Social and Cultural Foundations of American Education/History/20th Century

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What are the markers of the 20th Century?

Walt Disney’s Remember the Titans told the story of how the T.C. Williams Titans “danced their way in to history, 13 and 0, the perfect season,” said Tess Panzer, as she played the part of Cheryl Yoast, daughter of the former head coach of the Titans (“Remember the Titans”). However, as everyone remembers, this movie did not focus on just the athletic ability of these players, but on their ability to work together in a situation that, prior to that year, they had never done before. This situation was, of course, the end of segregation in public schools. Prior to the mid 20th Century, blacks and whites rarely attended the same schools. As integration began, it became arguably the most significant event to occur in public education in the 20th century.

The Early Years of the 20th Century[edit]

The movements for the legislature that would end segregation in schools began many years before, in the 1800s. However, this was opposed by many, particularly white Southerners. Prior to the Great Depression, many white children were not enrolled in school, and even fewer black children were. In the years following the Great Depression, better education and training programs were established. By the end of World War II, the G.I. Bill had been put into place. This bill paid for college education for all returning veterans, and it “changed the education structure of the United States forever” (“American Education and Civil Rights”). More and more Americans were being given the opportunity to further their education. However, this generalization only described the opportunities being offered to the white children. The select few African American children who were privileged enough to be able to attend school at all, were forced to attend run-down, poorly funded schools. It was not until the Brown v. The Board of Education case was heard that any changes and improvements could be made.

Brown v. The Board of Education[edit]

The best player will play;color won’t matter,”

—Denzel Washington as Herman Boone, Remember the Titans

Well, from the looks of our little situation we got here,I’d say it’s about all that does.

—Will Patton as Coach Bill Yoast, Remember the Titans

Prior to 1954, Americans justified segregation by the “separate, but equal” clause.This clause, a result of the Plessy v.Ferguson case of 1896,said that segregation was allowed, as long as the educational facilities that were being used by the African American population were equivalent, in all aspects,to the facilities that the white Americans were using (McBride). Unfortunately, the schooling situation was far from equivalent.African Americans,according to Bill Moyers, were forced to attend “substandard schools for decades” (“American Education and Civil Rights”).

The Supreme Court finally acknowledged this fact when it was decided that segregation of children in public schools violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.This clause,according to the Legal Information Institute associated with Cornell University Law School,“prohibits states from denying any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws” (“Equal Protection Clause”).After hearing this case, the Court recognized that “public education in the 20th Century,had become an essential component of a citizen’s public life,forming the basis of democratic citizenship,normal socialization,and professional training” (McBride).By recognizing this,the Court acknowledged the importance of every child in the public education system receiving a fair and good education.

Implementing Integration[edit]

Although the case of Brown v. The Board of Education reached the Supreme Court in 1954, it was not until Cooper v. Aaron in 1958 that the Court ruled that states were required to implement integration (McBride). Even with this decision, it took another Court case to fully implement integration. Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg County Board of Education reached the Supreme Court in 1971. The Swanns, an African-American family, filed suit against the North Carolina school district for not allowing their children to attend the white schools. The Court ruled all schools “didn’t strictly have to reflect the district’s racial make-up. But… all-black or all-white schools must not be the result of deliberate policies of segregation” (“Only a Teacher”). This decision was carried one step farther when busing was suggested as a solution to the integration dilemma.


According to Grolier Online, busing is “the policy of achieving racial balance in U.S. schools by transporting students from one area to another” (“Busing”). Busing became a widespread solution to the problems of integrating public schools. This idea was vehemently protested by many people, particularly in the South. As seen in Remember the Titans, implementation of busing began in 1971 in the city of Alexandria. Opposition to this method was clearly shown in the Disney picture. Although Disney movies tend to put their own spin on history, many people who lived in Alexandria at the time, still remember the hate and discontent this policy brought.

“I won’t lie; I hated the idea,” one Alexandria woman said. “My daughter was in fifth grade at the time and my son was in second. It was not that I minded the integration; I thought it was a good thing. The problem was that with the new bus routes, my children were going to be forced to ride the bus an hour each way, through some of the roughest areas in the city. I pulled my children out of public schools and enrolled them at Saint Stephens and Saint Agnes (an Episcopalian private school)” (Alexandria woman).

