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Orienting to History

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Margaret Crocco

Margaret Crocco, a TC Faculty member, at an event focused on Brown.

Some schools orient new students through games, parties and tours. TC does all that, but it also orients students to its mission. This year, both at one of the many New Student Orientation events and at an event on Constitution Day, students were asked to think about educational equity and the legacy of Brown v. Board of Education.

On September 5, new TC students packed Lerner Hall at Columbia for a forum on educational equity given by former TC faculty member Richard Rothstein and current faculty members Michael Rebell, Edmund Gordon, Suniya Luthar, Amy Stuart Wells and Luis Huerta. The forum, chaired by Rebell, Executive Director of The Campaign for Educational Equity, focused on Rothstein's book Class and Schools (TC Press, 2004). Rothstein - the featured speaker at the forum - is a Research Associate at the Economic Policy Institute and consultant to TC's Equity Campaign. He argues that the disparities in academic achievement between black and white students reflect the larger social and economic disparities between the groups. Schools should do the best job possible, he said, but other factors such as adequate housing, access to health care and economic security should be examined. Rothstein called upon aspiring teachers "to use their insights to become advocates to create a more equitable society."

That theme carried over to Constitution Day at TC. Constitution Day is mandated by federal law. Congress passed this provision with the intent to increase knowledge of the U.S. Constitution among students of all ages. Starting in 2005, all schools that receive any federal funding must hold a Constitution Day event.

"Did Brown v. Board of Education Promise Comprehensive Educational Equity?" was the topic for discussion at TC. This two-hour event, sponsored by the Office of Diversity and Community and The Campaign for Educational Equity, was open to the entire TC Community and started with a lecture by Rebell in Milbank Chapel. Rebell discussed the broader implications of Brown, which held that racial segregation in public schools is unconstitutional, and the difficulties that the federal courts ran into in fully implementing the decision. More specifically, Rebell said that while the vision of Brown was equal educational opportunity for all students, the federal courts ultimately withdrew from enforcing that vision. As a result, state courts became the arena for the ongoing fight for equal educational opportunity.

Rebell asked the group to think about what it would really take to realize the Brown vision.

"We need to define a substantive base level of opportunity that society must accord each individual to provide him or her a fair start," he said. "The issue is: what are the most important impediments that need to be overcome? What is that substantive base level necessary to provide equality of educational opportunity? Would this be comprehensive educational equity?" said Rebell.

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