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What Happened to the Promise of Brown? An Organizational Explanation and an Outline for Change

by Thomas V. O'Brien - 2007

Background/Context: Scholars from a number of fields have offered explanations as to why Brown v. Board of Education came up short in fully integrating school and society. Some have argued that the decision was a result of flawed logic or misguided litigation. Others have held that Brown fell short of its promises due to a lack of federal pressure. Another school of thought contends that Brown’s limited impact is a reflection of Americans’ unwillingness to live up to democratic ideals. Each of these analyses identifies important elements of post-Brown America and school opportunity. A limitation among these explanations, however, is that each views the school as a stable enterprise rather than as an organization undergoing development before and after Brown. Scholars have not recognized the evolution of the American public school vis-à-vis Brown, a history that helps us understand why Brown and the reforms associated with it failed to fundamentally change schools or society.

Purpose/Research Design: This study examines Brown through the lens of organizational change and reform. Making use of historical methods and organizational theory, this essay traces the institutional history of the public school in relation to Brown. It offers an alternative explanation of why Brown did not fundamentally alter the education enterprise or school opportunities for children of color. Finally, it concludes with a blueprint for school change that might allow for the promises of Brown to be realized. Even as schools have undergone change, they have stubbornly reinforced the status quo with regard to race. Nevertheless, the institution is capable of change, even with regard to race.

Conclusions/Recommendations: The promise of Brown failed to take hold in the public school system because it was not able to deeply penetrate an aging bureaucratic organization that had grown resistant to fundamental change. Consequently, the intended reforms, even when driven by an activist federal judiciary and committed reformers, were gradually downscaled and altered at the district and school levels, often resulting in only token desegregation and meager incremental change. I argue that despite its age and temperament, the school does have the capacity to bring about genuine, large-scale opportunities for students of color, but note that changes are not likely to occur quickly or without focused efforts. I conclude the essay with an outline of a three-tiered theory for change. The theory recommends that stakeholders develop and carry forward a long-term strategy that brings the culturally different together in the school, fosters a spirit of democratic collaboration, and advances programs that are explicitly antiracist.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 109 Number 8, 2007, p. 1875-1901
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 14061, Date Accessed: 12/1/2020 12:47:35 AM

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About the Author
  • Thomas O'Brien
    The Ohio State University at Mansfield
    E-mail Author
    THOMAS O'BRIEN is an Associate Professor of Education and Coordinator of Educational Studies at The Ohio State University at Mansfield. His research interests include American educational history and school reform. He has published a number of historical studies, essays, and book reviews, including a book entitled The Politics of Schooling and Race: Public Education in Georgia, 1900-1961. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 1999.
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