School integration 65 years after Brown

This is the first part of a two-part series on the Brown@65 conference, hosted by Penn State’s Center for Education and Civil Rights & Africana Research Center. Part two covers the conference keynote from Nikole Hannah-Jones, and it is available here.

Today – 65 years after the Brown decision – the school integration movement is undoubtedly at an inflection between a contemporary low point in federal/state support for integration and a high point (that is getting higher daily) in expanded public attention to the benefits of integration and expanded public will for action. Last week, we took stock of the good and bad in contemporary school integration at a conference at Penn State for the 65th anniversary of Brown v. Board, and we talked about avenues – big and small – for positive change.

The conference was co-hosted by my org, the Center for Education & Civil Rights, and the university’s Africana Research Center. We had 9 leading scholars on school integration. (By “integration” I mean an expansive use of the term that includes enrollment, teacher diversity, discipline, curriculum etc.) And, Nikole Hannah-Jones came to campus to deliver the keynote.

It was thrilling, frankly. Since the conference, I’ve been reviewing my notes and catching up on the twitter conversation (see #Brown65); so, I wanted to put together a summary of some of the key points from the presentations. I’ll do this in two parts – this post focusing on the panels, and the second part devoted to Nikole Hannah-Jones’ keynote. I’ve tried to include everyone’s twitter handles, where possible, so I encourage you to follow these folks if you’re interested in learning more about their work. Also, feel free to send any questions/comments in comments here or to us at


It was a big day for CECR. A few hours before the conference, we released a new report with the UCLA Civil Rights Project. Titled “Harming our Common Future,” the report sounds a necessary and frustratingly familiar alarm about the pace of school resegregation. It’s gotten great coverage already in the New York Times, Washington Post and I don’t have the space to summarize it here, but you can check out a summary in this twitter thread. I bring it up because Erica Frankenberg (one of the authors) used the report to frame the conversation for the day. In particular, she noted:

  • Across the country, the percent of intensely segregated schools tripled between 1988 & 2016, from 6% to 18%:
  • Segregation for Black students is most severe in states you might not expect: New York, Illinois and Maryland.
  • White students are the most isolated demographic group in the country.

These trends have all occurred as diversity has increased among US schools on the whole. As you can see in the chart here, white students – for the first time ever – do not constitute a majority in US public school enrollment.

Racial Composition of US Public Schools, 1970-2016

Panel I: Policies and Practices Perpetuating Racial Inequality

In the first panel, which I moderated, we used the new report as a backdrop to ask: how did we get here? And how do the numbers and resegregation trendlines affect students in America’s K-12 schools? Here’s a few key points from each presentation:

  • Ansley Erickson, Associate Professor of History and Education at Columbia University – (@ATErickson). Dr. Erickson opened the panel with a broad look at how we use historical analysis in contemporary school integration advocacy. In particular, she noted:
    • Historical work focuses on causality, with specificity and evidence; one powerful mode of resistance to integration has been to deny this causality. New advocacy for desegregation and equity needs a clear, detailed sense of the causal origins of the problem at both national and local scale (e.g., historical analysis can and should connect the dots from school segregation to other social ills).
    • Contemporary desegregation advocacy has to confront rather than avoid the complex and paradoxical history of desegregation, including the ways desegregation replicated or worsened some inequalities and the ways that black educational history can’t be fully characterized through the lens of desegregation (e.g., the mass firing of black teachers, or the way busing disproportionately burdened black communities/families). As noted by another panelist on twitter, the policy choices we made during the desegregation era were a sort of “public pedagogy” that communicated who mattered.
  • Janelle Scott, Robert C. and Mary Catherine Birgeneau Distinguished Chair in Educational Disparities at University of California, Berkeley – @janelletscott. Dr. Scott talked about the failures of “neo-Plessyism,” or a contemporary version of “separate but equal” that is often funded by high-profile donors (see below). She focused in particular on segregation as seen in:
    • School closures – Closures, consolidations and transfers disproportionately affect Black students and continue the harmful historical legacy of firing/laying off Black teachers.
    • School choice – She notes “Here we see a retreat of federal enforcement for desegregation, and the embrace of schools with harsh discipline for Black and Latinx families.”
    • School discipline – “Black children represent 18% of preschool enrollment, but 48% of preschool children receiving more than one out-of-school suspension.”
  • Preston Green III, Professor of Educational Leadership and Law at University of Connecticut – @DrPrestonGreen. Although there’s wide awareness of the role that charter schools play in school resegregation, there’s perhaps less discussion about what this means for the students in those schools. Dr. Green talked about how complex financial arrangements in the charter sector may further divert money from the students they ostensibly aim to serve. Specifically, he addressed the problem of:
    • Related-party transactions – when the same people/company are the CEOs of the non-profit charter school as well as the CEOs of the for-profit property group that leases land to their own charter school.
    • These complex transactions make it difficult to track the ultimate destination of public dollars that are provided to charter school operators. Check out this stunning news article for just one example.
    • His presentation called for greater oversight of charter school finances, including “forensic analysis of related-party transactions” by auditors.
Janelle Scott- University of California, Berkeley

