The origins of America's separate and unequal schools

In the United States, inequality along the lines of race in education is such a persistent issue that it often fails to make headlines. COVID-19 brought it back to the front of the nation’s consciousness as evidence mounted that nonwhite students were experiencing roughly twice as much learning loss as their white counterparts. 

Yet, as our guest on this episode explains, if history is any guide, more attention to the issue doesn’t necessarily mean better outcomes for nonwhite and poor students. There’s a long history of well-financed, elite (largely white) institutions investing time and money to try and address inequality in American education with little to show for it. Even more unsettling, these efforts often make the problem worse. 

On this episode, Dan Richards talks with Noliwe Rooks, chair of Africana Studies at Brown University, and the author of an award-winning book, “Cutting School: Privatization, Segregation, and the End of Public Education.” They discuss the surprising history of some of America’s most influential school reform efforts, and the deeper historical patterns and racist structures that keep our education system broken for so many American children. 

Learn more about and purchase “Cutting School: Privatization, Segregation, and the End of Public Education.”

Learn more about the Watson Institute’s other podcasts


[MUSIC PLAYING] DAN RICHARDS: From the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University, this is Trending Globally. I'm Dan Richards. On this episode, we're going to look at an issue that precisely because it's such a long running and constant challenge in our country's history often fails to make headlines. That is the inequality along the lines of race when it comes to how we teach American children.

COVID-19, of course, brought this issue back into the headlines with painful clarity. Over the course of the pandemic, it's been estimated that non-white students experienced twice as much learning loss as their white counterparts. Yet, as our guest on this episode explains, if history is any guide, more attention to this issue won't necessarily mean better outcomes for poor and non-white students.

She charts how in fact there's a long history of well-financed elite, largely white institutions investing considerable time and money to try and address inequality in our education. These efforts often have little to show for themselves. And even more unsettling, they might be making the problem worse.

Noliwe Rooks is the Chair of Africana Studies at Brown University and author of the award-winning book, Cutting School, Privatization, Segregation and the End of Public Education.

You'll hear from her about the surprising history of some of America's school reform efforts and the deeper historic patterns that keep our education so broken for so many American children, and what might need to be done to make high quality education accessible to every child in America.

Noliwe first started thinking about these issues in the early two thousands. So let's go back to that time for a second, think Britney Spears, the Bush administration, the first season of Survivor. Around that time, Noliwe was teaching at Princeton. And she noticed a curious trend--

NOLIWE ROOKS: A lot of really elite students, many of them white, or wealthy, or just would tell me they'd never been around Black people before. In any numbers, public space, we may interact. But places like churches, schools, very often these places, these cultural centers are segregated either by class, language, or race.

So all of a sudden, I had all these English-speaking, white, wealthy students who were telling me they'd never been around these kinds of communities, but they wanted to fix the schools.

Like, great, yay. But like, where is this coming-- why all of a sudden are we interested like this?

DAN RICHARDS: These students were part of a nationwide trend at that time, a growing interest within elite circles in reforming America's education system in underserved communities. In Two Thousand One, President Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act, which aimed to improve underserved schools by increasing standardized testing and potentially replacing public schools that performed poorly with charter or private schools.

Around that same time, the nonprofit teach for America, which was founded in the late '80s by a Princeton graduate was growing into a multinational force in education. This nonprofit organization sent elite college graduates to teach for at least two years in America's underserved schools.

NOLIWE ROOKS: Everyone was talking about TEACCH for America. Everyone was talking about charter schools at the time.

DAN RICHARDS: And these trends continued into the Obama administration. In Two Thousand Nine, President Obama launched his own plan to reform American education, something he called Race to the Top. And once again, Noliwe was happy to see this national interest, but was surprised by who exactly seemed to be talking most about this issue.

NOLIWE ROOKS: Barack Obama starts a whole reform of education--


NOLIWE ROOKS: -and who he gathered around him to help him think about, and who he seemed most interested in working with were people who were doing charter schools, very wealthy, hedge fund types, which is just a big part of who funds these charter schools, all of these deep pocketed captains of industry.

