Three Important Benchmarks in the History of Educational Equity and Equality in the U.S.

The fight for equality in education has been longstanding, influenced by social, legal, and political situations of various historical periods. As a result, the benefits of a free and equal education have not been available to all children at all times throughout the history of education in America. Race and gender have been two major areas where issues of equity and equality have arisen most prominently.

1. Racial Equality

In many ways, the refusal of slave owners to allow slaves to be educated is evidence of the historical perception of the power of knowledge possible from education. Slave owners believed that educated slaves were more disobedient and prone to unruliness and violence. They used fear and the law to ensure the ignorance, and hence the servility, of slaves. Education of African Americans was a low priority until Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. However, once barriers to education were removed, the stark contrast in education levels was evidenced by an increase in literacy rates of less than 10% in the 1860s, to 55% by 1890, and 89% around 1940.

The practice of segregation in Southern schools has previously been discussed. Even though laws to support segregated schools did not exist in the North, the practice of segregation was just as prevalent. In many Northern schools, segregation was facilitated by school district attendance policies. Because neighborhoods were segregated, children attended segregated schools in their respective neighborhoods. Because school district funding was dependent on the area’s tax revenues, and black neighborhoods of the time tended to be lower income, segregation resulted in differences in the quality of education received by White and Black students. On the whole, White schools had better facilities and teachers who were paid better than their counterparts in Black schools.

2. Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka

The Supreme Court ruling decision in the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka in 1954 changed the course of education in America, and indeed American society, forever. In its landmark decision, the Supreme Court ruled that segregation of African American and European American children in public schools was unconstitutional. The court overturned the previous decision given in the Plessey v. Ferguson case, which allowed states to establish separate public facilities, including separate public schools.

In its ruling, the court opined that separate was inherently unequal and therefore a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. States were ordered to integrate public schools and also to remove laws and statutes that required other segregated public facilities. The case became a beacon of hope for the civil rights movement, which sought to achieve equal opportunities for all, irrespective of race, ethnicity, and gender.

In 1955, the Supreme Court ruled in Brown II that schools be integrated “with all deliberate speed.” States and school districts moved slowly in response to the second ruling, and it was not until the 1980s that the federal courts were able to eliminate legalized segregation in schools.

3. Gender Equality

Throughout American history, and especially in the 17th and the 18th centuries, women were discriminated against in education. There was practically no encouragement for women’s education beyond the basic reading and writing skills. Beyond that, they were taught homemaking skills, which were thought to be important to maintain a household. In colonial days, the general feeling was that girls did not need the same level of education as their male counterparts. Girls from upper-class families had the opportunity to attend Dame schools, but their education concentrated on instruction in dance, music, French, and other skills that were thought important for girls to get suitors.

In French colonial Louisiana, however, greater importance was given to education of girls, even in preference to education for boys. The general perception here was that educating girls was important, because educated females would bring sophistication to society. Boys, it was thought, needed to be trained only for future trades. Overall, however, discrimination against women in American schools was widespread, and even in co-educational establishments, little encouragement was provided to girls. This situation began to change in the late 19th century, when prominent women educators began to encourage the education of women, especially at the higher education level.

Prominent women, including Catharine Esther Beecher, Emma Willard, Mary Lyon, Jane Addams, Susan B. Anthony, Margarethe Schurz, and Mary McLeod, proclaimed the value of having highly educated women. The first women-only college, Vassar College, opened its doors in 1861. The first institution to offer graduate degrees to women was Bryn Mawr College, which was founded in 1885.

In 1972, sex-based discrimination in public and private schools receiving federal funds was prohibited by federal legislation in the form of Title IX. Title IX has been interpreted, reinterpreted, and misinterpreted in many cases to refer (more or less) to athletic programs and the scholarships associated with them, but the law also covers discrimination in academics.

Before 1972, high schools typically segregated classes according to sex. Boys were encouraged to take advanced math and science courses, while girls were dissuaded or even prevented from enrolling in those courses. Although Title IX had a profound impact on girls in athletics, the law also influenced the academic experiences of girls. Today, participation in high school athletics programs is nearly 50% female. Largely as a result of Title IX, there are currently no restrictions on course enrollment for female students.

Gender equity continues to be complex. For girls to benefit from education on par with boys, multiple dimensions of equity in education must be addressed. These include attention to access to education, equity in the learning process, equity in educational outcomes, and equity in external results. Interestingly, these areas have historically been issues in gender equity.

Access to education has been given much attention, and today, girls outnumber boys in college enrollment. Much has been written about the disparity in male and female participation in math and science courses; equity in the learning process ensures that girls receive the necessary support and resources to be able to participate in all aspects of the curriculum.

The outcome of education should be based on students’ efforts and talents. Equity of educational outcomes ensures, that gender bias does not exist on measures of students’ achievements and talents. Measured biased toward boys could result in inaccurate evaluation of the ability and talents of girls. Girls should have career opportunities and pay equivalent to their qualifications and achievements. Equality of external results ensures that once girls complete their education, they have opportunities on par with that of boys who have similar talents, qualifications, and achievements.

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