Panel II: The Role of the State Today

The second panel was moderated by the Director of Equity Services at the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, Heather Bennett. She opened the discussion with a call for greater consideration of how state actors at multiple levels can work to mitigate the harmful effects of re-segregation. Panelists then focused barriers and opportunities for positive state intervention for integration.

  • Elizabeth DeBray, Professor of Educational Administration and Policy at University of Georgia – @EDeBray. Dr. DeBray discussed an ongoing research project that uses interviews with federal administrators and legislative staffers to understand how federal policy has approached school integration policy in the transition from Obama to Trump. She notes that:
    • The executive branch missed a window of opportunity to do something about segregation/inequity in how it approached Race to the Top (e.g., ignoring segregation and promoting charter expansion).
    • The federal landscape for civil rights has of course become more inhospitable in the Trump Administration. As a result, “more is up to locals/states, which vary widely in commitment (and freedom with ESSA regulations gutted); while the “cat is out of bag” in terms of benefits of diversity to states/locals, this framing may not be enough to address racial inequality.”
  • Derek Black, Professor of Law at University of South Carolina – @DerekWBlack. Building off the previous presentation, Dr. Black outlined a framework for positive state intervention towards school integration, especially:
    • Adding integration goals to ESSA compliance, enforcing diversity requirements for charter schools, increase funding for magnet schools, implementing regional solutions to educational inequity, and seeking appropriate places for school district consolidation.
    • His presentation noted that we are at a critical moment in the fight for public education, but pointed towards the widespread teacher protests last year as a major source of hope: “if they’re coming after you individually, then that’s scary; but, if you have 10 thousand people behind you, then there’s less reason to be worried (paraphrased)”
  • Gary S. Stein, Special Counsel, Pashman Stein Walder Hayden. Justice Stein is a long-time defender of educational equity. He was a justice on the NJ Supreme Court for its many decisions in Abbott, the state’s landmark funding equity case. He’s now chair of a coalition that filed a lawsuit, last year on the 64th anniversary of Brown, against the state of New Jersey for policies that promote school segregation in the state. His talk touched on:
    • The legal strategy behind the lawsuit, especially a relatively new trend of pursuing integration in state court as opposed to federal court.  
    • The importance of remedies that “do no harm” to traditionally under-served students. This part of his presentation picks up directly from Dr. Erickson’s in learning from the difficult truths of past desegregation efforts to advocate for contemporary policies that do not unfairly burden non-white students/families.
Derek Black- University of South Carolina

Panel III: Growing Critically Conscious Teachers

The last panel went beyond policy discussions of school integration to talk about what is an essential (if not the essential) goal of school integration: preparation for thoughtful participation in a multi-cultural democracy. It was moderated by Seria Chatters, who is Director of Equity and Inclusivity at the State College Area School District and an Assistant Professor of counselor education at Penn State. In her school district role, Dr. Chatters is responsible for promoting culturally responsive education among K-12 teachers- the panelists talked about what this means in their work/research.

