Do Superintendents Matter?

The Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution released a report yesterday on the impact of superintendents on student achievement.

The results are challenging; and, at first look, lead one to conclude that the role of the superintendent is superfluous to improving student achievement.  The results are based on analysis of longitudinal student performance data in North Carolina and Florida.  The statistical impact on student achievement attributed to superintendents is quite low, i.e. explaining only 0.3% of the variance in 4th and 5th grade test scores in the state of North Carolina. Student data from Florida was not used in the student achievement analysis. (See page 5 of the Brown study for details on the data set.)  The data in the study suggests that teachers, classrooms, schools, principals, and the school district as a whole have statistically higher impacts on student achievement than does the superintendent. The study attributes characteristics of the district, such as, civic commitment to schools, school board leadership, press scrutiny, economic development, family social services, and so on, as having an impact on student performance in ways that are independent of the superintendency, i.e., they would happen regardless of who is in the superintendent’s role. However, no specific data analysis of individual superintendent characteristics is provided, and there is no recognition that the superintendent is a substantial contributor to the factors that the authors identify. The primary measure in the report is an examination of student performance data in school districts in the two states following the replacement of one superintendent with another and/or acceleration of student performance growth over the tenure of the superintendent. The study found that superintendents, in general, in these two states had an average of only three to four years in the role.  To oversimplify, they found no difference in student performance when superintendents change. This is a fairly direct challenge to the concept of superintendent leadership and bears careful examination.

It is always a challenge to precisely identify the consequences of leadership behavior. This is true in any complex organization where the direct relationship between a CEO and the performance of the organization’s employees or the accomplishment of its goals is a hard connection to make. The study of leadership behavior has become a lucrative field for authors to present their particular views on how the leadership of the CEO can transform the organization and its culture.  The focus is on identifying behaviors, both motivational and managerial, that contribute to an organization’s accomplishment of its goals.  Authors Chingos, Whitehurst and Lindquist raise a good question: what is the evidence that the superintendent impacts student achievement?

Does a CEO matter to an organization? Is a CEO actually worth the substantial salaries they receive? Answering this question is normally based on some understanding of what a CEO actually does, i.e., what actions, goal setting functions, policies, budget appropriations, personnel practices, management strategies, Board relations, and so on are attributable to the CEO?   The question for analysis is not whether there is a CEO and how long that person has been in place. The question is what actions are taken to support the overall success of the organization? In the case of the Brown Center report the authors do not attempt to identify specific leadership behaviors. Instead, they look only at length of service of the superintendent, glossing over the fact that both elected and appointed superintendents are in the same sample, i.e., politicians vs. professional educators;  and they only looked at 4th and 5th grade student achievement data in one state as their measure of impact on student achievement. No analysis of differences in leadership behavior is provided.

This is methodologically weak in that no attempt is made to identify specific actions of superintendents that did or did not contribute to the positive effects of the teachers, principals, schools and districts that the report highlights. By not asking the right questions, the study draws a conclusion, i.e., superintendents don’t matter, without actually collecting and reporting information on any actions taken by superintendents. The authors looked at superintendents from 67 districts in Florida and 115 districts in North Carolina and the time period of the analysis captured a total of 434 individual superintendents. Student achievement data analysis was restricted to 4th and 5th grade results in North Carolina only. Narrowing effectiveness on student achievement to only 4th and 5th grade data in one state inappropriately narrows the definition of leadership impact.

In addition, unmeasured differences in achievement are attributed in the Brown Center report as “Student” differences without definition.  “Controls” are measured differences, such as, race/ethnicity. In Figure 4 (Page 10) of the Brown Report the authors claim that 90.8% of the variance in 4th and 5th grade math achievement in North Carolina is attributed to student variables (52% “Student” and 38.8% “Control”). The authors describe the “Students” variable, accounting for 52% of the variance in the data, as “all unexplained variance including measurement error.” (Page 10) By calling this “Student” variance and not “unexplained” variance, a reader can inaccurately conclude that the combination of student level variables explains most of the variance. This attempt to define school outcomes as the result of differences in students is inconsistent with the significant amount of research on quality schools and districts that demonstrates the characteristics of high performing schools that successfully address student level variables. The Brown Center data attributes only 4% of the explained variance to teacher differences which is a significant departure from other research.  They attribute only 0.3% of the explained variance in test data to differences in the superintendent. However, the majority of the variance is being attributed to unmeasured variables assuming that the unmeasured variables have nothing to do with the superintendent. Is it not possible that the Brown Center report simply did not ask the right questions?   For example, a superintendent may exert leadership around issues of a race-based achievement gap and you would not, necessarily, see that influence attributed to the superintendent in this type of data collection.  If parents become more engaged, if local community-based organizations become more collaborative partners, if teachers begin to focus on racial disparities in more effective ways, etc., this study would not attribute those differences to the superintendent because it did not ask that question.  Attributing unmeasured variance under a “Student” category is misleading and likely inaccurate. At a minimum it reflects that many questions were left unasked in this analysis.

