Focus on the Classroom

Black and white photo of young Black student writing on notebook paper

Billy E. Barnes

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 7 No. 2, "Just Schools: A Special Report Commemorating the 25th Anniversary of the Brown Decision." Find more from that issue here.

Vietnam is not the only place where America has measured success by a body count. 

In school desegregation also, a preoccupation with numbers of people has obscured more meaningful goals. The feat of getting black and white students into the same buildings has required extraordinary efforts, but even as Southern schools have achieved the proper “body count,” it has become apparent that gathering people in the same physical space is not enough. Attention is shifting to what goes on behind the classroom door—the information taught, the methods used to teach it, and the way students and teachers interact, all of which come under the broad category of curriculum. What has desegregation actually accomplished, and what remains to be addressed in this crucial area?

The pace of any educational change approximates that of a wounded turtle. The oldest readers of this article could walk into most classrooms in the country and find things nearly the same as when they were students. Desks are still in rows facing the teacher’s desk at the front of the room; instruction is generally teacher-directed, whole-group-centered and textbook-oriented; and the object of education is still the acquisition of knowledge. Some teachers are genuinely concerned that students develop emotionally as well as intellectually, but tests and texts still focus on information. Given these basic facts of educational life, any curricular change is noteworthy. 

The changes under desegregation are perhaps more remarkable since they have come so quickly and without a consensus among those doing the changing. Racially mixed enrollments came only around 1970 in most Southern schools, and since the first two or three years in most systems were occupied with adjusting to the procedural aspects of desegregation, attention to curriculum has developed only within the last five to eight years—a fleeting moment given the pace of educational change. 

In those few years, educators have sought different, often conflicting, goals through adjustments in the curriculum. Those who seek justice and equality have promoted the inclusion of black history, interracial contact through small-group work in class and the study of social problems like race relations and poverty. Others, who may reject the notion that the school’s curriculum can promote racial harmony in the broader society, focus more narrowly on improving the achievement scores of black students through remedial programs. For these people, black history courses are generally irrelevant, and interracial contact among students is left to happen—or not happen. Still others have maintained a focus on the body count, some as a form of passive resistance to further desegregation. Taking as their guide a landmark study popularly known as the Coleman Report,1 this group believes that black students performed better academically when placed in classes with whites, leading to a preoccupation with how many of who goes where. New subject matter, small group activity, or special classes are not important. Just add the right mix and learning will take place. 

Given this diversity of goals and the facts of educational life, it is not surprising that no single thread unites the various curricular changes since Brown. It is also not surprising that an ambivalent picture emerges as one analyzes the changes since 1954. What seem to be minor changes have occurred against great odds. What seem to be major changes have made very little difference. There is a simultaneous progression and regression.

How well, on a school teacher’s scale of A to F, have these changes improved the quality of education for all children?


Interpersonal relations. Perhaps the most noticeable curricular change has been the improvement of race relations in the classroom. Vignettes such as the one in which a primary grade teacher had white students use finger-painting first so they didn’t have to put their hands in paint touched by blacks, are rare these days in the South. Blacks and whites work together on class projects. They form friendships. According to a national survey conducted by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, “students…consistently adjust to school desegregation in a positive manner.”2

The adjustment is not universal, however. For some students, the increase in contact between races has only reinforced their prejudices. Some fights break out between students who happen to be of different races; others break out because the students are of different races. And in many classrooms, lunchrooms, and gyms there is a rigid voluntary segregation in seating patterns. 

More significantly, problems still exist in relations between students and teachers. White students occasionally complain of a black teacher who tries ot make them feel personally responsible for all of the injustices inflicted on blacks since time began. Research suggests that racial differences affect the amount of time spent waiting for an answer.3 For example, teachers tend to ask white students more questions that require the student to create a thoughtful answer, while they tend to ask black students more questions in which the student merely chooses from a set of answers. While this kind of verbal behavior is not in the same category as a racial slur, students notice. Little wonder both black and white students identify whites as the best students and the ones most often called on in class, and identify black students as the ones who do not get to say much in class.4

If a report card were being issued, the subject of interpersonal relations would likely receive two grades—a B for the progress and a D for the problems created. The two grades should not be averaged into a C, for that would obscure both the meaningful growth that has occurred and important weaknesses that require attention. 


