public belief in the role that schools have in alleviating social inequality and maintaining the democratic ideal. And neither Brown, with its focus on the "separate but unequal" school system as the source of inequality, nor NCLB, with its dubious focus on the validity of standardized test scores, adequately addressed the deeper social and economic inequalities that schools reproduce in countless ways.
We've had five decades of education reform since the Brown decision, and we still stare down glaring race and class-based achievement gaps in public education. Too many schools still fail to adequately educate too many low-income children and children of color. Many people, out of desperation and exasperation, have lashed their hopes of educational equality to the rhetorical promise of accountability embedded in NCLB. This provides a toe-hold for the Bush Administration to claim NCLB as civil rights legislation and use the Brown decision as the poster child for federal education mandates.
The differences between the Brown decision and NCLB are significant. At a recent conference that examined the Brown decision, I was struck by the comments of Carl Grant, the highly respected chair of the department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Grant pointed out that one of the key differences between Brown and NCLB lies in the definition of "achievement." He pointed out that "achievement" under NCLB has been narrowly reduced to test scores. To him, the hopes and dreams of the African-American community in relation to the Brown decision were ultimately about achievement in life—a much broader and more visionary definition.
And here's where NCLB really falls flat: It fails to provide a vision of egalitarian social change. The Brown decision was born out of the struggle for racial equality and civil rights in this country. It was one part of a mass movement for social justice built by collective community action and local organizing efforts. Questions about its success aside, Brown was grounded in a context of attempting to improve conditions for African Americans and others in this country in the spirit of socio-economic equality.