In contrast, consider the 2006 study by Waters and Marzano of the Mid-Continent Educational Laboratory.[1]  It is interesting to note that this well-known study was not even mentioned in the Brown report.  The Waters and Marzano work is a meta-analysis of 27 studies of superintendent leadership behaviors and their impact on student achievement. The analysis looks at studies that involved 2,817 school districts and the achievement scores of 3.4 million students. Fourteen of the 27 studies had specific student achievement data for analysis of district leadership impact on student data. The study found a .24 positive correlation between district leadership and student achievement (p<.05). This explains as much as a 9.5 percentile point growth in student achievement attributed to leadership characteristics of superintendents. The analysis looks specifically into the types of leadership behaviors that contribute to positive student outcomes and identifies statistically significant predictors.  Waters and Marzano identified five statistically significant factors:

  • The goal setting process (Average r = .24, p<.05)
  • Non-negotiable goals for achievement and instruction (Average r = .33, p<.05)
  • Board alignment with and support of district goals. (Average r = .29, p<.05)
  • Monitoring the goals for achievement and instruction (Average r = .27, p<.05),
  • Use of resources to support the goals for achievement and instruction. (Average r = .26, p<.05)

Particularly relevant to understanding the Brown Center report is a sixth finding in the Waters and Marzano study that found that the degree of autonomy provided to principals to lead their schools within the context of clear district goals, expectations and supports for teachers was positively correlated to student achievement. (r=.28, p<.05)  In other words, there is a positive impact on student achievement when superintendents focus on hiring high quality principals and teachers, when they empower them to focus on the mission of the district at the local school level; when there is support for innovation and provision of district supports for professional development and innovative practices; and where high levels of achievement by all students is a clear, measured, district-wide expectation.  Therefore, the evidence in the Brown Center report showing the positive role of teachers, principals and school level factors may, in fact, also be seen as evidence of district level leadership that has created the conditions for this level of impact to occur, i.e., clear policy, high expectations, personnel practices, budget alignment.  This “tight-loose” management style may be very effective as a district strategy, but the Brown Center report would see these as effects attributed to teachers, principals, and buildings independent of the superintendent.

By not asking the question of specific leadership behavior, the Brown Center report concludes:

In the end, it is the system that promotes or hinders student achievement.  Superintendents are largely indistinguishable creatures of that system. (Page 14)

This is a misleading and inaccurate representation of the role of district leadership in creating conditions for success. The issue is not whether the superintendent is treated as an independent variable from teacher, principal and school effects.  On the contrary, the issue is how the superintendent influences, supports and contributes to the effectiveness of these variables.  If teachers are effective, what leadership behavior supports that effectiveness?  If principals are effective leaders, what steps did the superintendent take to support those administrators?  If the Board is demonstrating effective leadership, what steps did the superintendent take to foster and collaborate with that vision?  If the system has invested in effective strategies and practices, what budgetary practices were used to support those elements?  The Brown Center report does a disservice to understanding the impact of district leadership by not looking at specific leadership behavior in the successful districts they identified.

Pat Burk, Ph.D.

Department of Educational Leadership and Policy


[1] Waters, J. T., & Marzano, R. J. (2006). School district leadership that works: The effect of superintendent leadership on student achievement. Denver, CO: Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning. – See more at:


ODE Takes Advantage of New Federal Flexibility

As discussed in this space on Friday, US Department of Education Secretary Arnie Duncan announced an option of a one-year delay for states in implementing the requirement that student performance on state assessments be one of the components of teacher and administrator evaluations in states that had waivers of certain provision of the No Child Left Behind Act. Oregon is one of the waiver states. We indicated last week that this might be an opportunity for Oregon to continue to develop its implementation of the Oregon Matrix Model, the new statewide teacher and administrator system, and provide additional time for local districts to develop procedures for incorporating student assessment data as one of the multiple measures used in the evaluation process. Here is more information on the Oregon Matrix Model:

The Oregon Department of Education, taking advantage of the new federal flexibility, announced this morning that local districts “do not need to use statewide summative assessment results in educator evaluations this school year.” Here is a link to the announcement from ODE.

