Marking the 60th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Brown decision the Government Accounting Office has released a report on American public education. As befits a bean-counting agency, the report comes in the modest guise of a contribution to a technical accounting discussion, pointing out how “Better Use of Information Could Help Agencies…”, well, you get the picture.
But the report is more than an accounting exercise, as its title continues by stating that what its information can help agencies do is to “Identify Disparities and Address Racial Discrimination.” In fact, the GAO found that “The percentage of K-12 public schools in the United States with students who are poor and are mostly Black or Hispanic is growing.” Sixty years after Brown America’s traditional public schools are resegregating.
The defendants in the Brown case argued that although their schools were segregated by race, the separate educational opportunities provided were equal, separate but equal, as they said, following the 1896 Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson. In Brown, however, the Court found that “Segregation . . . deprive[s] [Black children] of some of the benefits they would receive in a racially integrated school system.” The Brown decision, relying on somewhat controversial research about the psychological effects of government-sanctioned segregation, concluded that its mere existence was damaging to Black students.
Now comes the GAO, with its analysis of “better information,” finding that America’s schools are not only in violation of Brown, they are increasingly in violation of Plessy as well. The educational opportunities offered by our schools where separate, and they are increasingly separate, are decidedly not equal.
Before we go any further, in the spirit of GAO, here’s a technical note: The categories used in the report are those of the U.S. Department of Education. There are the racial and ethnic categories—White, Black, Hispanic, Asian and Other—and the economic category defined by the eligibility of school children for free or reduced-price lunches. There are very serious problems with the racial and ethnic categories. “Asian,” in particular, is high problematic, throwing together people with Chinese ancestry with people of Sri Lankan descent; Filipinos and Iranians, and so forth. “Hispanics” can be of Cuban, Mexican, Dominican or Argentine derivation, for example, regardless of race. “Black” refers to people with sub-Saharan African ancestry (but not the very dark people from Kerala or indigenous Australians) and White is practically a residual category.
These seemingly technical difficulties are deeply implicated in America’s problems with race and racism. The absurdities of the Asian and Hispanic categories are irrelevant. The underlying point is that what matters in these United States is whether or not one is visibly and predominantly descended from enslaved Africans. If so, one is likely to find, for example, that police pay more attention to you than to others; that employers are less likely to give you a chance at a job and if they do they will pay you less than others, and that it will be difficult to find housing outside areas of concentrated poverty.
As for economic categorization, the White median household income is $57,400. The median income for Hispanic households is $42,700. The Black median household income is $35,500. As the income eligibility line for reduced-price meals for a family of four is $46,000, most Black school children are included in the group eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, as are the majority of Hispanic school children.
In other words, saying that a Black school child is eligible for free or reduced-price lunch is practically redundant.
But you plow with the mules that you’ve got, so here we go:
In addition to finding that American schools are resegregating, GAO found that schools that were over 75 percent Black or Hispanic AND the students of which were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch “offered fewer math, science, and college preparatory courses.” They are separate, but offer very unequal educational opportunities. White middle class students attend schools with more math, science and college preparatory courses, schools for Black and Hispanic students from impoverished families offer fewer.
Which brings us to the fine print of Appendix II of the report: “Students Enrolled in Advanced Placement Courses, by Race.”
Advanced Placement courses are the crown jewels of American education, qualifying students for college study and in many cases giving credit for basic college courses while still in high school. GAO divided high schools into four categories: Low-Poverty and 0 to 25 percent Black or Hispanic; High-Poverty and 75 to 100 percent Black or Hispanic; All Other Schools and the subset of schools 90 to 100 percent High Poverty and Black and Hispanic.
Let us look at the first and last of these groups: the privileged and the underprivileged. 24 percent of students in the middle class schools with low poverty rates and low Black and Hispanic enrollment enrolled in at least one AP course. These schools were 80 percent White, seven percent Asian, six percent Hispanic, and four percent Black. Within that group, 43 percent of Asian students and 24 percent of White students enrolled in at least one AP course, as compared to 17 percent of Hispanic and just 15 percent of Black students.