The Waltons of Sam's Club fame, they're big into this, the family that is the heir to the Gap fortune, Lorena Jobs, Steve Jobs' widow, billionaire, multi-millionaires, who had decided they were going to save public education.

DAN RICHARDS: Noliwe noticed, though, that absent from so many of these efforts and public discussions around education reform, the teachers, parents, and wider communities that would actually be affected by them.

NOLIWE ROOKS: What I was struck by, having been raised part of my life in the segregated South raised by my grandparents, who were public school teachers in the segregated South was how often these people are all talking about poor Black people and what poor Black people think about education. You know, that poor parents, poor Black parents just don't know what good education is. So that's why we need to come in.

DAN RICHARDS: There was another thing Noliwe noticed many of these reforms seem to have in common.

NOLIWE ROOKS: So much of Ed reform is some people who are sitting around, spitballing ideas, I think, and then are like-- well, have we ever tried using computers to teach children?

Perhaps AI would do a better job than there was a whole moments of I talk about in the book about technology when everyone decided that online was the best way to teach poor kids and Black kids, or let's have them all wear uniforms that will do it. That will be the fix.

DAN RICHARDS: This all got Noliwe asking, Why did these interventions look the way they did? Why were the world's richest people so invested in the education of poor Black students? And why were they getting involved in such experimental ways?

So she set out to try and answer these questions.

NOLIWE ROOKS: I was like, well, let me at least figure out when the really rich people were not the ones moving and shaking this thing. Then I kept looking for a period of time that was free from these kinds of forces. So I wanted to say, OK, see, schools were working the way they were supposed to. Let's say post Brown v Board in my mind, right? I was like, suppose Brown v Board up until when the Reagan, Nixon-- like, when?

When do things start to change? And I kept going back, and I kept going back, and I kept going back. And I bumped into the beginning of public education in the US.

DAN RICHARDS: In other words, a moment in history when Black and white students were taught in similar ways or when Black communities had full agency over how to teach their children. Noliwe could not find such a moment. Instead, she found a long and surprising history of elite, often white led intervention in the teaching of non-white, and especially Black children in America.

She coined a phrase for this phenomenon.

NOLIWE ROOKS: Segrenomics, the question of segregation and money. We'd always looked at it one way. Segregation keeps schools that educate poor kids underfunded.

DAN RICHARDS: But the effects of segregation went beyond simply keeping Black and white students in separate classrooms. It created a sort of business around education reform in America, one that often benefited elite institutions and wealthy individuals, almost like a education reform industrial complex.

NOLIWE ROOKS: So segrenomics was an attempt to put all of that in some kind of productive dialogue.

DAN RICHARDS: And Noliwe found that to understand the business of segregation in America's education system, you have to go back, pretty far back. So that is where we'll go.

Starting after the Civil War, during Reconstruction, the federal government provided funds for the creation of schools for Black children. But with the end of Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow Laws in the late eighteen-hundreds, education for Black students in the South was depending on the community, either entirely eliminated or severely restricted.

And it's in this moment, in the Jim Crow South, that we see the first real example of what will become a model of school reform in America.

NOLIWE ROOKS: Post Reconstruction, about Nineteen Oh-Five, Nineteen Oh-Six, there's a whole rich group of folks who I know because they have names, like Kodak, and Dodge, like the Fords are involved, Rockefellers, Carnegies, like it's a who's who of captains of industry and robber barons. The time, they were moving forward all kinds of social policies.

So these guys get together. And they're kind of like, it is in our best interest for our business as well as for the country for us to really take hold of the education of the masses of folks. They're kind of like, we need a system, the United States needs some kind of guiding ideology and system, some thinking about what public education can do, should do how it should be shaped.

DAN RICHARDS: These men decided they would be the ones to shape it. They formed a group. They called themselves The General Education Board.