  • Brandi Hinnant-Crawford, Assistant Professor of Educational Research at Western Carolina University – @BNHC1984. Dr. Hinnant-Crawford discussed the factors that best nurture the growth of a critically conscious teacher, which she defined as an educator “who can imagine a better world.”  Based on her experience/research, she used the metaphor of a plant to highlight important elements of critically conscious education:
    • School climate and culture (which are two different things) – the soil, providing essential nutrients and a foundation for healthy growth.
    • Induction and professional learning – the water, which needs to be regular/consistent in order to have its optimal impact.
    • Parental and community engagement – sunlight, which catalyzes the latent potential found in the soil/water.
  • Tiffany Pogue, Assistant Professor of Teacher Education at Albany State University – @TiffanyDPhD. Dr. Pogue provided a close look at what integration means for HBCUs and the role that the barriers that these organizations face in their efforts to support their students. As other have noted, there is a massive shortage of teachers of color. Incidentally, Pennsylvania is particularly in crisis on this, where more than half of all districts in the state have no teachers of color. Zero. Dr. Pogue, who teaches at an HBCU, noted that:
  • Valerie Kinloch, Renée and Richard Goldman Dean of the School of Education at University of Pittsburgh – @ValerieKinloch. Dr. Kinloch is the first female African American Dean of any college at the University of Pittsburgh. Her presentation focused on what it means to be a critically conscious person. She drew from a few prominent voices, including:
    • Dr. Helen Faison – one of the first Black teachers in Pittsburgh Public Schools and the first woman and Black person to hold the position of deputy superintendent – who tells educators: “As you reach out to those for whom you will be directly responsible and those whom you love, remember to give some of your time, some of your talents, and some of your gifts to ensure that every child is given access to the best possible educational experience.”

And, Dean Kinloch outlined how she pursues culturally responsive education in her role of Dean at Pitt, especially:

  • Examining institutional practices (e.g., hiring; workplace climate/culture; how we cultivate critically conscious leaders)
  • Situating justice as a framework “to examine how oppression, privilege, & unequal power relations operate to maintain hierarchies, & to reject these hierarchies in advocating for universal human rights & educational justice.”
From left to right: Dr. Chatters, Dr. Pogue, Dr. Hinnant-Crawford & Dean Kinloch

Wrap Up

We closed out the day with remarks by Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia (@shobawadhia), Clinical Professor of Law and Director of the Center for Immigrants’ Rights Clinic at Penn State, and Kim Bridges (@bridgesjk), a former school board member in Richmond, VA and a faculty member at Virginia Commonwealth University. The conversation was an effort to both summarize what was already discussed in the other panels and list what was not discussed throughout the day, including:

  • Trump-era immigration policy – Professor Wadhia highlighted how immigration policies have a direct impact on K-12 schools and that educators have an important role to play in protecting (and are in fact responsible for protecting) the rights of school aged children to learn.
  • Teacher education policy – Dr. Erickson suggested that teacher education programs can better arm their pre-service teachers with knowledge of both national and local history as well as with the tools and skill sets to advocate for their most vulnerable learners.

School segregation is obviously a very big and multi-faceted problem, and, as such, there’s a lot to talk about and a lot different avenues for action. Like any major issue, it can become complicated and overwhelming. So, I wanted to wrap up with something hopeful/grounding – as outlined by Janelle Scott in the Q&A after the first panel:

It shouldn’t be more complicated than this. If we – as a society – value integration more, we can make it a priority in how we structure policy and how we approach educational practice. We – as a movement – then need to keep talking about segregation, reach a broader audience, find ways to make integration real. It’ll be a long, long effort, but it was extremely exciting, last week, to be a part of a community that is pushing forward.

4 thoughts on “School integration 65 years after Brown

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