A copy of the announcement is attached below.

Districts in Oregon will be asked to focus on alternate local assessments, either locally developed or using commercially prepared assessments, to determine student growth as a component of employee evaluations. These are known as “Category 2 assessments” in the Oregon Matrix Model. This provides additional time, which many districts had been seeking, to refine how state student performance data is incorporated into the new Oregon model. Districts can benefit from this extra time to work with their employee organizations and administrators in developing their local procedures.

Patrick Burk, Ph.D.
Department of Educational Leadership and Policy

ODE Announcement Aug 25 Evaluation Data.docx

Duncan Announces One-Year Delay in New Evaluation Expectations

Secretary Duncan made a significant announcement yesterday regarding a delay in new teacher and administrator evaluation procedures during a visit to Jefferson Middle School in Washington, DC.

Duncan’s announcement responds to a significant amount of criticism regarding the timing of implementation of new requirements for using indicator(s) of student progress and proficiency as a component of teacher and administrator evaluations. States that had applied for waivers of certain provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act were required as part of their waiver request to implement an evaluation system that included evidence of student proficiency by the 2014-15 school year or have their waiver revoked.  This is exactly what happened in the state of Washington earlier this year.

In Oregon, the new evaluation system, the Oregon Matrix Model, has been in a development, field testing and professional development cycle for the past two years, and was scheduled to be implemented statewide this year. No official statement from ODE has come out so far on this change of position by USDOE. While a lot of training opportunities have been provided by the Oregon Department of Education and school districts have been working with their employees on these new models; there have also been concerns expressed that the system was still very new, and additional time for training and refinement of data measures would be beneficial.  Secretary Duncan’s statement appears to open a door for states like Oregon that have waivers in place to seek that extra time.

The Oregon Matrix model has the benefit of not focusing exclusively on state-level standardized tests, although such data is expected to be one of the multiple measures identified for teachers of those subject areas in local districts’ plans.  Unlike value added models that seek to control for the effects of school and student variables and then examine the amount of remaining variance explained by the individual teacher, the Oregon Matrix Model looks at the context of the environment in which the teacher is located and focuses on student improvement within that context.

A focus on growth and improvement within the context of the school is the goal.  However, the mechanism for identifying all appropriate data indicators, collection procedures, incorporation into classroom observation and administrator evaluation cycles, and experience with how the new criteria work will all require time and experience before people feel confident in a new system.  The extra time being offered by Secretary Duncan is a step in that direction.


Unemployment Insurance Update, July 2014

This is very interesting data out today from the Oregon Office of Economic Analysis. Job losses have come back down to pre-recession levels. That is the good news. But hiring in Oregon is still below historical levels seen in past recoveries. More people are entering the job market and many are still unable to find work. Therefore, they are not eligible for benefits, resulting in 2 out of 3 unemployed Oregonians not receiving unemployment benefits. And the “exhaustion rate,” i.e., the number of people who reach the end of their benefits without finding a job, is still very high. The data reflect positive growth, but the effects of the recession linger. We know from other data that this impacts communities of color, individuals without a high school credential, and individuals with limited English proficiency in a disproportionately higher rate. The data highlight the importance of continuing to focus our educational outcomes on college and career ready skills for all students in order to equip them for successful transition into an economy that is still struggling to fully recover.

Pat Burk
Department of Educational Leadership and Policy

Oregon Office of Economic Analysis

New claims for unemployment insurance at at or near all-time lows in both Oregon and the U.S. This is encouraging in that it shows the level of job loss is currently at very low rates, and effectively as low as during the past expansions. In other words, if you have a job, the probability of losing it is very low today. Of course this does not take into account the continued high levels of the long-term unemployed, or a lower LFPR, which have been detailed previously.


As such, the level of unemployment insurance benefits paid out is back down to pre-Great Recession levels. Unfortunately the exhaustion rate — the share of Oregonians who start receiving benefits and reach the end of program without leaving, i.e. do not find a job — is still high, although it is about half-way back.UIBenfits_0714

With relatively low levels of job loss, low…

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Wisconsin Supreme Court Decision Challenges Collective Bargaining Rights

July 31, 2014

The Wisconsin Supreme Court today issued a major and controversial decision in a case that could have significant consequences for every state with collective bargaining provisions for public employees.