NOLIWE ROOKS: And so they take themselves to Congress to the federal government. And they're like, you know, we have this idea. We want to be in charge of education in the United States. We want to decide who gets educated and what kind of way. We think poor white kids need to learn to be farmers and soil science, how to rotate crops. That's what we want to teach them. That's their education.

Black people mostly need vocational education. They say in part because white people in the South were not going to allow for much else, for one thing. But also, the South needed workers. And who was-- I mean, nobody was expecting the middle class white people to do this work. So we need to train them to cook, clean. And they went through the strata of the United States.

And this group of 20 or so very wealthy white men decided how everyone was going to get educated. And the government gave them a charter, like the Congress gave them a charter, basically saying you have the full backing and support of the federal government for anything that you come up with.

DAN RICHARDS: There were two features the general education board came up with for improving the education of Black children. That really stood in contrast to the way most white children were being educated. The first, which Noliwe already alluded to, Black students wouldn't be given the same education as white students.

These schools were often a big improvement on the opportunities that Black students had been given in the Jim Crow South. But they still sold Black students short. One reason was the dominance of racist theories that Black people simply weren't capable of learning the way white children learned.

Another reason, many in power at the time were concerned that providing an intellectually rigorous education to Black children would disrupt southern society, a sentiment summed up by the refrain in that time--

NOLIWE ROOKS: The best way to spoil a good field hand is to teach them to read and write. So even as public education is becoming available, the kind of education on offer for them was designed to keep them stuck in that caste.

DAN RICHARDS: Another feature of The General Education Board's program for teaching Black children that stood out to Noliwe--

NOLIWE ROOKS: This idea that you couldn't have Black people and just give them education. You couldn't just give Black people schools in the post-Reconstruction South. They decide that Black people have to be financially responsible for the apparatus that will educate them.

And what Southern legislatures decide is, OK, we're going to do matching grants. So we will ask the sharecropping Black people who have nothing to identify some land that the school will be built on. And they need to deed that land to the County. So you have to give away the land to the local government.

DAN RICHARDS: Unlocking the opportunities presented by The General Education Board and similar reform institutions required significant time and resources from Black communities.

NOLIWE ROOKS: Black churches stepped up big because Black churches actually had land. They were like, OK, you can have this corner. So you had to have land. Then you had to actually build the school. So you had to go figure out who's paying for materials, who's going to furnish it.

And then after that was done and the buildings were all furnished, you also had to hire your own teacher. Then The General Education Board would give you a few hundred dollars. And somehow they got to claim that they were funding Black education.

But all of the data that we have, 2/3 of what was paid came from poor Black people, who would often took them a decade to build a school because they had so little.

DAN RICHARDS: And in case this fact isn't obvious--

NOLIWE ROOKS: White communities never had to do this in the South. This is not what was taking place. They just got-- the County just use taxes to build schools for them.

DAN RICHARDS: So the white schools essentially got something closer to what we think of as public education.


DAN RICHARDS: Funded by tax dollars--


DAN RICHARDS: Built by the government.

- Yes.

DAN RICHARDS: And this model that we see in The General Education Board for Black schools is more like what we might today call something like a public private partnership.


DAN RICHARDS: As Noliwe writes in her book, The General Education Board and other similar institutions at the turn of the century set an example for separate, unequal education for Black and white children in America that in some ways, we're still living with.

NOLIWE ROOKS: We, as a nation, have no idea what it would mean, what it would look like for us to educate poor kids the way that we educate wealthy kids. We've never had an idea about it. We've never done it. And if there's an original sin, I'm going to say that one is right up there because it reproduces itself across class, ethnicity, and language decade by decade, generation by generation.

I mean, obviously, slavery, and genocide, and dispossession are [CHUCKLES] founding kind of narratives. But right behind that, it's got to be the unequal ways that we insist and have always insisted in this country of educating people based on their class or status. And I blame The General Education Board.