Remedial education. Probably the most common program change instituted in Southern schools since desegregation is the use of remedial classes in reading and math to help black students “catch up” to white students. Through Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and through the Emergency School Aid Act (ESAA), the federal government provides substantial amounts of money for remedial classes. Their colorful decorations, low student-teacher ratios, carefully maintained student records and abundance of learning materials contrast markedly with the more meager conventional classrooms. Typically, participating students visit a reading or math lab several times a week, where they receive special lessons (usually “canned” materials purchased from educational publishers) designed to meet their previously diagnosed needs on an individualized basis. 

There are, of course, variations on this theme. Federal funds are not restricted to reading and math; sometimes special teachers visit the regular classroom rather than withdrawing the students; and individualized programs are not always used. But the general theme persists. The entire approach violates the teacher-directed, whole-group-centered, textbook-oriented tradition of instruction, which may be why it frequently works. Remedial classes do not always produce astronomical gains, but many school districts have significantly improved t he reading and math achievement of participating students. And the very existence of the classes is a symbol to many parents that the school is committed to helping students. 

But there is another side to this coin. Kids learn quickly that special classes are for the “dummies.” It is embarrassing to have to walk out of a classroom in front of other students to go down the hall to a “special” class. Further, some instructional materials reinforce the notion that the students are simple-minded. A fourteen-year-old gets “turned off” right away when confronted with a reading assignment about a second-grader who visits a farmyard. Other materials force students into a dull routine of completing a work sheet, having the teacher check it, then moving on to another work sheet. 

An additional complication results from the improper assignment of students to the special classes. Generally, assignment is based on the student’s grades, standardized test scores and teacher recommendation. Test scores and grades frequently have a built-in cultural bias; their use often results in predominantly or entirely black classes, creating resegregation within the school. In schools where the teacher’s recommendation carries the most weight, some teachers use the remedial classes as a dumping ground for students who may be bright, but who cause “behavior problems” in class.

Another criticism of special classes maintains that they are based on a racially biased idea of “cultural deprivation.” This idea, used extensively to convince legislators to fund remedial programs, assumes that children from low-income and many minority families do not receive the adult stimulation at home which helps develop thinking and language skills.5 Critics now argue that this assumption devalues the interactions that occur in black families by identifying cultural differences with deprivation.

Even where the remedial classes are not based on a notion of cultural deprivation, they may be a way of avoiding the real issues of desegregation. By providing special classes for low-achieving black students, educators can claim they are meeting students’ needs and can go on teaching as they always have. Rather than change their “white instruction” methods—in which the teacher does all the decision-making, students are passive absorbers of knowledge and feelings are ignored—educators can send off to special classes those who do not fit the mold.

Grade the remedial classes with a B minus for progress and an F for creating new problems. 


Individualized instruction. This change, less common than the use of remedial classes, is confined almost exclusively to the elementary grades. Whether teachers use formal programs—such as Individually Guided Education or the open classroom model—or their own informal programs, individualized approaches all share the philosophy that instruction should start where the student is, rather than the student starting where the textbook begins. Basically, these approaches apply the ideas used in the remedial reading and math labs to the regular classroom. Students have a variety of materials available, and they work individually or in small groups at their current stages of development. During language arts class, one student might be reading a story, another listening to a cassette tape, and a third working on punctuation exercises.

Although individualized instruction was not developed specifically for desegregation, it does offer several advantages. It prevents black and lower-class children who are diagnosed as low achievers from being resegregated in special classes. The stigma of being a low achiever is reduced, since everybody receives special instruction. Opportunities for interracial contact are increased because no one has to leave the classroom.

Major obstacles to these individualized approaches are the enormous amounts of time, energy and resources required. In addition, in some schools individualized instruction is touted as a method for meeting the needs accompanying desegregation, when, in fact, it is still geared in some ways to a white, middle-class style of learning. While acknowledging that individualized instruction is not widespread, it ought to receive an A minus for its positive contributions and a B for its few negative contributions. 


Multicultural education. Most students, black or white, have never heard of Garrett Morgan, black cowboys, Ida B. Wells, or the Harlem Renaissance. Neither have most teachers. The conventional curriculum has ignored the concerns, achievements and characteristics of minority groups, fostering a distorted sense of history and current society. To correct this distortion, a fourth curricular response has emerged in many Southern schools: multicultural education. Black studies courses, additions to the regular social studies and literature courses, and an increased availability of learning materials about racial and ethnic minorities are all manifestations of multicultural education. Visible evidence of this change can be found in nearly every student in the South. Sometimes the change is minor, as when a two-week unit on black history is incorporated into the standard American history course. Sometimes it is a major change, as when an entire literature course is revised to include significant attention to minority authors.

