Past to Present: The History of Segregation in Education

Author: Mariah McCune
Education Thought Leader

The school in which I work, and the community in which I live, is majority white.  This has always been the case for my school and my community.  However, over the last decade in my classroom, I have noticed that I am teaching more and more students of color.

I made this observation earlier this school year and then, unbidden, another observation came running after: the student body at my school has become more diverse in the last 10 years, but the racial composition of the teachers on staff over the same period of time has remained virtually unchanged.  

What were the historical and social factors in the education system that made the lack of racial diversity in teachers a reality not only for my school but for others across America?

School Segregation

Racist tendencies inherent in the school system were most overt when schools were segregated into Black and white. The practice began shortly after the Civil War and became a part of the Jim Crow laws, especially in the South.  Black students were taught by Black teachers just as white students were taught by white teachers. Communities upheld this system citing the “separate but equal” clause established in Plessy versus Ferguson in 1890.

Oftentimes a Black student had to travel long distances from their homes in order to attend a Black school, even if there was a school that was closer but only taught white students. Furthermore, the quality of education varied in the Black schools. Some were indeed equal or even superior to their white counterparts whereas others had to make do with unqualified teachers and the cast off textbooks and materials from white schools.

Brown v Board of Education

In 1951, third grader Linda Brown had to walk seven blocks in order to attend her assigned Black school even though there was a white school only four blocks away. Her father, Oliver Brown, was naturally upset by this and attempted to enroll Linda in the white school, but his application was denied. Brown took legal action and brought the case before the State of Kansas. The U.S. District Court of Kansas ruled against Brown, relying on the “separate but equal” precedent established in Plessy versus Ferguson.

Three years later, the case was taken to the Supreme Court which deemed “separate but equal” unconstitutional in the context of American public schools. Schools were ordered to desegregate their student populations so that white and Black students attended the same schools together for the first time.

The Racism in Desegregation

This school desegregation did not happen overnight, and many districts resisted the demands for racial integration. The most famous incident was with the Little Rock Nine in 1957, three years after Brown versus Board, where the National Guard had to step in to make sure schools were effectively integrated.  

That being said, the efforts towards school integration were an important development towards true racial equality. However, these efforts only addressed half of the problem, and it is the other half with which we struggle today. The court’s order and the subsequent government actions merely focused on the integration of students, not teachers.  

School districts had different approaches towards desegregation. Some schools responded by redrawing school boundaries so that schools were still effectively segregated. The effects of these decisions can still be observed in some schools today where the population of Black and minority students numbers close to 90% or more.  

Others responded by grudgingly integrating the schools, but this too posed its own problems that we grapple with today. By combining white and Black schools, school boards now found themselves with more teachers than they needed. They had to go through the process of determining which teachers would continue teaching and which would be laid off. Overwhelmingly, Black teachers were laid off, even if their evaluation record at their previous school was exemplary. 

For the first time, Black students attended school with white peers and white teachers, many of whom resented their presence in the school or even their existence in the world. Students who may have had kind, affectionate teachers who looked like them and took an interest in their lives were now met with cold indifference or hatred. This left them feeling disaffected and disenchanted.  

The effects of desegregation also meant that Black students were discouraged from joining the teaching profession. They had observed what had happened to their Black teachers and did not want to experience the same hardships in their own careers.  The approach to desegregation means that our school system remains haunted by the ghost of segregation even today.

Our Struggles with Segregation’s Legacy Today

Systemic racism in education still exists. In fact, the National Center for Education Statistics reports that in the 2017-18 school year, 79% of teachers were white. This is an improvement from the 1999-2000 school year when 84% of the workforce was white. However, over the same period of time, Black teachers lost ground, representing 8% of the workforce in 1999-2000 but only 7% in 2017-18.

Solutions to a Persistent Problem

There are certain steps that schools, districts, universities, and policymakers can take to address this problem. As a first step, together we can prioritize the importance of building strong relationships. One essential aspect of teaching is, and always has been, creating relationships with students. Relationships with students are a cornerstone to any good pedagogy.  

One solution then is to make a concerted effort to build stronger, more meaningful relationships with minority students. This does not just mean getting to know the student, although that is a key part that cannot be understated. It also means that we can try to understand how race has shaped their experiences and identities in ways that are perhaps different from ours.

Secondly, we can try to find ways to include Black and minority teachers in our schools. We can encourage our Universities to consider recruiting more Black and minority students into their teacher education programs. When students have role models who look like them, they are inspired to aspire to new professions because they realize that those jobs are a possibility for them too.

Third, school districts can play a big role in creating programs that target and recruit Black and minority teaching candidates to work at the schools. 

Fourth, Schools can gradually reform the system at large. For example, too often Black teachers are recruited to teach in inner-city schools where teacher turnover and burnout are at their highest levels. If schools implement teacher support programs designed to foster the pedagogical flourishing of all professionals, they can significantly improve long-term teacher success.

These support programs can be ongoing, growing with the teacher’s needs year after year as they grow within the profession. Some topics that could be explicitly addressed are strategies for classroom management, increasing content knowledge, leveraging funds to reduce class sizes, and implementing more challenging and rigorous curriculums.

Finally, we also need State and Federal policymakers’ participation to help create the incentives that will draw the best and brightest talents into the field of teaching. Furthermore, these incentives can extend to higher educational opportunities and student loan forgiveness options, which will motivate teachers to expand their expertise and become better educators.

Call to Action

The ghost of segregation will continue to haunt the entire school system until concerted efforts are made to exorcise it. Every stakeholder, from politicians to school boards to schools to universities, has an essential role to play.  Through relationships, representation, recruitment, support, and incentives, schools can right the wrongs that began with Jim Crow and persist in the present day.


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