DAN RICHARDS: That model was, of course, turned upside down in the middle of the 20th century with the Brown v Board of Education decisions, which declared segregation in America's schools to be unconstitutional

In her book, Noliwe explores the story of the attempted integration of America's schools following these decisions. If you want to read more about that history, you should definitely start with Noliwe's book.

But for our purposes, the most important thing to really understand is that by many measures, integration at that time did what so many other experiments in the education of Black people have failed to do. It actually improved the quality of their education.

There's research showing that attending a desegregated school meant Black students were more likely to graduate high school and less likely to become incarcerated later in life, that they'd have better health outcomes and higher wages in adulthood.

However, in the decades following the Brown v Board decisions, a combination of factors, including residential segregation, the end of desegregation focused busing programs, and the growth of charter and private schools led essentially to a resegregation of American schools.

Today, we see levels of racial segregation in our schools similar to what we saw in the nineteen-sixties. And while the reasons are complex as Noliwe puts it, in some ways, they are also depressingly simple.

NOLIWE ROOKS: Why is it we do not seem to be able to educate folks in non-segregated environments? Why is it exactly? Because this is how we're comfortable with. This is what we want. And that's bad enough. But then deciding that we are going to prescribe completely different educational strategies to the poorest, that's a different thing.

DAN RICHARDS: So in terms of racial segregation in our schools and the gap in quality between what white and non-white and poorer students receive in America, we're in this moment that has some sort of eerie echoes to a century ago. And one particularly stark parallel you describe in your book has to do with school reform efforts in the twenty-tens, in the Newark Public School system.

So we're not in the South anymore. But it is a very segregated, largely non-white population of students in this district. And the key sort of figure in this story is Mark Zuckerberg, certainly like the Rockefeller of our era.

NOLIWE ROOKS: Mr. Facebook-- oh, wait, they're not Facebook anymore. They're called something.





DAN RICHARDS: But back when this happened in Twenty Ten, it was still Facebook. And he made an announcement that he was going to donate $100 million to Newark's Public Schools.


DAN RICHARDS: And in a way, that's kind of reminiscent to these historical examples. I think there was then a matching fund--


DAN RICHARDS: --component that--


DAN RICHARDS: Ended up making it $200 million.


DAN RICHARDS: That's a huge amount of money.

NOLIWE ROOKS: For one, one school district?

DAN RICHARDS: What ended up happening with this project and this unprecedented influx of money into Newark?

NOLIWE ROOKS: So a couple of people, a couple of journalists followed the money from the moment that it was announced. It was announced on the Oprah Winfrey Show.

OPRAH WINFREY: So OK, why education and why Newark?

MARK ZUCKERBERG: Why education? Because every child deserves a good education. And right now, that's not happening.


NOLIWE ROOKS: A who's who of celebrities and political folks are going, This is wonderful. Oh, my God.

DAN RICHARDS: How'd it go?

NOLIWE ROOKS: So a big chunk of the money went to consultants.

DAN RICHARDS: According to the journalist, Dale Russakoff, who's book, The Prize, tells the story of this donation and its effect on Newark's schools. About $20 million went to consultants. Another chunk of money--

NOLIWE ROOKS: Then the teachers union had been working without a contract for the previous three years. So of course, they were like, well, we're not working unless-- let us fund our contract, which so many tenants of public, the reformers, the people who said they wanted to reform public education were anti-union.

So this was particularly galling to a lot of people, that you're going to pay-- But of course, it's contractual. The people are part of a union they're teaching. Like, this is not-- you don't just get to wave one. Some went to charter school chains. A specific chains, the more successful ones, they tried to have them come in, some went to buy property.

At the end, all the money was gone. I think three, four years in and Zuckerberg start was losing his mind regularly, kind of going, What is happening here? The needle's not moving. This was supposed to be transformative. Where is the transformation? Everything seems to be the same.

At the end of the day, nothing moved. It was a massive, massive amount of money. And it was considered a complete failure.