Also under the rubric of multicultural education are the human relations activities found in some schools. Teachers are providing planned activities in which students become more aware of the concerns and feelings of each other. For example, as students discuss the things that are important in their lives, they discover the common values held by all races. This can lead further to an examination of the myths and stereotypes they hold. 

Another area of multicultural education is rarely implemented but offers great promise as a positive response to desegregation. It recognizes that different students have different “learning styles.” One student may learn best by reading alone in a quiet place; another may learn best by discussing the information with a group of peers. Such factors as time of day, method of taking in the information (reading, hearing, talking) and even room temperature affect an individual’s ability to learn. Recent experience and research suggest that cultural background is a major determinant of learning style. The conventional “white instruction” approach supports only one learning style, but it has been unquestioned for so long that students with other styles have been labeled slow learners or problem students. 

A quick illustration: the speaker-listener relationship. White students are accustomed to a style in which the teacher talks and the students listen, then the teacher asks questions.7 In black culture, based on such factors as music and church experiences, youngsters generally develop a style of interacting with the speaker. A black youngster attending the local church might be scolded for not “talking to” the minister during the sermon. Yet the same interaction in school would draw a reprimand from the teacher. Studies also indicate that while white adults often question children as part of a learning process, in many black families adult questioning occurs primarily when the parent is angry with the child.8 

Those few teachers who pay attention to learning style are finding that many black students are not disadvantaged, merely different. Multicultural education gets an A for its contributions and an A for not creating additional problems. 

Ability grouping. The award for the worst curricular innovation should go to ability grouping. For decades, in the face of enormous amounts of contrary data, educators have believed that by grouping students according to their ability it would be easier to teach them.9 Sometimes the students are grouped within a classroom—Bluebirds, Robins, etc.—and sometimes an entire grade is grouped—as when class 7A is the “smart kids” and 7G is the “dumb kids.” Students are assigned to these groups, as in Title I and ESAA classes, by standardized test scores, grades and teacher recommendation. The bias in these methods shows up in countless schools where the groups are racially segregated, with blacks mostly in the lower groups. A few districts purposely use ability grouping to keep black and white students from having much contact, even though the practice violates federal guidelines. Some districts even refuse to apply for federal funds, so that HEW won’t have any reasons to visit them. The help ability grouping offer is a myth; it merely contributes to resegregation. No ambivalence here. Give it two Fs. 


The dualism inherent in these curricular changes—the simultaneous progression and regression—reflects the difficulty in developing educational programs for a desegregating society. Confronting the racial and class biases in traditional instruction methods may prove as difficult as moving students from one school to another. But if all we do is count bodies and call that desegregation, it won’t get us much farther than it did in Vietnam. The quest for quality integrated education demands considerably more.


1. James S. Coleman et al, Equality of Educational Opportunity (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1966).

2. U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Fulfilling the Letter and Spirit of the Law: Desegregation of the Nation’s Public Schools (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1976), p. 136.

3. Geneva Gay, “Exploring Verbal Interactions in Deseregated Classrooms,” Educational Leadership, XXXI (May, 1974), pp. 725-729.

4. Ibid., p. 729.

5. Dorothy C. Clement, Margaret Eisenhart, and John R. Wood, “School Desegregation and Educational Inequality: Trends in the Literature, 1960-1975,” pp. 26-27, in The Desegregation Literature: A Critical Appraisal (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1976).

6. Larry Cuban, “Ethnic Content and White Instruction,” in James A. Banks (Ed.), Teaching Ethnic Studies: Concepts and Strategies (Washington, DC: National Council for the Social Studies, 1973).

7. Christine Bennett, “Teaching Students as They Would Be Taught: The Importance of Cultural Perspective,” Educational Leadership, XXXVI (January, 1979), p. 266

8. Ibid.

9. Barry J. Wilson and Donald W. Schmits, “What’s New in Ability Grouping?” Phi Delta Kappan, LIX (April, 1978), pp. 535-36.