How ‘Education Reform’ Perpetuates Racial Disparity

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Education Opportunity Network

How ‘Education Reform’ Perpetuates Racial Disparity

America was shocked, shocked, by new data from the U.S. Department of Education last week showing that a child’s education destiny in the nation’s public schools is strongly determined by race.

As a report in The New York Times put it, the new data revealed that “racial minorities are more likely than white students to be suspended from school, to have less access to rigorous math and science classes, and to be taught by lower-paid teachers with less experience.”

Of course, people who have been paying attention didn’t need a data dump from the DoE to awaken them to the reality that schools in the U.S. continue to discriminate against children of color.

Nevertheless, as the information made the rounds from one media outlet to another, exclamations of concern ensued. Most telling though was that few people bothered to ask how such overt racial disparity came about and why – and what to do to change the trajectory.

The ‘Concern Cop-Out’

Probably, the statistic that raised the most eyebrows was how much school suspensions strongly reflected racial discriminations. As the Associated Press reported, “Black children represent about 18 percent of children enrolled in preschool programs in schools, but almost half of the students suspended more than once … The data shows that black students of all ages are suspended and expelled at a rate that’s three times higher than that of white children.”

But racial disparities in the nation’s schools aren’t just about discipline. As both the Time report mentioned above and Education Week reported, when students of color aren’t getting disproportionally kicked out of school, they are getting an inferior education.

As the Times reported, “The study found that while more than 70 percent of white students attend schools that offer a full range of math and science courses — including algebra, biology, calculus, chemistry, geometry and physics — just over half of all black students have access to those courses. Just over two-thirds of Latinos attend schools with the full range of math and science courses, and less than half of American Indian and Native Alaskan students are able to enroll in as many high-level math and science courses as their white peers.”

And as EdWeek reporter Stephen Sawuchuck noted, “Students of color are more likely to be taught by underqualified teachers, novice teachers, or teachers with lower salaries than their peers.” This is particularly concerning because, Sawchuck reminded, “Novice teachers, particularly those in their first year, are less effective on average than experienced teachers.”

Shocking data for sure. But data alone will not explain anything. As the AP report on racial disparity in school suspensions noted, “The data doesn’t explain why the disparities exist or why the students were suspended.” But surely one would think this data would prompt explanation. Not so much.

In reporting the data, the Department itself found no fault and placed no blame. As a report in The Huffington Post stated, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan could only say, “this data collection shines a clear, unbiased light on places” (emphasis added) but not on any policies, people, or other causational factors. And the usual lamentations about how “the United States has a great distance to go” ensued.

Echoing Duncan’s concern, Daria Hall, K-12 policy director at the Education Trust, an advocacy group, also effused how “the report shines a new light” but a light that apparently revealed no perpetrators.

Writing at Crooks and Liars, Melinda Anderson made the more pertinent observation: “It is stupefying to me that so many people who seem to genuinely care about children in public schools and work tirelessly to improve their educational outcomes manage to skirt responsibility for helping to eliminate racial disparities in education.”

Busting The No-Blame Zone

Amidst all the media consternation over the DoE’s new data, what wasn’t reported on was a new study published mere hours before the Department’s revelations that explained what has been perpetuating the problems.

Published by the National Education Policy Center, the report, Seeing Past the “Colorblind” Myth of Education Policy: Why Policymakers Should Address Racial/Ethnic Inequality and Support Culturally Diverse Schools, placed a great deal of blame for racial disparity in education on “education reforms that ignore racial differences and disparities,” according the press release.

The report, NEPC noted, contrasts “race-conscious education policies” such as affirmative action and school desegregation to “reforms, which have been dominant over the past 30 years,” and finds that although those Civil Rights era policies “coincided with the largest reductions in the black-white achievement gap in the nation’s history,” the more recent spate of “reform” policies “have exacerbated racial inequalities in student access to high-quality schooling” and “handicapped a whole generation of American children growing up in an increasingly racially diverse society and global economy.”

How Market-Based Policies Promote Racial Disparities

More specifically, report author Amy Stuart Wells of Columbia University points a finger to “market-based” education policies and “accountability” as agents in spreading education disparities that fall along racial lines.

Market-based principles such as competition and choice exaggerate racial disparities because, as Wells sees it, the nation’s historic legacy of racial segregation and inequality has created an inertia too powerful to break out of with “color blind” policies. Noting that despite the growing number of people who “embrace racial, ethnic and cultural diversity,” Wells points out that far too many are stuck making daily choices in a context in which neighborhoods, schools and opportunities are demarcated by blatant color lines.”

Even as housing pattern trends change occur – for instance, as white migration to urban neighborhoods and black migration to the suburbs have resulted in “trading racial places” – the results still result “a high degree of racial resegregation.”

