Racism in K-12 Public Schools: Education Series

Racism starts early in education and it pervades K-12 public schools in the U.S.  Not surprisingly, this has a negative impact on children’s educational success. While some people think that racism in U.S. schools ended nearly 60 years ago with Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision which held that “separate” schools for black and white children were inherently unequal, there’s a large body of research that demonstrates that racism persists in K-12 schools.  The primary mechanisms of racism in public grade schools are institutional and interpersonal.  Below, I’m taking up the issue of institutional racism in K-12 education.

Project365/Day 180
(Creative Commons License photo credit: sergis blog

Institutional Racism. The clever, sinister thing about institutional racism in education is that it operates relentlessly on its own, like a machine, even when people of good will want it to operate differently. Today, it has morphed from the old forms we’re used to seeing in civil rights documentaries and taken on many new forms that are no less pernicious. These are just a few of those new forms.

“No Child Left Behind” (NCLB): The Racism Built into High-Stakes Testing. When President Geo. W. Bush signed the legislation known as “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) into law, supporter said that  would improve the educational system by building in “accountability” through mandatory testing, especially for low-income students and students of color. The research suggests otherwise.

Walter Haney and his colleagues have demonstrated that high-stakes testing increases the number of dropouts. Since the early 1990s, when high-stakes testing started to become commonplace, graduation rates have steadily fallen (Haney, W., Madaus, G., Abrams, L., Wheelock, A., Miao, J., & Gruia, I., “The education pipeline in the United States, 1970-2000.” Chestnut Hill, MA: Center for the Study of Testing, Evaluation, and Educational Policy, Boston College, 2004).

In 1990-91, graduation rates were 77%; ten years later, in 2000-01, they had fallen to 67%.  Needless to say, in our increasingly credentialed society those without the basic credential of a high school diploma are at a severe disadvantage in the job market.  For some, not finishing high school the first step along a pathway to the carceral system, what some have called the “school to prison pipeline.”

Haney and his colleagues also found that three times as many students “disappear” between grades nine and ten as they did 30 years ago, due to retention policies. A study by Sharon Nichols and colleagues takes this a step further. She demonstrates that the more pressure a state exerts on accountability, the less likely it is that students will progress to 12th grade (Nichols, S.L., Glass, G.V., & Berliner, D.C.  “High-stakes testing and student achievement: Problems for the No Child Left Behind Act”. Tempe, AZ: Education Policy Research Unit, 2005).

A disproportionate number of students leaving school are African-American, Latina/o and Native American. Gary Orfield and colleagues’ analysis finds that only around 50% of the nation’s black, Native American, and Latina students graduate, and for males the numbers are even lower (Orfield, et al., 2004, “Losing Our Future: How Minority Youth are Being Left Behind by the Graduation Rate Crisis” Cambridge, MA: The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University. Contributors: Advocates for Children of New York, The Civil Society Institute).

Orfield makes a convincing case that NCLB give states an incentive to push out disproportionately African American, Latina/o and Native American students in order to increase average test scores for schools. For example, Steve Orel in Birmingham, Alabama, was fired for reporting that the Birmingham schools had “administratively withdrawn” 522 students in an effort to boost overall test scores.  The students were overwhelmingly African-American. None of them dropped out of school voluntarily.

Tracking. One result of high-stakes testing is to “track” (or, group) students into “ability groups.” In other words, once a student does poorly on a high-stakes, standardized test, those test scores are then used to determine which groups they’ll be placed in for future classes.  Tracking students into lower-level classes inevitably influences teacher expectations about those students, which in turn, affects how students perform.  Many researchers have documented the over-representation of African-Americans and Latinas/os in lower-level classes, such as special education, and their under-representation in the higher-level classes, such as those which are college prep courses.

A growing number of scholars are pointing to the relevance of white privilege and racism for understanding, and dismantling, the tracking system.  (Blanchett, Wanda J. “Disproportionate Representation of African American Students in Special Education:Acknowledging the Role of White Privilege and Racism,” Educational Researcher, Vol. 35, No. 6, pp. 24–28, 2006; Solomon, R. P., et al., “The discourse of denial: how white teacher candidates construct race, racism and ‘white privilege,'” [pdf] Race, Ethnicity and Education, Vol.8, No. 2, July 2005, 147-169).

