Cover Story: Educate. Empower. Change.

April 29, 2014

Carlotta Walls LanierPhoto courtesy of the Will Counts Collection: Indiana University Archives

Reflecting on history, continuing the struggle for equity in education

By Nicole Geary

When Carlotta Walls LaNier arrived at Michigan State University in 1960, classmates welcomed her into the dormitory. She did not announce that she was one of the nation’s bravest advocates for civil rights in education—the youngest, in fact, of the Little Rock Nine.

“I wanted to just be one of the 20,000 students there, and that’s how I was received,” she said. “That’s what I had been wanting all along.”

In 1957, armed troops were needed to protect LaNier’s passage into Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, where she was one of the first black students allowed to attend the previously all-white school. Walking on campus in East Lansing was a much less precarious path, thanks to progressive leaders like then-MSU President John Hannah. 

Despite the racial turbulence around the nation, and even just off campus, former faculty and students say Michigan State was making efforts to open opportunities for African American students and student-athletes that few institutions could match.

In the College of Education, it would still be some time before a significant number of individuals of color began to join the ranks of faculty and students, but the civil rights movement—and particularly the Brown v. Board of Education case—spurred researchers and teacher educators in the college to consider questions of access and equity in powerful new ways.

Some say the challenges are different now, while others assert that little has changed; but education has always been a catalyst for social change. And the people who work and study in the College of Education do not take this lightly.

Today a growing group of scholars is working to improve—and call attention to—the issues of race, culture and equity that remain or have emerged in our schools and colleges: academic segregation within schools, disproportionate suspension and expulsion rates for black males, teachers unable to embrace multiple cultures in their own classrooms. This shared commitment is prominent across the college in many research agendas, degree programs and efforts to serve communities, especially in urban areas.

This year, the College of Education has joined the entire university in commemorating two milestone events in our nation’s history: 60 years since the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education that ruled separate but equal in public accommodations is unconstitutional, and 50 years since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, religion and gender.

John Hannah and George Johnson

MSU President John Hannah (left) talks with George M. Johnson, professor of education, during the 1968 presentation of “The U.S. Civil Rights Commission: 1957-1967,” published by MSU Press. Johnson served on the Commission staff for several years. Photo courtesy of MSU Archives.

The yearlong MSU initiative, called Project 60/50, is being coordinated by the Office for Inclusion and Intercultural Initiatives, and involves many community conversations and events. For the College of Education, this includes a two-day symposium on desegregation and related litigation co-sponsored with the Michigan State Law Review and other partners.

There will also be an opportunity to hear about LaNier’s experiences in-person when she speaks at the College of Education’s spring commencement ceremony

LaNier now lives in Colorado where she’s led a successful career in real estate. Although she enjoyed her time at MSU, she abandoned her original dream to become a doctor, in part because a counselor discouraged her from pursuing advanced study. 

“I was taking those classes, but I didn’t have the encouragement I had enjoyed in the past, in the black schools I attended,” she said. 

Forced school desegregation didn’t solve all of LaNiers problems or put an end to injustice against many groups of students that continues still today. Rather than celebrate Project 60/50, we reflect on how far we have come and how much we still must do as an education system and society.

Project 60/50 is also a chance to consider how the people who have been part of the College of Education have fought for equal rights, resources and expectations.

“Historians say, ‘Those who forget history are destined to repeat it,’” said Richard Prawat, long-time professor and chairperson of the Department of Counseling, Educational Psychology and Special Education (CEPSE). “Every generation has to recommit, and we should take some inspiration from knowing we have a history of taking on these battles. We shouldn’t forget the people who paved the way in the College of Education.”

Stepping up in the ’60s 

When Martin Luther King Jr. came to campus on Feb. 11, 1965, his first stop was Erickson Hall. He rested and gave a press conference there before heading to the Auditorium where he delivered his speech to nearly 4,000 people. King was there to inspire the crowd—and to set in motion a landmark educational program. The event, with tickets at $1 each, was a fundraiser to launch the Student Tutorial Education Project, or STEP.

For four summers, STEP student volunteers from MSU—including many College of Education students—traveled to the all-black Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi, where they offered programs to improve math, writing and communication skills for local high school students and incoming freshmen.

STEP was the first all-student administered educational outreach program of its kind, and one of the earliest partnerships between white and black institutions focused on increasing educational success.

Although it was considered non-political, the MSU students broke down many racial barriers at Rust as they focused on building friendships and a strong academic foundation for their peers. 

Some of the students also took their activism a step further by participating in the last day of the March Against Fear, a demonstration against racism that drew thousands of supporters on its journey from Memphis, Tenn., to Jackson, Miss.

John Duley

John Duley (standing) was a leader of the Student Tutorial Education Project (STEP), a service project to improve academic success for students at historically black Rust College. Photo courtesy of MSU Archives.

Boldly leading the project from its inception was John Duley, a former campus minister and noted leader in the service-learning movement, and Robert L. Green, former College of Education faculty member and graduate of the doctoral program in educational psychology. Both men had been influential in bringing King to campus, and Green was later asked to work for King as education director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Green served in that role for a year before returning to MSU where he later became the university’s first black dean in the former College of Urban Development.