Now for the highly segregated schools serving students from impoverished families, schools with 90 percent poverty rates and 90 percent Black and Hispanic enrollment. These schools were 53 percent Black, 44 percent Hispanic, one percent White, and one percent Asian. Just 12 percent of students in those schools—half the proportion of the other group—enrolled in at least one AP course. 18 percent of Asian students in the high poverty schools and 14 percent of White students enrolled in at least one AP course, as compared to 14 percent of Hispanic and just 10 percent of Black students.
The chances that an Asian student in a school serving underprivileged students will enroll in an AP class are much less than half those that an Asian student in a middle class school. That for White students falls nearly in half, from 24 percent to 14 percent, for Hispanic students from 17 percent to 14 percent and for Black students the opportunity to take these gateway courses declines from 15 percent in a middle class school to 10 percent in a ghetto school.
Simply moving from a school high-poverty, highly segregated school to a low-poverty school with a student body more closely representative in racial and ethnic terms to the general population can double the opportunity to enroll in an AP course for all students. This doesn’t mean it always happens; we see this all the time with gifted and talented courses that are also often segregation by another name. At the same time, more opportunities means more opportunities for all.
As a note: It is striking that White students in schools reserved for underprivileged students enroll in AP courses at a rate slightly below that of Black students in middle class schools. Perhaps there is a tendency for administrators of schools with overwhelmingly Black and Hispanic student populations to practice within-school segregation.
GAO was also interested in the math courses offered by different categories of schools. It found, for example, that 79 percent of middle class schools offered 7th and 8th grade Algebra, while only 49 percent of high poverty with 75 percent to 100 percent Black and Hispanic enrollment schools did so. Similarly, 71 percent of middle class, but only 29 percent of the high poverty schools offered calculus. Interestingly, among the schools serving high poverty students, 75 percent or more of whom were Black or Hispanic, 30 percent of the traditional schools offered calculus, but only 17 percent of charter schools did so.
Some have argued that family, neighborhood and “cultural” factors determine a student’s educational achievement. The GAO, on the other hand, found that “schools that were highly isolated by poverty and race generally had fewer resources and disproportionately more disciplinary actions than other schools.” Students needing relatively more educational resources because of, say, family, neighborhood and “cultural” factors receive fewer, a situation aggravated by school discipline policies and actions that have been shown to be racially discriminatory.
In other words, the GAO has found that educational opportunity depends on where you live. Schools in middle class areas offer more AP, algebra and calculus courses and enroll much higher percentages of students in those courses than schools serving poor kids, of whatever race or ethnicity. As schools, and communities, become increasingly segregated, educational opportunities become increasingly unequal: more separate, less equal. Which is the consequence of a public education system that determines opportunity based on zip code, and not on what families, given high-quality data and choice regardless of income, decide to access.
We know how important college-preparatory education in advancing economic and social mobility, especially for Black, Latino, and children from poor households. That we continue segregating those children from those opportunities when it possible to provide it to them are the result of deliberate decisions to exclude them from better lives for themselves and their communities.
What is to be done? In accord with its mission, the GAO recommends that the departments of Education and Justice track data more closely and analyze it more comprehensibly. There are other things that should be done. State and local officials responsible for the disparities found by the GAO should remedy them—should remedy them as soon as possible before more Black and Latino children in high poverty schools have their future’s stolen from them.
How hard is the New York City government trying to increase inequality and inter-generational poverty? Very hard indeed and quite successfully, thank you.
They are doing this by means of the schools. They,” rather than “it,” because this situation is the result of decisions by individuals, decisions made everyday in dozens if not hundreds of meetings, expressed in hundreds, if not thousands, of documents. It is the responsibility of those individuals (you know who you are), not of abstractions like “institutional racism,” “budgetary constraints,” “and bureaucracy”. They may say they are not intentionally increasing inequality, but if, over time, their actions do so that effect is best understood as identical with the objective intention.
As you might recall, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case of Brown v. Board of Education that “Segregation . . . deprive[s] [Black children] of some of the benefits they would receive in a racially integrated school system.” The benefits in question, not to put too fine a point on it, are those of a good education: higher incomes, longer lives, a better start in life for themselves and their children.