Recall in Wisconsin in 2011 that there was an intense fight between teacher representatives and other public employee unions on one side and the Wisconsin legislature and Governor Scott Walker on the other over the collective bargaining rights of teachers in that state.  The Wisconsin legislature approved Act 10 even in the face of intense public pressure against it and an occupation of the state capital building. The Act bars collective bargaining between municipal employers, including school districts, and labor representatives on everything except base wages; and removes hours, working conditions, and grievance procedures from the collective bargaining process. Wage increases are limited to the Consumer Price Index, and “fair share” arrangements were barred.

A law suit brought by Madison Teachers Inc, the collective bargaining representative for teachers in the Madison Metropolitan School District, challenged the constitutionality of these provisions in Act 10, and today the Wisconsin Supreme Court held in a 5-2 decision in Madison Teachers Inc. v. Walker that “collective bargaining remains a creation of legislative grace and not constitutional obligation,” handing Governor Walker a major victory.  The court’s decision basically maintains that collective bargaining provisions in Wisconsin state law are the creation of the legislature; and, as such, the legislature has the authority to change them. In an earlier and related Federal Appeals Court decision, the federal court rejected a challenge from teachers and others who objected to distinctions in Act 10 between “General Unions,” which include teacher unions, and “Public Safety Unions,” which include law-enforcement and firefighters.  The court rejected the challenge to the distinction in the law even though the Public Safety Unions had supported Governor Walker’s 2010 election and the General Unions had not.

In a dissenting statement today, Justice Ann Walsh Bradley and Justice Shirley S. Abrahamson voiced their concern that the right to organize has been compromised and that benefits could be denied as punishment to members of “disfavored groups.”

See a good discussion on this case at the Education Week School Law blog at:

Madison Teachers Inc, an NEA affiliate, issued a statement on its web site today.

The statement provides detail on the dissenting statement which argued that the state did not present evidence supporting the requirement that the decision be narrowly tailored to meet a compelling state interest.  The dissent also questions the constitutionality of requiring that an individual give up a constitutionally protected right to bargain in order to obtain benefits from the employer.

No announcement has been made, as yet, regarding the intention of Madison Teachers Inc. or the NEA to appeal this decision.  The basic legal issue here is quite significant as to whether state law regarding collective bargaining can be changed in such a manner as to infringe upon First Amendment rights of free association and rights to petition to address grievances, and Fourteenth Amendment protections of due process and equal protection.    At stake here is whether a state’s collective bargaining law can be unilaterally changed by a legislature over the objections and direct participation of represented groups, and in a manner that denies previously held benefits. This is likely not the end of the process in Wisconsin and it will continue to garner the attention of other collective bargaining states and their employee representatives.

Patrick Burk, Ph.D.

Department of Educational Leadership and Policy

Superintedents’ Readiness for Common Core State Standards

The American Association of School Administrators (AASA), the professional organization that represents most district superintendents in the U.S., just released the results of a survey of 525 superintendents from 48 states regarding readiness for implementation of the of Common Core State Standards (CCSS), other rigorous state standards and new assessments.

This is one of the few data-based analyses published on this question and there are a lot of good data here that make it worth reading. One of the things unique about this report is that it compares CCSS-adopting districts to non-CCSS-adopting districts. This is a very informative comparison. Both groups report that their states are implementing more rigorous standards. The non-CCSS states report higher levels of concern regarding funding and teacher preparation. Both groups report that the political debate has gotten in the way of their state’s implementation of higher standards. There is also strong commitment from both groups to stay the course of their particular state’s efforts.

The data set is also evenly split between districts using Smarter Balanced Assessment and Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career. Even though almost half of the respondents report their districts as using assessment data in employee evaluations, this area is identified as the most problematic for the superintendents and concerns are identified regarding appropriate use, time for teachers to adjust instruction based on the new standards, and the appropriate procedures for incorporating these data into their evaluation processes.