DAN RICHARDS: To be fair, though, there has been research into the effects of this gift, showing modest improvement in student test scores in Newark 10 years after the gift. But there were other costs, too. The increased funding and investment in charter schools meant less money to public schools in Newark over this time.

While charter schools grew, public schools there lost funding on average of $1,000 per student compared to before the Mark Zuckerberg gift. So it is a highly mixed record at best. You may be wondering why this donation proved so ineffective. Well, that's something experts are still trying to fully understand. It's a complicated question with many answers.

One part of the reason, as Noliwe described, the people in charge of this gift, including Mark Zuckerberg--

NOLIWE ROOKS: He'd structured it poorly trusting, these ed reformers, that they had the best interests of the poor Black children.

DAN RICHARDS: And while the vast majority of the people involved in this program probably had good intentions. Largely absent from so much of the planning around this donation were the families, communities, and children that were going to be most impacted by it.

And as Noliwe put it, that is one of the crucial missing elements of education reform efforts, like Zuckerberg's gift, and like many efforts before it.

So Noliwe, I wanted to end the conversation. These two examples, we've looked at in this conversation, The General Education Board's interventions and Mark Zuckerberg's interventions in Newark are, of course, just two examples of efforts to try and address education inequality in America.

And this is such a massive topic with such a long history. But I wonder, are there some guiding principles of efforts that work better and what makes for more successful reform efforts?

NOLIWE ROOKS: There are all kinds-- one of the things that I talk about in the book are the successful ways that people manage to educate Black children.

From the Black Panther Party in the nineteen-seventies through some other schools, Marva Collins, and some other folks, who did beautifully, who took just this population that these schools in places like Newark and elsewhere will claim they can't teach, or the scores, the achievement, the poverty would lead you to believe they can't teach them.

And they taught them. And they taught them to the highest levels. And they taught them to and through PhD programs.

DAN RICHARDS: If you want to learn more about these examples of successful school reform, you should definitely read Noliwe's book. But one of the key takeaways of them to Noliwe is that at the very least, people and organizations that intervene in these underserved schools should listen closely to people in these communities when it comes to deciding what their children need to thrive.

NOLIWE ROOKS: One of the things I'm constantly calling for is let's try what we know works and stop experimenting. Instead of waiting for these light bulbs to go off on the part of Ivy League educated folks, who, by and large, have never been near the kinds of communities, not everyone, but by and large.

Actually look at the folks who have done it well and structure how we teach for maximum efficacy for those kids. You need small classrooms. You need functional HVAC. Like, you really do need just straight infrastructure. You need to make sure people have food. You need to build community. Like, there's all manner of example that should let us know it's not an impossible task.

It's not an impossible task in the confines of public schools as we know them. But it's almost like we do everything, except what we know works. And that is a tragedy.

DAN RICHARDS: Hopefully by better understanding the patterns behind this perpetual state of separate, unequal education in America's schools, we can finally start to better address the problem because, of course, the issue of education is about so much more than what happens in our nation's classrooms.

NOLIWE ROOKS: Education allows you to see the workings of democracy and its holes very clearly if you open your eyes and look at it. How we educate, and who we educate Has. Everything to do with these ideals, and has everything to do with the ability of certain people to ever actually progress, which is the core and cornerstone of democracy.

DAN RICHARDS: Professor Noliwe Rooks, thank you so much for coming and talking with me on Trending Globally.

NOLIWE ROOKS: Thank you so much for having me.

DAN RICHARDS: This episode of Trending Globally was produced by me, Dan Richards, and Zach Hirsch. It was engineered by Eric Emma. If you liked the show, please leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen.

If you haven't subscribed to or followed Trending Globally, please do that, too. If you have any ideas for guests or topics, send us an email at trendingglobally@brown.edu. Again, that's all one word, trendingglobally@brown.edu.

We'll be back in two weeks with another episode of Trending Globally, Thanks.


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Dan Richards

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