Underfunding Majority Black and Brown Schools. One of the key forms of racism in K-12 schools has to do with the funding scheme for education in the U.S.  In most areas of the country, public schools are funded through property taxes. What that means is that in richer neighborhoods, where property values – and taxes – are higher, the schools in that area get more resources. It sets up a self-perpetuating cycle where those with means move into wealthier areas to escape the bad schools in the poorer neighborhoods. In cities like New York and Chicago, it means that when people have children, lots and lots of them move out of the cities – and the poorly funded public school system – to wealthier suburban neighborhoods so that they can send their kids to better public schools in the suburbs. This sort of pattern doesn’t map precisely onto race – some whites stay behind and send their kids to underfunded, urban schools; and, an increasing number of African American and Latino families find a way out to the suburbs.  But the overall pattern of educational funding in the U.S. is driven by white flight to predominantly whiter-and-whiter suburbs, so that those parents can send their kids to better (and whiter) schools.

The net result of this pattern is that we have a de facto racially segregated K-12 school system that is more segregated today than it was forty years ago. And, this racial segregation is a strongly implicated in the low educational outcomes for African American, Latina/o and Native American students.

What That Looks Like. So, what does it look like when a school is “under resourced” ?  Here’s a glimpse from one school in California:

  • Students cannot take textbooks home for homework in any core subject because their teachers have enough textbooks for use in class only. For example, a social studies teacher who teaches five separate social studies classes during one day has only one class set of social studies textbooks, so all five classes must share the same set of books. 
  • The school is infested with vermin and roaches and students routinely see mice in their classrooms. One dead rodent has remained, decomposing, in a corner in the gymnasium since the beginning of the school year.
  • The school library is rarely open, has no librarian, and has not recently been updated. The latest version of the encyclopedia in the library was published in approximately 1988.
  • Classrooms do not have computers. Computer instruction and research skills are not, therefore, part of Luther Burbank students’ regular instruction in their core courses.
  • The school no longer offers any art classes for budgetary reasons. Without the art instruction, children have limited opportunities to learn space, volume, and linear logic concepts.
  • Two of the three bathrooms at the school are locked all day, every day. The third bathroom is locked during lunch and other periods during the school day, so there are times during school when no bathroom at all is available for students to use. Students have urinated or defecated on themselves at school because they could not get into an unlocked bathroom. Other students have left school altogether to go home to use the restroom. When the bathrooms are not locked, they often lack toilet paper, soap, and paper towels, and the toilets frequently are clogged and overflowing.
  • Paint peels off walls in many classrooms and there is graffiti on classroom and other school walls. Ceiling tiles are missing and cracked in the school gym, and school children are afraid to play basketball and other games in the gym because they worry that more ceiling tiles will fall on them during their games.
  • The school has no air conditioning. On hot days classroom temperatures climb into the 90s. The school heating system does not work well. In winter, children often wear coats, hats, and gloves during class to keep warm.
  • Eleven of the 35 teachers at the school have not yet obtained full, non-emergency teaching credentials, and 17 of the 35 teachers only began teaching in the last year.

Legal Remedies. Just as in the Brown vs. Board of Education case, today lawyers committed to civil rights and social justice are doing good work to stop this kind of institutional racism. One of the most noteworthy cases in recent years is The Williams Case in California (the examples listed above are based on this case). In 2000, nearly 100 plaintiffs filed as a class action lawsuit in  Eliezer Williams, et al., vs. State of California, et al. (Williams) in San Francisco County Superior Court. The plaintiffs were San Francisco County students, who sued the State of California and state education agencies, including the California Department of Education (CDE), claiming that the agencies failed to provide then – and all K-12 public school students –  with equal access to instructional materials, safe and decent school facilities, and qualified teachers.  The case was settled in 2004.  The result was that the state of California allocated $138 million in additional funding in order to bring these schools up to the standards of their wealthier (and whiter) counter parts.

There is good news and bad news here.  The good news is that solutions are possible.  The bad news is that these are hard to achieve and can take years to realize.   Further good news is that there’s plenty of work to be done on this issue for enterprising social activists that want to make real change happen.  For aspiring young scholars and activists, I can’t think of a more important area than tackling the persistent institutional racism that plagues our K-12 educational system.

Tomorrow, I’ll continue the series with more about the interpersonal (micro-level” as we sociologists like to say) racism in K-12 education.