Data are reported on the status of:

  • Adoption
  • Implementation
  • Assessments
  • State Support
  • Community Support

The study, in general, shows agreement among district superintendents that the standards are more rigorous and better aligned for college and career readiness. Most districts are moving ahead with implementation of either CCSS or some other form of more rigorous standards. They see both the opportunity and the challenge for implementation of more rigorous standards in high poverty districts, supporting the need for high standards to address equity issues, but also the need for the financial support for the instructional programs and services to accomplish this. The superintendents are also concerned about the lack of adequate funding for sustained professional development. They join several other national organizations suggesting that the standards be in place for several years before attaching high stakes decisions based on student performance. They suggest that school districts need additional time to fully implement them, especially more time for necessary professional development of staff.

Your comments are always welcome.

Pat Burk, Ph.D.
Department of Educational Leadership and Policy

Reflections on Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka: 60 Years and Counting


The Brown Family, Topeka, 1954

The Brown Family, Topeka, 1954 clip from An American Legacy, Teaching Tolerance, Spring, 2004


Today, May 17, 2014, marks the 60th anniversary of the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas.  Many articles and historical memorials of this watershed event have appeared leading up to this anniversary. See examples at:

In addition, many excellent resources appeared in 2004 for the 50th anniversary of this case. See the excellent piece by the Southern Poverty Law Center in Teaching Tolerance Magazine at:

The parents of Linda Carol Brown and Terry Lynn Brown refused to accept that their two daughters were made to walk past a nearby white school and cross a dangerous railroad yard to catch a bus to a black school several miles away.  Their courage and the courage of four other cases combined in the famous “Brown” decision that restored the protections of the 14th Amendment to the issue of where children go to school.

What is, perhaps, not as well known is that tomorrow, May 18, 2014, marks the 118th anniversary of the case that created the need for Brown in the first place, the decision in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896.

In 1890, the Louisiana legislature passed the Separate Car Act that required blacks and whites to ride in separate cars on Louisiana railroads. A group of black, white and Creole residents in New Orleans formed the Comite’ des Citoyens (Committee of Citizens) to fight the law.  They prevailed upon Homer Adolph Plessy, a freeman, to engage in a deliberate act of civil disobedience by buying a ticket for a ride from New Orleans to Covington on the East Louisiana Railroad; and deliberately sitting in the “whites only” car and not in the “colored” car. Interestingly, the railroad company opposed the law as well because it was causing the company to purchase more railroad cars. The company was aware of and cooperated in the plan.  As Mr. Plessy was of mixed racial heritage, the railroad company was informed in advance that he was black. On June 7, 1892, Mr. Plessy took a seat in a “whites only” car. He was asked to change cars, and he refused.  According to the plan, the train was stopped; Mr. Plessy was arrested by a train detective and removed from the train.

To the challenges to the charges against Mr. Plessy, Judge John Howard Ferguson ruled that Louisiana had the right to regulate its railroads as long as it remained within the boundaries of the state. The Committee of Citizens then appealed, and lost, before the Louisiana Supreme Court; and the case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1896.  On May 18, 1896, the Supreme Court upheld the decision of the lower court by ruling that Mr. Plessy had not been denied his right to ride on the train and had access to a railcar of comparable quality. Therefore, in the opinion of the court, Mr. Plessy’s 14th Amendment rights to equal protection had not been violated. In addition, the court held that separation of races was not necessarily the result of beliefs in superiority of one race over another, but, rather, an attempt to avoid discomfort of mixing people together who didn’t want to mix.

“So far, then, as a conflict with the Fourteenth Amendment is concerned, the case reduces itself to the question whether the statute of Louisiana is a reasonable regulation, and, with respect to this, there must necessarily be a large discretion on the part of the legislature.  In determining the question of reasonableness, it is at liberty to act with reference to the established usages, customs, and traditions of the people, and with a view to the promotion of their comfort and the preservation of the public peace and good order.” 163 U.S 537, Error to the Supreme Court of the State of Louisiana, Supreme Court of the United States, Mr. Justice Brown delivering the opinion of the Court, May 18, 1896.

Thus, the principle of “separate but equal” public accommodations became the law of the land and applied to many elements of public life, including public education.  The Supreme Court’s position was, basically, that people should not be required to do things that make them uncomfortable.

For 58 years almost to the day, from May 18, 1896 to May 17, 1954, it was the established policy of the United States, upheld by the Supreme Court, that children of different races should attend separate schools. It was more comfortable that way. It took painstaking, deliberate legal strategy of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and their young lead attorney, Thurgood Marshall, to gradually build the legal precedents to challenge this.  Starting with the provision of access in the states to law schools for students of color, a series of victories in Cumming v. Richmond Board of Education, Missouri ex rel. Gains v Canada, Sipuel v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma, Sweatt v. Painter and McLaurin v Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education  helped build the case for both equal access to all facilities and to the key provision that segregation into inferior institutions was not “equal;” and that such inferiority produced psychological damage and created negative self-image.

