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brown v. board of education: 50 years laterDecision grants access, but effects very gradual

By Dmitri Pikman

May 19, 2004 9:00 p.m.

Fifty years after the celebrated Brown v. Board of Education
decision, only a small percentage of minority students currently
attend thoroughly integrated institutions. Higher education experts
say that while minority students will enjoy more and more higher
education access in future years, this increase will happen slowly
if it follows the model set in the past 50 years. The legacy of the
Brown decision, which said the doctrine of “separate but
equal” institutions is inherently not equal, is uncertain.
Enrollment change among some minority groups is still very slow in
coming, with current research indicating that nationally, only 6 to
8 percent of black students attend predominantly white
institutions, and over 28 percent attend all-black colleges. Mary
Beth Gasman, an assistant professor of higher education at the
University of Pennsylvania, said while Brown v. Board is an
extraordinarily important case, it was never meant to have a rapid
effect. “People are under the impression that everybody was
optimistic after the Brown decision, but members of the black
education community knew change would take a long time to
come,” Gasman said. While improvement in access is expected,
it is also expected to happen slowly. “My expectation is that
access opportunities for minorities will continue to improve, (but)
at a slower pace than we would like,” said Edgar Beckham, a
senior fellow at the Association of American Colleges and
Universities, a nonprofit organization which researches the quality
and vitality of undergraduate higher education.

Political solutions With education statistics
showing stagnant or declining numbers of admitted minority
students, the future of higher education access is becoming a hot
issue in the political arena. In 2002, President Bush introduced
the “No Child Left Behind Act,” which required states
to implement strict accountability systems aimed at ensuring all
students are at the same level upon graduating from high school.
The president has said he believes this act would create a more
equal primary and secondary education system, especially for
low-income and minority students. This early equalization, the Bush
administration says, might allow for a greater number of minority
students to attend the higher education institutions of their
choice. While the bill’s aims are lauded, critics of the
proposal, led by Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, say
that in practice, the act has translated into a heavy fiscal burden
for the states because the federal government is not fully funding
the bill. “The basic message behind it is good, though; no
child should be left behind,” Beckham said. He added that
both high schools and higher education institutions need to do
their share to make sure the 75th Brown anniversary will be one
celebrating full educational equality. “The K-12 system is a
very important one; at the same time, we need to improve our
strategies for recruitment of students to all levels of higher
education,” Beckham said. He added that both high schools and
colleges need to work on raising levels of academic performance,
and also work on finding a way to get students more engaged in
their studies. This seems to be a persistent theme among education
advocates. Barbara McKenna, spokeswoman for the Center for Research
on Education, Diversity and Excellence, a group dedicated to
promoting effective education practices for ethnic and racial
minority students, said just throwing people together will not
cause full integration. “Physical proximity is necessary
between the races, yes, but it is not enough,” McKenna said.
“We need the different races to be working together on
projects of mutual interest,” she added.

Affirmative action In tandem with changes in
high schools, experts are saying higher education institutions
should also adopt policies to increase their share of minority
students. Some states, such as Texas are following those prescripts
already, with the adoption of a 10 percent plan, which guarantees
admission to state universities for all high school seniors in the
top 10 percent of their class. This 10 percent plan was conceived
as an alternative to considering race in admissions, which was
outlawed in California and Washington. Factoring race into
admissions criteria still has its share of supporters, with some
saying this system would be very beneficial in promoting a
reduction in education inequalities. “I can understand the
idealism of pushing a society in which color or ethnicity do not
matter, but we do not live in such a society,” Beckham said.
“The best way to make progress is to recognize that race and
ethnicity are factors that do have an impact,” he added. A
study by the National Center on Education Statistics found that 59
percent of black and 63 percent of Latino students do not attend
any higher education institutions, and that only 2 percent of each
group attend graduate schools.

Problems ahead With politicians planning
different programs aimed at integration, Beckham said a more
thorough integration may present an additional set of problems.
“This progress will result in what I call a structural
deficit,” Beckham said. He explained that while more
minorities will get access to higher education, those left behind
will be left further behind than ever, leading to a very serious
concern. “This is an ironic situation in which we are making
progress in higher numbers, but at the same time the gap between
those pursuing higher education and those not is greater,”
Beckham said. This gap will eventually lead to societal problems
and dysfunction, with an entire class of citizens missing out on
more and more opportunities, Beckham said. An adequate solution,
some say, should be one not targeting only the top 10 percent of
students, but the lowest 30 percent, making sure they successfully
continue their education, he said. The future of higher education
access in this nation still remains a debated topic, with a myriad
of contested solutions being offered. In this unclear climate,
Harvey said all he can do is remain optimistic. “I would hope
that we would make more progress in the next 25 years, than in the
past 50,” Harvey said. “After all, there were
absolutely no students of color in predominately white institutions
50 years ago, so something positive has occurred,” he

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Dmitri Pikman
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