Understanding Educational Inequality by Revisiting Civil Rights History

Educational equity means that all students, regardless of circumstances or location, have equal access to opportunities to succeed in the classroom and beyond. In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled against segregation in public schools. Sixty-five years after that landmark decision, schools, and educators still struggle with issues of educational equity.

In November 2018, a group of AIR staff and clients participated in a civil rights learning journey across the South to better understand how the struggle for civil rights in the 1960s affects educational opportunities today. Participants retraced parts of the original journey from Jackson, Mississippi to Birmingham, Alabama, with civil rights leader Roscoe Jones Sr.

Beth Howard-Brown, principal technical assistance consultant at AIR, helped organize the journey and said, “Participants were able to move beyond the pages of history we all know so well, to hear the raw and uncensored stories and set foot on the actual sites that form the backdrop for our present circumstances. In short, the journey and the summit that followed set participants on a path toward social justice and positioned them to become the equity leaders they aspire to be.”

The bus tour set the stage for an equity summit sponsored by the Southeast Comprehensive Center. At the summit, education leaders learned to use data to identify equity gaps and create better opportunities for all students. AIR experts also supported them in developing equity plans related to the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). “The journey helped to anchor participants’ experiences and understandings in painful histories and poignant realities that inform what the present movement toward civil rights must be,” Howard-Brown said.

AIR has a long history of working with national, state, and local education leaders on educational equity, focusing on:

  • Access to quality teachers: attracting and retaining teachers of color and ensuring that students have access to high-quality teachers, regardless of where they live; and
  • Support for special student populations, such as English language learners and those in special education.

“This is an issue that we won’t stop working on anytime soon,” Howard-Brown said.