On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court struck down the separate but equal interpretation of the 14th Amendment. Delivering the opinion of the court, Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote:

“We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of “separate but equal” has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated for whom the actions have been brought are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.”  Brown v. Board of Education, 347 US 483 (1954), Chief Justice Warren delivering the Opinion o f the Court.

However, the Brown decision only reversed the Plessy decision by striking down the legal principle of separate but equal facilities and public services.  It ordered no remedy.  States were stuck with the question of what to do about their schools if separate schools violated the Fourteenth Amendment.  The Supreme Court addressed this problem on May 31, 1955, in a second decision, known as Brown II, in which the Supreme Court remanded all school desegregation cases before the Court back to their respective lower courts requiring that states desegregate their schools “with all deliberate speed.”  This left open the question of when desegregation had to be in place, leaving the decisions up to the states to decide how and when these goals would be accomplished.  If progress was not made, the federal courts could rule on mandatory desegregation orders.  This set off many years of lower court cases and challenges to develop and implement desegregation plans that would eliminate segregated schools. Of course, this proved to be the source of significant conflict as states and local districts resisted desegregation orders, and sought approval for plans that did not adequately address racial balance.  Significant community differences surfaced around the country as some areas resolved desegregation issues on a voluntary basis, while others spent years in federal courts trying to reach agreements on mandatory plans and court orders.

Conflicts, at times violent, arose as some cities and communities aggressively resisted the expectation that children of different races would go to school together. We recall the “Little Rock Nine” being escorted by federal troops into Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in September, 1957. We recall Alabama Governor George Wallace’s infamous inaugural speech on January 14, 1963, where he passionately pledged, “Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!”  Beginning in 1971, following the ruling in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education that the federal courts could include student busing as part of desegregation orders, desegregation plans increasingly included mandatory student busing to achieve desegregation goals. In 1974, the mandatory desegregation of South Boston and Roxbury High Schools led to violent confrontations, walk outs and an enrollment decline estimated by some at 40,000 from the Boston Public Schools.  By the 1980’s, busing plans had begun to decline and populations shifted with many families leaving cities for the suburbs or placing their children in private schools. Neighborhoods and neighborhood schools tended to reflect the segregated housing patterns that dominated most urban areas.  Clearly, the absence of a level of “comfort” in communities responding to the expectation that local communities desegregate their schools as a result of Brown had become an enormous barrier to the hope of Brown.

Strategies then shifted in the 1980s and 1990s to developing plans in which choice and incentives would lead to increased integration across neighborhood boundaries.  Magnet schools and special programs with a special curricular or an academic focus were made available.  Many of these programs worked well in the beginning, but, as funds and interest declined, so did their success.  Much of the uniqueness of these programs required considerable additional funding for specialized staff and program operations.  Economic pressures, declining enrollments, population shifts and other forces took a toll on these programs.  Districts continued to attempt to revise their desegregation plans, but public interest and enforcement by the courts had dissipated considerably.  The lack of community support for these plans and the changing demographics of communities made it harder and harder to sustain desegregation as a goal in communities. The public will was not there.

On June 28, 2007, the Supreme Court issued another landmark decision in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1. The Court reviewed two voluntary desegregation plans, Seattle and Louisville, KY, that had been challenged. The Seattle school district was never subject to a mandatory desegregation order, but had voluntarily maintained a desegregated system through the use of voluntary transfers and schools of choice.  Students were classified as white and non-white and these categories were used to maintain balance and serve as “tiebreakers” in allocating students to programs in the district. The Seattle plan was challenged by parents whose white students were not able to get into desired schools because of the use of racial balance in the assignment of students.  Arguing that assigning students on the basis of race violated the 14th Amendment, they brought suit against the district. Both the Seattle Federal District Court and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the district’s plan as meeting a compelling government interest in maintaining racially diverse schools.  However, the Supreme Court in a 5-4 split decision reversed the lower courts.

Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Roberts took the very legal precedent established in the original Brown decision and used it to undo the Court’s commitment to desegregation.  Chief Justice Roberts wrote that assigning a student on the basis of race for desegregation purposes was no different than assigning a student on the basis of race in a “separate but equal” system.

