Progress and Challenges 60 Years After Brown v. Board

Anniversaries that commemorate milestones in our nation’s history give us the opportunity to reflect and also to look ahead. For me, this week provides such a moment, as we mark the 60th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in the case of Oliver Brown et al. v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansaswhich struck down Jim Crow segregation in our public schools.

Secretary Duncan stands with students at the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site during the 2012 Back-to-School Bus Tour. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

Secretary Duncan stands with students at the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site during the 2012 Back-to-School Bus Tour. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

Has our country made progress since the 1950s? Absolutely. Nationally, our high school graduation rate is the highest ever, boosted especially by increases for black and Latino students. In our larger cities, where low-income families and students of color are concentrated, growth in student achievement is outpacing the rest of the country. And at America’s colleges and universities, non-white students now represent 40 percent of enrollment—more than double their proportion in 1980, shortly after the U.S. Department of Education opened with a mission to ensure equal educational opportunities for all students.

As someone born a decade after the Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board, I wish I could say that I can only imagine what a segregated school looked like. But in the 50 states and more than 300 schools I have visited as Secretary of Education, far too often I see lingering opportunity gaps, in communities isolated by race and income.

Brown outlawed the notion of “separate but equal” schooling or legal segregation, but it did not stop de facto segregation. Many school districts today are intensely segregated–as much as they have been at any time since after the death of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Many school districts that were desegregating in the 1960s and 1970s have since resegregated. And within metropolitan areas, educational opportunity and diversity can vary widely among dozens of urban and suburban school districts within a short drive of each other.

Today, about four in 10 black and Latino students attend intensely segregated schools, and white students are similarly isolated from their peers of color—only 14 percent of white students attend schools that you could consider multicultural.

By another measure — the roughly 10,000 complaints that my department’s Office for Civil Rights receives each year — inexcusable discrimination continues in too many places. Last year we resolved a case in an Alabama county where the predominately black high school did not offer the same level of challenging college prep courses as the district’s mostly white high school, which offered an array of Advanced Placement classes. In other places, harassment of students, teachers and school administrators has involved the use of Ku Klux Klan robes, nooses, and racist epithets.

Those are anecdotal instances of blatant discrimination and inequity in schools, and fortunately they are rare. Still, new civil rights data from all U.S. schools shows that as early as preschool, black students are disproportionately suspended and expelled. Students of color continue to attend schools that are disproportionately staffed by inexperienced teachers, with fewer resources and opportunities. These schools are commonly among the lowest-performing in their state.


In May 1954, the Supreme Court concluded that the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ had no place in U.S. public education. In May of the following year, the Justices handed down a plan for how schools were to proceed with desegregation. (Photo credit: National Archives and Records Administration)

As the most flagrant examples of race discrimination have declined, new examples of discrimination and inequity have emerged. Cases involving mistreatment of LGBT students and immigrants learning English are all too common. And earlier this year, our civil rights office stepped in to end the practice in a New York school district of systemically reducing the grades of students simply because of their disabilities. So, if your child who needed accommodations due to his difficulty with reading got an A+ on his math test, that accomplishment got knocked down to a demoralizing D. What parent would be OK with that?

As a father, I want my children to attend school in a place that looks like where they will one day work, a school that reflects the diversity of the country in which they were fortunate to be born. Today’s de facto segregation denies students the many benefits that come from diversity, including the opportunity to learn from students of different backgrounds and prepare for the mix of viewpoints, abilities and global cultures they will encounter in their careers.

I reject the notion that we can’t reduce or eliminate the opportunity gaps that we see today. There are big things we can do, and there are big things we are doing now at the federal level.

Nearly every major policy initiative that the Obama Administration has advanced in education aims to improve outcomes for underserved students—from partnering with states to expand preschool programs to raising expectations for all students, ensuring quality teaching in every classroom, expanding the opportunities of technology through broadband, turning around chronically low-performing schools and expanding Pell Grants to pay for college. For the upcoming year, we are proposing a new program called Race to the Top-Equity and Opportunity, which would help states and districts close opportunity gaps and support teachers, leaders and students in high-need communities.