There is a difference between families choosing schools that aren’t integrated of their own accord – charter schools, for instance – and being forced by traditional districts to attend schools that are deliberately segregated. But as we already know, most children and families do not choose the schools they attend, and have little political power within school districts to even have choice. Especially in New York City. Just 7.9 percent of children in New York attend charter schools; the rest are in the district. So when we talk about segregation in New York City, we are talking about what people who run the New York City Department of Education are doing to restrict opportunities for high-quality education to Black and Latino children.
In its new report, Brown at 62: School Segregation by Race, Poverty and State, the Civil Rights Project at UCLA finds that New York is the most segregated state for Black students, much more segregated than, for example, Mississippi. Two-thirds of the state’s Black students are in schools that are 90 percent of more non-White and non-Latino. This is astounding because black children account for just 18 percent of students in the Empire State, compared to 50 percent of students in Mississippi, where fewer than half of Black students are in those extremely segregated schools. Latino students in New York State are nearly as isolated from their White, non-Hispanic, peers, with 57 percent in extremely segregated schools. The Civil Rights Project report also points to the increasing economic segregation of Black and Latino students, nationally; today the average Black and Latino student attends a school where two-thirds of the students are from low-income families.
The Social Science Research Council’s Measure of America project has also recently released a report, this bringing the issues for New York City into sharper focus. According to High School Graduation in New York City: Is Neighborhood Still Destiny?, there is a 34 percent disparity in high school graduation rates between the best- and worst-performing of the city’s 59 community districts. Or, to be specific: Ninety-five percent of the high school students graduate on time in the wealthy Manhattan Community Districts 1 and 2, where virtually no Black or Latino families live. In the nearly all-black and Latino neighborhoods of Brownsville and Ocean Hill in Brooklyn, and Morris Heights, Fordham South, and the ironically named Mount Hope in the Bronx, only 61 percent of high school students graduate on time.
Using hundreds of statistical indicators, the authors of this report find that there is a direct relationship between on-time high school graduation in New York City and family income and education levels. Rich kids with highly educated parents graduate on time; poor kids with poorly educated parents don’t. Children from economically impoverished families are doubly disadvantaged: poverty at home and inferior, less well-funded, schools down the street. “In Queens, for example, a poor school gets 29 percent less money than a wealthy school nearby,” according to U.S. Secretary of Education John King.
Admittedly, in some ways, New York City’s traditional public schools are better than they were two decades ago. But that’s not saying much. For black and Latino children, who went to schools that were worse than those in the rest of the city, that’s saying nothing at all.
This situation is aggravated, not alleviated, by the city’s secondary school choice program. Faced with a scarcity situation—not enough good schools—“the city,” that is, those people who make decisions for others, put in place a system that in the final analysis distributes those scarce good schools by parental income and education. Families, the SSRC report finds, choose high schools on the basis of discussions with their friends and neighbors. Because of the city’s segregation and the lack of high-quality data on school performance, poor families tend to get their information from other poor families, and miss out on getting into the best-performing schools that wealthier families learn about through their well-heeled social networks.
There is also the crucial matter is the “tax” on families required by the city’s secondary high school “choice” system. [It hardly deserves the name, actually.] It requires as much as a working week or two of family time to struggle through the required paperwork and other hoops. This is not anything like something an average family in the Bronx or central Brooklyn can afford. And as we know, access to good schools in New York City is grotesquely even more inequitable in regard to the city’s few “selective” high schools.
There are solutions to this problem. Here is one proposed by those who don’t want to anything: If “those children” simply had better educated, wealthier, parents and lived in neighborhoods with very good preschools, elementary and middle schools, they wouldn’t have a problem, would they?
Another solution would be to eliminate education scarcity. This includes making all New York City traditional public schools equally good, and making those in neighborhoods characterized by concentrated poverty more than equally good. How could that be done and who could do it? It has been done in some places, for example, in the United Kingdom and much of Europe through various national government policies. Canada has done this through its decentralized systems of traditional public schools and school choice. Montgomery County, Md., had some success doing this some years ago by more-effectively allocating resources – especially high-quality teachers. In some cases budget categories were reallocated: landscaping funding was reduced; early childhood education funding was increased. Outcomes were then closely examined and the resource mix adjusted.