Wells contends it is “no accident that, over the last 20 years, the expansion of colorblind school choice policies has correlated with increased racial segregation in public education,” because “research evidence leaves little doubt that the proliferation of nominally ‘colorblind,’ market-oriented school choice policies has contributed to growing racial isolation at the macro level.”

Vouchers, another favorite market-based policy promoted in recent decades, have contributed to racial disparities, Wells maintains research has borne out that “disproportionately white low-income families will use vouchers to flee racially diverse public schools, and … white private and more affluent private schools will elect to not admit lower-income students of color with vouchers.”

Rather than fixing racial disparities, Wells finds, market-based approaches to governing schools have reinforced the tendency for school children to be confined to “color lines” deeply ingrained in society that portend material consequences, including what your property values are and the likelihood your child is admitted to a top university.”

How Narrow-Minded Accountability Erodes Diversity

Another problem with the reform agenda, Wells finds, is the entrenched perspective of demanding schools meet certain accountability measures defined by results on student standardized tests. Such narrow expectations, Wells insists, promote racial disparities in two ways.

First, because test scores strongly correlate to the race and class of students, comparisons of school performance based on scores alone invariably leads to more negative perceptions of racially diverse schools. “When the entire educational system is not only separate and unequal along racial/ethnic lines, but also measured, evaluated and then ‘valued’ almost exclusively according to test scores … divers schools are more often deemed to be “bad” which is, Wells explains, “exacerbating the race-based inequalities that already exist.” Thus, white and Asian families are more-so apt to regard racial diversity as “’giving up something’ because their schools will not be seen as ‘excellent,’” and low-income black and Hispanic students become more apt to “fixate on raising test scores via a curriculum focused almost exclusively on the material tested, leaving little room to build upon the knowledge and understandings that students bring to school.”

Second, narrow-minded representations of student achievement reflected by test scores alone limit the abilities of educators to “tap into the educational benefits of the cultural diversity” in schools. Again, because these measures correlate so strongly to race and income, when policy makers use them to judge schools, teachers, and students, educators in turn become less empowered to “envision racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity as an asset.”

There Are More Effective Solutions

Of course, reform policies aren’t the only active agents adding to racial disparities. As Wells admits, “Certainly, other developments have contributed to rising levels of segregation, especially the end of court-ordered school desegregation plans, the changing demographics of the K-12 population, and ongoing housing segregation.”

Other significant problems for sure are the prevalence of “zero tolerance” discipline policies and “no excuse” academic practices that have done much to increase racial disparities in school suspensions and to promote high student attrition rates in schools serving low-income and racial minority students.

But decades of education policies based on market-based governance and narrow-minded accountability have reinforced the belief that attempts to close achievement gaps and improve learning outcomes for all students should be “color-blind” and simply ignore disparity. And what’s needed instead are policies explicitly designed to break down these racial/ethnic barriers.

Wells, in her report, recommends policies that create and sustain more racially and ethnically diverse schools. For instance, policy makers at all levels could enforce strict guidelines and incentives to promote communities with a mix of incomes, ethnicities, and cultures. New collaborations across school district boundaries could expand special education, vocational education, and magnet school offerings that attract students with shared needs and interests from across district boundaries. And more states should amend existing school choice laws to promote diversity instead of segregation.

Also, Wells recommends more support for curriculum, teaching, and assessment that taps into the educational benefits of diversity. For instance, political and government officials should advocate and propose legal and political challenges based on the educational benefits of diversity. New policies such as Common Core standards should be unmoored from the strict accountability system based on test scores alone. And policymakers should ?consider broader, real-world accountability measures that more accurately reflect the range of experiences of students within racially and culturally diverse society and better prepare the next generation for life and work in culturally complex and global society.”

Moving From Passive To Active

Much more important than getting the policies right, however, would be chaning the way we talk about racial disparity in public schools.

In that same way the media have reported that greater economic inequity in the nation has been “something that happened to us,” reporters and pundits looking aghast at evidence of racial disparity in the nation’s schools address the issue as if it is a societal condition without any active agents that are promoting it.

Not only does such passive voice communication convey superficial understanding of how widespread racial discrimination get perpetuated; it conditions people into believing those problems can’t be fixed.

Hitting much closer to the mark was Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers union, who noted, in The Huffington Post article cited above, that despite a recent Education Department Equity and Excellence Commission report calling for measures to remedy discrimination, little has been done.

That report called for “far more widespread and equitable opportunities for students throughout the nation” but made little headway in the media and among Beltway policy wonks.

“It is shameful that not a single recommendation has been implemented,” Weingarten said. “We don’t need more data to tell us we need action.”

Clearly it’s time for those who are most alarmed by alarmed by the data about racial disparity in education to pivot from school accountability to policy-maker accountability.

Jeff Bryant

Jeff Bryant is an associate fellow at Campaign for America's Future and editor of the recently launched Education Opportunity Network, a project of the Institute for America’s Future, in partnership with the Opportunity to Learn Campaign.

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