He recalls a supportive relationship with John Hannah. The MSU president, who was the first chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, actually offered to buy and sell Green a house, because black citizens were being barred from home ownership in East Lansing.

But Green chose to fight for his rights rather than accept a favor. And despite the fact that many faculty members “wouldn’t speak to him,” Green remembers a number of MSU colleagues who were working for social justice in education. Most notable perhaps was the late Wilbur Brookover, who testified in Brown based on research he conducted about the effects of integration and segregation on student achievement. 

Brookover also was one of the first white professors on campus to hire a black secretary, Josephine Ferguson Wharton, the mother of MSU Board of Trustees Chairman Joel Ferguson.

“It was important to my mother. It kept us going,” said Joel Ferguson, who also remembers a positive experience as an elementary education major at MSU, receiving his degree in 1965. “Dr. Brookover was a pure activist. Besides being supportive, he did something about it.”

Lessons learned: Montgomery to Michigan state

By 1970, MSU became the first predominantly white university to hire a black president, Clifton Wharton Jr. The following year, special education scholar Eugene Pernell joined the College of Education faculty of which there was, as he says, a “very noticeable” lack of African Americans.

As a young man, Pernell had been right in the middle of the civil rights movement, graduating from high school the year Brown was decided and attending college in Montgomery, Ala., during the Bus Boycott. He had befriended Rev. King through the local church before the first time King’s house was bombed, a night Pernell and others in the crowd (black and white) heard the civil rights leader preach that they must find ways to encourage unity and equality through non-violence. 

1970s Erickson Hall Training Program

Participants of a research training program for women and minorities gather on the balcony outside Erickson Hall in the late 1970s. Photo courtesy of Professor Emeritus Eugene Pernell (pictured front row, far left).

Pernell brought that spirit with him to MSU. He investigated why disproportionate numbers of minorities were being placed in special education. With colleagues including Susan Peters, he established a course for future teachers that emphasizes social and multicultural sensitivity as an integral part of understanding disabilities, CEP 240. He ended up teaching it for 13 years and absolutely loved it. 

“I have seen how people need to come together as Americans,” said Pernell, who led student discussions about every type of disability and stereotype—covering race, gender, sexual orientation and more—with his humorous and bold teaching tactics.

Pernell still has a private psychology practice and consults with schools. It’s been a dozen years since his retirement, but he says, “I still don’t think we have debunked all of the myths, and I think that has to happen for people who are going out to teach.”

“It’s teachers that empower change.”

The College of Education has long approached the act of teaching as a complex and powerful force within society. In the early 1980s, experimentation with alternative forms of teacher preparation led to the creation of four thematic training tracks based on the primary functions of teachers.

One of the four focused on teaching teachers how to be effective working with heterogeneous groups of students. Associate Dean Michael Sedlak said features from this, and all of the theme areas, eventually made it into the breakthrough five-year teacher preparation program that launched in 1992 and continues today. 

Rather than a separate track or sole course, all teacher candidates at MSU now learn to support and sustain student differences through multiple classes integrated across the curriculum, specialized cohort programs in global and urban education, and field placements in racially and economically diverse schools.

CEP 240 continues as a required course for special education majors, as well as members of the Urban Educators Cohort Program. In a related class required for elementary and secondary education majors, TE 250: Human Diversity, Power and Opportunity in Social Institutions, students reflect on their own identity (race, privilege, worldview) and how they will use that knowledge to serve a K-12 school population that may be very different from themselves—and becoming increasingly more diverse in the United States. However, the college recently had to defend its commitment to such a course, in the wake of rising criticism against teacher education. 

“Yes, we do teach our prospective teacher candidates about the impact inequality and diversity has on schools and schoolchildren,” Dean Donald Heller wrote in a December 2013 blog post. He was responding to Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, who, in an Education Week Commentary, questioned the value of TE 250 in comparison to offering a course focused on classroom management. Heller continued, “We believe it is critical that our graduates understand the impact these differences have on the classrooms in which they will be teaching in just a few short years.”

Faculty, students and alumni have rallied behind what has become a long-held part of the college ethos and what had, at that moment, become a very public point of debate. Preparing educators who embrace history and their students’ backgrounds is an important thread in the contemporary civil rights movement, says Terah Venzant Chambers, an associate professor of educational administration who joined the faculty in 2013.

“It’s not just about valuing difference,” she said. “It’s about being able to support our children and helping them understand who they are and where they come from.”

Venzant Chambers recently conducted a study of racial opportunity cost in schools by exploring the experiences of 18 students of color who attended many different types of high schools, from rural to urban and elite to low-achieving. She is interested in the role of school culture—why even when students of color perform highly, nearly all of them still feel unsupported, excluded or worse.

She used to be one of them.

“This is not a job to me,” Venzant Chambers said. “I’m compelled to do this for the little girl who had a bad experience in school.” (Also read this edition’s Faculty Viewpoint article and The Heart of Opportunity piece for more personal reflections from College of Education faculty members.)