Her sentiments were shared by many parents, parents of both white children and black children. Although busing was a good idea in theory, it brought about its own series of problems. Children were forced to ride the bus for a longer period than most felt was necessary. According to Grolier, many opponents felt that busing “infringed on the right of parents to send their children to neighborhood schools.” These people went on to say that “involuntary racial mixing created hostility, caused school disruption, and destroyed the environment necessary for effective education” (“Busing”).

Public education made great headway in the later part of the 20th Century in working towards addressing some of those concerns. Several presidents, including Ford, Nixon, and Carter, worked very hard to keep busing to a minimum. However, many families still suffer from the imperfections of it. One senior at Menchville High School in Newport News, VA described her commute to school. “I get on the bus at 6:05 every morning and get to school at 7:05 or 7:10, and school starts at 7:15. Then it takes me more than an hour to get home every day, depending on traffic” (MHS student). The girl enviously explains that while the city zoned her for Menchville, her friend who lives down the street from her is zoned for Heritage High School which is located a mere four miles from their home on 35th Street. This is drastically closer than Menchville which is located at the other end of the city.

When integration and busing were implemented, supporters of it hoped that eventually racism in the public schools would die out. Over time, racism became much less of a problem. However, educators were not in the clear following the acceptance of integration. There were still occasional incidents of racism, as well as numerous problems similar to the aforementioned dilemma experienced by the MHS student. On a much larger scale though, another problem emerged. This crisis, familiar to many, but understood by few, is the achievement gap.

The Achievement Gap[edit]

The achievement gap is described as the gap in academic achievement between minority students and their white classmates. This gap became apparent once integration was implemented. Throughout the rest of the 20th Century, various steps were taken and new policies were invoked to reduce this gap. Many of these proved to be very effective. Standardized tests showed that from the late 1970s through the late 1980s, black children improved their scores drastically across the board. The scores earned by the white children in the same class remained about the same (“Economics”). This shows the effectiveness these new policies had on the Achievement Gap.

Unfortunately, in the years following that decade of improvement, it became obvious to officials that the gap had stopped narrowing (“Economics”). While over the years, it had narrowed significantly, it still had a long ways to go before the issues could be resolved. This, as the 20th Century came to a close, left many experts wondering, as they still are seven years into the new century, what could be done to jumpstart this improvement plan once again.


The 20th Century brought many lawsuits, including Brown v. The Board of Education, Cooper v. Aaron, and Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg County Board of Education. Cumulatively, these resulted in the eventual integration of all public schools in this country. School officials were forced to deal with rezoned school districts that resulted in much anger directed at the schools, the government, and fellow students. Over time, many of these issues were ironed out as students and faculty learned to work with other students and faculty of a different race. However, as all of this began to settle, the problem with the achievement gap became quite apparent. By the end of the 20th Century, researchers were left wondering how they could once again improve the quality of education for all students of all races.

Multiple Choice Questions[edit]

Click to reveal the answer.

Problems with busing were not completely solved until
A. 1950s
B. 1970s
C. 1990s
D. Still unsolved

D. Still unsolved (there are still random instances of problems, although they are much better)

Bills like the G.I. Bill improved education for
A. White females
B. Black females
C. White males
D. Black males

C. White males (it was for soldiers returning from WWII)

The first court case that required states implement integration was
A. Brown v. Board of Education
B. Cooper v. Aaron
C. Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg County
D. Plessy v. Ferguson

B.Cooper v. Aaron (Brown and Plessy led the way, but it was not until Cooper v. Aaron that integration was required)

Which is not a problem caused by busing?
A. Anger and hostility
B. Racism
C. It can cost a lot of money
D. Long commute for kids

B. Racism (although racism is a problem, it does not result from busing)

Schools that are nearly all-white or all-black are constitutionally acceptable in
A. The South
B. Exceptionally rich areas
C. Areas that are composed primarily of a particular race and busing is not a feasible option
D. Areas that are composed primarily of a particular race and the parents decide it’s acceptable

C. Areas that are composed primarily of a particular race and busing is not a feasible option (according to Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg County)

Essay Question[edit]

Click to reveal a sample response.

Did the implementation of integration and busing solve all of the problems regarding race in public education? Why or why not?

No because educational problems among black and white students and their parents are still abundant. Integration began to improve the condition of schools for all children, but it caused problems among citizens. Anger over newly zoned schools sparked racism that often led to violence. Implementation of busing led to similar violent reactions. It took years for some of these racial problems to settle down. Towards the end of the 20th century, most of these issues had been addressed and resolved. However, a new problem emerged, the problem of the achievement gap. Although this issue is not about racism, it is about race and it is still a problem apparent in public education.