In May 2004, the Center on Race and Social Problems at the University of Pittsburgh held an all-day conference commemorating a landmark in American history-Brown v. Board of Education. This event was the second in the Pittsburgh Brown Commemoration series. The first event was held at Duquesne University. Funding was provided by the Heinz Endowments and the Pittsburgh Foundation.
The University of Pittsburgh conference consisted of presentations by four national speakers as well as a panel discussion featuring local educators and education policy experts. Approximately 500 people attended the event.
The first speaker was Gary Orfield, director of the Harvard Project on School Desegregation and founding director of the Harvard Civil Rights Project. He noted that the Brown decision did not result in any sudden integration of schools. It took federal government enforcement of the Brown decision after the 1964 Civil Rights Act for integration within school districts to occur. The Brown decision did not address inter-district desegregation. Further, the trend in recent decades has been for schools to become more segregated.
The second speaker was James Comer, professor of child psychiatry at the Yale University School of Medicine’s Child Study Center. Comer said that he supports integration but acknowledged that the issue is much more complex than just having African American and White students attend school in the same building. He stressed the need for schools to provide extra support for students from dysfunctional homes and communities and said that students need structure in life and in schools. He recommended that school management engage in team planning for the social and academic growth of the school.
The third speaker was Abigail Thernstrom, a senior fellow of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. She stated that Brown remains a luminous moment in U.S. history because of its importance in ending the caste system in this country. Thernstrom believes that racial concentration is not segregation and that learning is not necessarily compromised by students attending schools where the majority of students are from their own race. She pointed out that schools cannot change demographics and that busing causes children to lose valuable instructional time. She thinks that African American cultural factors contribute significantly to achievement gaps. No Excuses, a book that she coauthored with her husband, expands on her perspectives.
The fourth speaker was Kati Haycock, director of the Education Trust. She noted that African American 17-year-olds read and do math at the same levels as White 13-year-olds and that 33 of every 100 White kindergarteners will complete college between the ages of 25-29 compared to just 18 African Americans. Haycock said that policy makers should focus more attention and resources on quality prekindergarten programs and remedying the funding gap, as districts serving concentrations of poor children need more support, not less. Overhauling teacher policy is important and should seek to incorporate higher standards for entry, more supports during induction, higher pay for higher performers, fewer protections for low performers, and incentives to teach where teachers are needed the most. Educators also should get all students into rigorous curriculum courses with more rigorous assignments.
Featured panelists were University of Pittsburgh alumnus Helen Faison, director of the Pittsburgh Teachers Institute; William Isler, president of the Board of Directors of the Pittsburgh Public Schools; Janet Schofield, Pitt professor of psychology and senior scientist at the University of Pittsburgh's Learning Research and Development Center; and John Thompson, superintendent of the Pittsburgh Public Schools. Chris Moore, producer and host for WQED Multimedia, was the panel moderator. Maxwell King, president of the Heinz Endowments, provided introductory comments.