Tackling Racial Inequality in Education

One of the best ways to unify a divided nation is to establish fair and equitable educational opportunities for every child. Because of the long-time structure of the United States system, that isn’t happening in every community today.

Divisions by income, geography, class and race— or often a combination of them — exist throughout the country. In “Too Big To Fail: Millennials on the Margins,” a 2018 report co-authored by ETS researchers Anita Sands and Madeline Goodman, data showed that Black millennials in the United States were approximately three times as likely to perform at or below the top levels in literacy and numeracy as White millennials. The data were from the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC).

“I certainly emphasize geographic inequalities that pervade American society, but they have morphed the last few decades into longstanding divisions by race,” said Princeton professor and author Doug Massey. “As a result, there is more school segregation now than there was in 1965, if you put Blacks and Latinos together.”

The difference in funding for Whites and Blacks is enormous. Recently, The New York Times described a report by EdBuild, which said that nonwhite districts received $23 billion less in funding than their predominantly white counterparts in 2016.

How We Got Here

Obviously, the 1960s was a decade of monumental change and a time when communities were trying to reconcile and implement the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, which ruled the forced segregation of schools was unconstitutional. But what the court didn’t and couldn’t ban was communities becoming geographically segregated by the divisions of income, class and race.

Massey estimated that the “movement toward school integration lasted for 15 to 20 years before it petered out and started to reverse itself.” Wealthier people migrated from the cities to the suburbs and all one had to do is follow the money to find where the best schools were. As a result, many of the abandoned and poor cities had the worst schools.

School districts were formed along geographic, income and class lines and, yes, race was a factor as well, because it overlapped with the other reasons. “A child born to a family living in poverty is likely to grow up in an economically disadvantaged neighborhood” and “attend poorly performing schools,” according to “Choosing Our Future: A Story of Opportunity in America,” a report published by ETS in 2016.

There is more school segregation now than there was in 1965, if you put Blacks and Latinos together.

~ Doug Massey

The report, led by Irwin Kirsch, ETS’s Director of the Center for Research on Human Capital and Education, added that “variations in the instructional environment, curriculum and school policies do little to equalize educational outcomes for children entering school with different sets of skills. For example, at the high school level, poor children and children of color are less likely to attend schools that offer the kinds of advanced-level classes that are available to their more advantaged peers.”

To demonstrate that point, last year ProPublica created a database using U.S. Department of Education statistics illustrating how racial disparities exist throughout the nation. White students are almost twice as likely as Blacks to take an AP® class in high school, suspension rates are markedly higher for Black students than Whites, and the number of inexperienced teachers tend to be higher in high-poverty schools and, as a result, student test scores are lower.

The Community Involvement Argument

Lillian Lowery, ETS’s Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of Student & Teacher Assessments, contrasted the expectations for children growing up in a wealthy area to those raised in a poor one. “When they were born, their parents told them they were going to college — it wasn’t even a conversation. It’s a mindset. Being born into good circumstances prepares you for life by providing access and opportunity that peers in other circumstances just don’t have and will never have.”

However, Michael Nettles, Senior Vice President and Edmund W. Gordon Chair of ETS’s Policy Evaluation & Research Center, believes that “many of the (equity) challenges have to do with the lack of resources and empowerment that people at the local level possess to improve their condition, not just in education, but their quality-of-life condition.”

Nettles added that “local communities need to have the incentives and rewards for addressing their condition. There needs to be some performance rewards, and some funding strategies tailored for local communities.” But he also stressed that while money alone won’t solve all the problems, many problems are not possible to solve without financial resources. “Communities need to understand some of the options they have and need to be allowed the flexibility to operate.”

Being born into good circumstances prepares you for life by providing access and opportunity that peers in other circumstances just don’t have and will never have.

~ Lillian Lowery

Kirsch agreed that more than just a grassroots strategy is needed but said, “I don’t think we need to wait for it to happen at the federal or state level,” explaining the movement may need to start locally and then be scaled up.

The idea that solely grassroots, bottom-up approaches can close educational achievement gaps sounds good, according to Massey, but is not something that can be sustained on “a widespread level.” Federal and state funding will be necessary in many places, he adds, explaining, “The people that hold the power are the affluent and they’re benefiting from the current system so they are not motivated highly to dismantle it.”

ETS’s Role

One community, one state, or even one presidential administration alone can’t cause the seismic shifts to create equitable education opportunities for all. “It will take the combined sustained effort of many entities, including leadership from organizations like ETS, to make a profound difference,” Kirsch says.

“What we have is convening power,” says Lowery. “We bring people in and we keep a great pulse of what’s actually happening and not happening in the world. We can get the right people in the room and have civil discourse without getting political.”

Where We Go From Here

So, absent of top-level or bottom-up commitments, another option can be called the “common-good” approach. “We can’t look out our front doors and say, ‘everything’s good in my neighborhood.’ “We have to have a sense of urgency about what others in society are doing,” Lowery said. “It has to be all of us, not just some of us.”

Nettles thinks “there is also a sense of privacy among some people who are doing well and do not feel the need, commitment and obligation to contribute beyond their tax dollars to share what is working well for them in education.”

Lowery, however, stresses that “poor parents who never went to college want the same dreams and aspirations for their kids as those who have power do. They just don’t have the wherewithal and access to navigate the system. The public opportunities for support are dwindling away.”

We have to understand that this is a national emergency. If we’re not educating (all) our people to be thinkers, to be civically engaged, to pay it forward, to be preserving our constitutional benefits, then eventually, like Rome, we could fall.

~ Lillian Lowery

Democratic political strategist and author Donna Brazile believes that mindset can change. “We first have to educate the American people about the value of education in the 21stcentury,” she recently said at ETS in Princeton, N.J. “We have a group of people in this country who essentially no longer believe we need to put proper investment into public schools because they’re failing. Rather than address why they’re failing and what’s causing the disparities, we would rather stop funding. It’s a crisis across America and we have 21st-century policy to address it. We’ve got a lot of work to do in education.”

Massey, calling himself a “realist,” doesn’t think there is “a good sense of collective good” and cites strong political leadership, a redistribution of tax money to the poor, and a revamped education structure as the necessary pillars to make radical change possible.

A cautionary warning also was uttered by Lowery. “We have to understand that this is a national emergency. If we’re not educating (all) our people to be thinkers, to be civically engaged, to pay it forward, to be preserving our constitutional benefits, then eventually, like Rome, we could fall.”