Today: Together but still ‘separate’?

Even if Brown severed legal and physical barriers between white and non-white schools, many cities across the nation have gradually resegregated. What remains is a crisis of inequitable resources from one school district to the next, says Assistant Professor Django Paris. He says there is an undercurrent that still asks students to assimilate or fail. This is despite the fact that U.S. Census data show students of color, particularly Latinos, are quickly becoming the majority.

 “We’re headed toward a society where being multicultural and multilingual is the norm,” said Paris. “Unfortunately, even with what Brown and the Civil Rights Act offered, we continue to, by and large, forward monolingual and monocultural thinking in public schools.”

Paris is concerned with what it means for educators to be culturally relevant. He was awarded a fellowship from the Spencer Foundation and the National Academy of Education in 2013 to examine how English teachers of youth of color, from Detroit to the Upper Peninsula, have honored and sustained students’ language and ethnicity in the face of policies that don’t always support those goals.

Colleagues are doing similar work in other fields and subject areas, such as: Angela Calabrese Barton’s model for developing science knowledge with youth in urban communities; Dorinda Carter Andrews’s collaborative efforts to address African American under-performance in a suburban school district; and Muhammad Khalifa’s recent finding that black and Latino students who identify with hip-hop culture are disproportionately punished in urban schools. Khalifa and his team of graduate students are now providing “equity audits” that can be performed and returned electronically to help educators determine factors contributing to racial achievement and discipline gaps in schools. 

ATA recruiting event

College of Education faculty members interact with prospective graduate students during the 2014 Advance to Adventure recruiting event.

The Michigan Department of Education often turns to the College of Education to help address issues of equity. For example, the MSU Office of K-12 Outreach has provided guidance to more than 100 schools statewide—many of which are in urban or under-resourced areas—that are working to improve achievement (Priority schools) or to reduce achievement gaps based on race, English language learning, poverty or special education status (Focus schools).

Efforts to support African American males in particular have been growing across the nation, from President Barack Obama’s new My Brother’s Keeper initiative to state and local projects. For example, several experts from MSU, including Paris, Khalifa, Terry Flennaugh, David Kirkland (PhD ’06), Theodore Ransaw and Chris Dunbar, were invited to give webinars this academic year for schools participating in the state’s African American Young Men of Promise initiative that focuses on improving achievement for black boys. 

Stringent discipline policies in schools have created what many refer to as the “school to prison pipeline” disproportionately affecting black and Latino students. Nationwide, African American children represent only 18 percent of students in the Civil Rights Data Collection Report (2012), but of them, 35 percent had been suspended once and 39 percent had been expelled. 

The MSU Department of Educational Administration recently began a partnership with Detroit Public Schools to help tackle the district’s high rates of expulsions and suspensions. The first in a series of professional development sessions for administrators, teachers and counselors from DPS was held at the university’s Detroit Center on Woodward Avenue in March 2014.

The urban commitment

Many new students and faculty often point to the College of Education’s explicit, visible commitment to urban education as a reason for joining the community. Today a quarter of all graduate students—40 percent of PhD students—in the college are classified as minority or international students.

“We still have a long way to go before our own student body and the K-12 teaching force more accurately reflects the diversity and needs of our nation’s children,” said Sonya Gunnings-Moton, assistant dean for student support services and recruitment. “However, we have made great strides in the last decade to, as a College of Education, focus our efforts on improving education in schools that serve high percentages of children facing disadvantages due to poverty, discrimination and other challenges.

“We are attracting greater numbers of black and Hispanic graduate students to our programs, as well as undergraduate teacher candidates through our thematic cohort programs,” Gunnings-Moton added.

The percentage of undergraduate black and Hispanic students enrolled in the urban and global cohort programs has consistently exceeded the percentage enrolled university-wide. The Urban Educators Cohort Program, which provides specialized classes and field experiences during freshman and sophomore years, is actually part of an entire pipeline of programs that has successfully increased the number of new teachers—both white students and students of color—willing and committed to teach in high-need and urban schools.

In addition, more than 50 doctoral students have elected to participate in the Urban Education Graduate Certificate Program, an interdepartmental sequence of courses for those who are committed to addressing inequities for students of color, English language learners and young people growing up in under-resourced communities.

Gunnings-Moton said the college’s recent response to high-need areas is reminiscent of the 1970s, when her late father Thomas Gunnings and others established graduate programs to prepare mental health professionals for the unique challenges of counseling in urban environments. Those programs also helped draw students of color to MSU—including Michigan’s first Native American certified as a counselor—and were led by trailblazing faculty such as Professor Emeritus Gloria Smith, considered the “mother of multicultural counseling. ”

Educator = change agent

Educators have played a role in civil rights throughout history. Over time, many have argued for laws and practices that actually prevent progress. Many have also provided the evidence—and the passion—to make equality and justice a reality.

“As teachers and researchers, one of our primary jobs is to look for ways to push against status quo policies that we know are damaging students,” said Paris. “The next generation of scholars is hungry for ways of doing research that are going to support positive social change. 

“They are demanding it.”

On the Web: MSU Project 60/50