“Before Brown, school children were told where they could and could not go to school based on the color of their skin.  The school districts in these cases have not carried the heavy burden of demonstrating that we should allow this once again, even for very different reasons.  For schools that never segregated on the basis of race, such as, Seattle, or that have removed the vestiges of past segregation, such as Jefferson County, the way “to achieve a system of determining admission to the public schools on a nonracial basis,” Brown II, 349 U.S., at 300-301, is to stop assigning students on a racial basis. The way to stop discrimination on a racial basis is to stop discriminating on a racial basis.” Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, Chief Justice Roberts presenting the Opinion of the Court.

Justice Breyer, writing the dissenting opinion joined by Justices Stevens, Souter and Ginsburg, argues that the majority opinion fails to make the case that the Seattle and Louisville plans fail the Equal Protection Clause.  First, the plans of Seattle and Louisville intentionally further, not impede, the goals of desegregation.  Second, the tradition of the court has always been to promote, not detract from, bringing people of different races together.  Third, the two plans address a compelling state interest in a narrow and focused manner. Fourth, the majority’s questioning of the use of race-conscious criteria will delay and impede the work of school districts to bring about racially diverse schools. In a moving conclusion, Justice Breyer questions what this decision will do to the “hope and promise of Brown.”  Calling the Brown decision “this Court’s finest hour,” he wrote that the decision meant that equal protection of the law for all races was more than words on paper, and brought the promises of the Constitution into the reality of how we actually live as a nation.  He warns of the loss of these principles.

And in light of those challenges, they have asked us not to take from their hands the instruments they have used to rid their schools of racial segregation, instruments that they believe are needed to overcome the problems of cities divided by race and poverty.  The plurality would decline their modest request.

The plurality is wrong to do so.  The last half-century has witnessed great strides toward racial equality, but we have not yet realized the promise of Brown.  To invalidate the plans under review is to threaten the promise of Brown.   The plurality’s position, I fear, would break that promise.  This is a decision that the Court and the Nation will come to regret. Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 ET AL, Dissent opinion delivered by Justice Breyer joined by Justices Stevens, Souter and Ginsburg, Section VI, Conclusions.

We find ourselves today 118 years from the decision of the Supreme Court on May 18, 1896, still limiting racial equality as a nation “with reference to the established usages, customs , and traditions of the people, and with a view to the promotion of their comfort and the reservation of the public peace and good order.” (Plessy v. Ferguson)  The Brown decision happened 58 years after Plessy and 53 years before Parents v. Seattle. Now, today, 60 years after Brown, it seems more accurate to consider today as another step along a journey that began with the passage of the Reconstruction Amendments to the U.S. Constitution following the Civil War. Those amendments abolished slavery (13th); guaranteed equal protection and due process (14th) and provided the right to vote (15th).  But in Plessy the issue was not the law; but, rather, the level of comfort white people had with racial equality. It was about not wanting to sit next to a black person on the train. Brown resolved the legal issue of the applicability of the 14th Amendment to school desegregation, but it did not resolve the resistance to implementing it because we were uncomfortable as a nation and as local communities with sending our children to the same schools. In many ways, we still are.  And the Seattle decision ends up denying protections for equal accessibility to education choices because some of us are uncomfortable not getting everything we think we are entitled to.

Perhaps, then, the meaning of the 60th anniversary of the Brown decision is not a celebration of what was accomplished on May 17, 1954, but, rather, an awareness that we have not resolved the basic issue of racial equality from 118 years ago in Plessy. The Brown decision is actually a middle point of a series of events beginning with the end of the Civil War and continuing to today that center on whether we are comfortable, i.e., physically, socially, politically, economically, culturally comfortable with the idea of genuine racial and ethnic equality and full and equal participation for all in American life. We have to become comfortable with each other in far deeper ways than riding on the same railcar. We appear, instead, to be comfortable with racial and cultural discrepancies in education, income, employment, health, housing, and so on. This is to say, we do not appear to be prepared to eliminate these discrepancies; we accept them. Elimination will mean sharing full participation in all areas; sharing genuine economic and political power; sharing access to wealth and decision making; sharing access to opportunities; searching out and eliminating bias in our systems; and accepting that justice demands that we, as a society, are prepared to take action to recognize and reverse the effects of racism, classism and abuse of power that have characterized so much of our past.


Pat Burk, Ph.D.

Department of Educational Leadership and Policy