Just as a half-century ago when the Kerner Commission Report laid out a series of police reforms, cities were also in turmoil over low academic performance of minority students, traditional curricula, mostly white staffs and insensitive superintendents. Urban disturbances in 1967-1970, for example, caused school closures and rapid turnover of school chiefs then and since.
Consider New York City since 1960. Between that year and 2020, there have been 23 superintendents (later called chancellors) for an average tenure of 2.6 years. NYC might be an outlier, however. Using other major cities the Broad Foundation reported in 2018 that tenure was longer, around five years in districts with over three-quarters of student enrollment poor and minority (2018). Somewhere between three to five years has been the average term appointed superintendents have served in big cities (see here and here).
Such turnstile superintendencies, like urban police chiefs have experienced then and now, disrupt continuity in implementing reforms begun by a predecessor and depress morale of district office administrators, principals, and teachers who do the daily work of schooling.
Not only moving school chiefs in and out of the superintendent’s suite but local school boards, states, and the federal government have also legislated changes during crises that reformers believed would improve schooling for all children but particularly those of color.
Since the 1970s, for example, states have raised graduation requirements, altered curricular frameworks, introduced more standardized tests, and ratcheted up accountability regulations for students, teachers, schools, and districts. All of these state laws sought to reduce the achievement test score gap between whites and minorities, increase graduation rates, and send more low-income and minority students to colleges. The poster child for such laws is the federally-funded No Child Left Behind (2001-2016).
A bipartisan law that was endorsed and enforced by Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, NCLB called for all public school students to be proficient in reading and math by 2014. The law established a federally-driven testing and accountability system managed by the states to insure that all students scored well on standardized tests. Schools meeting their numerical targets set by the law would be rewarded and those falling short would be penalized.
By 2011, the weaknesses of this federally-driven system of incentives and sanctions had become obvious to legislators–48 percent of U.S. schools had been labeled “failing.” While high school graduation rates had increased and more graduates enrolled in colleges, the achievement test score gap had hardly budged. In 2016, Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act and President Obama signed off on a law loosening federal regulations on accountability (but not testing or publishing disaggregated racial and ethnic statistics) and giving states far more latitude in designing reforms (see here).
Yet at the same time that federal and state governments have legislated changes to reduce the achievement test score gap, both have reduced funding local school districts over past decades which have led to reductions in school counselors, social workers, nurses, librarians, and community aides. Moreover, worried about in-school crime, especially, violence, urban districts either contracted with local police departments or have created their own police forces (e.g., Los Angeles Unified, New York City).
Both losses of counselors and similar staff plus increased presence of police officers in urban schools have affected students and teachers in reducing the number of adults not in uniform who had previously developed relationships with teenagers.
Finally, policy initiatives to alter racist thinking and actions in police departments have been also duplicated in district, school, and classroom cultures. Preferential treatment in dealing with whites over minorities have been identified and policy changes in some districts have been made in addressing such documented issues as:
*Tracking of minorities into certain courses,
*Minority students being suspended and disciplined at higher rates than white students,
*Large numbers of minorities identified with disabilities,
*Low percentages of minority teachers in schools with mostly children of color.
And for decades there has been efforts to identify teacher biases and behaviors who exhibit low academic expectations of those students who differ from the teacher in ethnicity, race, and social class. Such biases surface in how students are grouped within the classroom, the choice of content and skills and their level of difficulty taught to minority students, who gets called upon during class discussions, and the grades students receive (see here, here, here, and here).
At two times in the past half-century, popular protests swept across the nation to erase racist biases and actions from both individuals and systems of policing and schooling. That the current moment has arisen reveals anew that the efforts of earlier protests in the 1960s to fight poverty insure that each person could vote and discrimination in public facilities was illegal made limited progress.
Those political protests a half-century ago gave voice to the voiceless opening up de facto segregated systems to minorities in police rank-and-file officers and in top posts. Similarly in school systems, protests over unequal treatment of minorities in schools and classrooms and huge gaps in academic outcomes between white and minorities led to the hiring of more teachers who resembled their students in race and ethnicity, additions to the curriculum that encompassed the history and culture of minorities, and efforts to get minority students into gifted programs and Advanced Placement courses.
While forward progress occurred, it was insufficient as the current moment reveals that another generation of police officers and teachers still behave in ways that an earlier generation would have winced at.
Contending explanations for such behavior appeared, then and now. One explanation argues that systems of policing and schooling work fine; troubles come from an unenlightened and ignorant few who display racist actions. They need to be re-educated and re-formed and all will be well.
The other explanation is that it is the larger system, economic, political, and social structures that shape behavior; racism is deeply embedded and pervasive–it is in the bloodstream of these systems. Those structural biases have to be exposed to the light of day and removed.
Currently, the U.S. President and Senate embrace the first explanation, while black and white protesters, many corporate and civic leaders, and non-governmental organizations hold fast to the second explanation.
I cannot (and will not not) predict which explanation will turn into policy as this fractured nation stumbles toward a crucial election 125 days from the recent Juneteenth celebration. The outcome, as any in a democracy, is one still being debated and in the making.