In 1954, Brown v. Board may have seemed like the end of a long struggle for educational equality. In fact, it was the beginning. We face a lot of challenges today in our communities, our country and on our planet. To solve the big problems we need everyone to be able to work together. No one’s talent can go to waste.

Arne Duncan is the U.S. Secretary of Education.

For teaching and learning resources about this landmark court case, head here.


  1. Good post right here. One thing I’d like to say is that often most professional fields consider the Bachelor’s Degree as the entry level standard for an online education. Whilst Associate Degrees are a great way to get started, completing your own Bachelors starts up many opportunities to various employment goodies, there are numerous internet Bachelor Diploma Programs available through institutions like The University of Phoenix, Intercontinental University Online and Kaplan. Another concern is that many brick and mortar institutions provide Online variants of their certifications but commonly for a substantially higher cost than the institutions that specialize in online college diploma plans.

  2. I am by no means a Racist as I have many friends of different races and Religions. But the First Ladies comments should not be directed at the masses as it in itself can be considered a “Racist Remark” My first hand experience was sending my Blond Haired Blue Eyed Nephew to a Detroit Pubic Schools a few years ago. He was only one of 12 Caucasian children at the school at that time. After a few days it evident he could not stay in that environment for his own safety. He was intimidated, Beaten and had to have a security guard accompany him to the restroom and between classes. We were forced “segregate” him him to Melvindale schools. This system did not tolerate any type of intimidation or harassment by anyone. This type of segregation is part of the Reverse Evolution our school systems have become beholden to. The Double Standard on which or current administration holds is part of the problem. Mrs. Obama please visit one of our public schools in Detroit or maybe south side Chicago and tell me if you would send your children there. Your party has controlled these neighborhoods for over 60 years. Honestly tell me what opportunity “Hope and Change” has done. Not only nothing but the lack of opportunity has made things worse. Hope is absence of Faith and Change means just talking about great ideas with the complete ignorance of the underlying cause of the problem. Lack of opportunity and absence of family. These are things you cannot solve by allowing more Illegals into our to “tax” the already broken system that has evolved from your ideals. Again before you utter or make a great pronouncement do some fact finding first!. I think you might be just horrified as to what Hope and Change means to these kids!

  3. 60 years after Brown vs. SBOE our Austin Texas school district is exploring bussing my son to our local high school for 1 geometry class a day, back and fourth between his neighborhood middle school and the high school campus. My son finished Algebra 1 this year with an A, in 7th grade, he continues to be a solid A student across all subjects. He has been recognized with national awards, he has spoken by invitation to several Universities, he has placed in the districts Model UN competitions.

    Now for most kids like our son there is a middle school in our district with bus service two blocks from our home that has all the courses our son needs, that kids his same age attend, that offers Geometry in 8th grade.

    Instead of allowing our son to go to school with other kids his age that excel in Math and Science, instead of allowing our son to take the bus with his peers to a middle school campus that can meet all his needs, Our School District, Austin ISD has let us know that they will separately bus our child to and from the High School Campus for one class a day. The money alone to do this astounds us.

    That they would go to any length to segregate our son, A STUDENT WITH A LEARNING DISABILITY, from other students that show strength in STEM, shows me that discrimination is allowed to continue and that Students with Disabilities are the new Hidden Second Class Citizens no one wants to talk about.

  4. I am in total agreement with the above statement. I would like to add that children are being yelled at, clothing being pulled and the students are not learning or making progress. There are diverse people who teach and diverse students who need tutoring or extra help but are being overlooked or embarrassed by the teacher so they do not ask questions and are under achievers. The Charter School does not have adequate written policies and uses this as an advantage as it contradicts itself.

  5. Blacks and Latinos,still attend segregated schools. We live in “poor” areas. And do not recieve the same educations. As Asians,Whites,or Northern Europeans. I dont feel like we need “White”. To be right.But all kids need better educational institutions. Our country, is failing,generation after generation. Of American students. People come from other places. Are afforded the education. That we as Americans,can only wish for…Why,should an Indian(not native) be allowed to take advantage of our school systems.As do select Africans. When we cannot?

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