Good schools for all children may be costly, but not nearly as costly, in a wider sense, than the present situation in New York City, with good schools only for those who can afford them.
On this episode of On the Road, RiShawn Biddle joins Steven Evangelista of Harlem Link Charter School, Shawn Hardnett of NewSchools Venture Fund, University of Pennsylvania’s Matthew Steinberg, and Mastery Charter School’s Scott Gordon in a discussion at NewSchools’ annual conference on the overuse of out-of-school suspensions and other harsh school discipline.
Listen to the Podcast at RiShawn Biddle Radio or download directly to your mobile or desktop device. Also, subscribe to the On the Road podcast series and the overall Dropout Nation Podcast series. You can also embed this podcast on your site. It is also available on iTunes, Blubrry, Stitcher, and PodBean.
Contrary to the opinions of many traditionalists and more than a few reformers, the much-necessary discussion about overuse of harsh school discipline in traditional districts and public charter schools should be understood as an opportunity for people in schools to revisit their practices and results, and to consider how they might adjust strategies. For those of us who focus on policy and research, it is helpful to appreciate how many people are already working on the issue.
Since the New York Times and other outlets raised new questions about the school discipline practices of Success Academy last year, I’ve heard from lots of school leaders and teachers who have been wrestling with student discipline. These are men and women who have taken great pains to engage in introspection, both about discipline as well as other practices related to instruction and leadership.
These people talk about discipline. But they also talk about school culture and how to make their schools more successful with all students. We may not always agree with the practices they may use. The criticisms, regardless of who lodges them, may be valid. At the same time, let’s admit that these people are not engaging in surprising or novel exercises.
Personal observations can never substitute for objective data and evidence. But in my own research and interactions, the school leaders and teachers I deal with are downright obsessed with keeping kids on task and with thinking about how to help more kids succeed. They truly “own” the issue of student discipline. They examine data. They look at what they are doing in their classrooms and hallways. They talk together about their values, their practices, and how to adjust what they do. They try to figure out how their practices affect how children behave. They want children to learn, want to reduce the likelihood that a few kids will act out in ways that make it hard for all kids to learn, and also keep children who are misbehaving from failing and leaving school.
Last month, the U.S. Department of Education convened leaders from charter school operators that receive replication and expansion grants under the Charter School Program. This was a group of very successful charter operators with impressive academic performance. The issue of student discipline was a big priority for the U.S. Department. I honestly came to the meeting a little anxious that there might be too much “talking down” to school people about what they needed to do, or too much defensiveness from the school operators. I was wrong on both fronts.
To its credit, the Obama Administration brought forward the issue as a real challenge that we must collectively address both in charters as well as within traditional districts. They presented the issue as one on which we should all problem-solve. Charter school operators, in turn, came to the topic equally ready to talk about the work. Perhaps because of the careful set-up, there was no defensiveness, no denial of the issues’ importance, or bemoaning how opponents were blowing a few cases out of proportion.
Instead, leaders talked about the conversations they were having with their staff, the examination of data, their brainstorming around what they do when children misbehave, and the ways they can adjust their procedures and programs to support strong learning environments while reducing the practices that lead to suspension or expulsion. They were talking about how to build consensus about the need for change, and the details of work that might make things better.
The charter school operators at the session weren’t looking to abandon their approaches to schooling. Their schools are highly successful. They have developed innovative programs — and their approaches produce results. At the same time, they realized that the current debate over discipline as an opportunity to leverage what is working well, to engage in serious introspection about their own practices, and to encourage their colleagues to change particular practices that may not always be helpful in improving student learning. All this was in order to design changes that they believe will lead to even better results for even more children.
What we have here is not a “gotcha” for opponents of school choice. The notion that some single unified approach to schooling has been shown to be unacceptable and that now we will abandon “no excuses” schooling is an incredibly simplistic and unreasonable characterization of what is going on. It is equally simplistic to argue that no introspection or rethinking of how we educate children isn’t in order. Instead, people who work in schools — people that live and breathe student behavior every day — have been stirred by events and a little external pressure to start important conversations.
There are of important mid-course adjustments in the works, and I look forward to talking with them about these changes as they make them.