Clearing the Path to Academic Success for Minority Students

With many suburban neighborhoods divided into racial clusters, white students from white neighborhoods are attending almost all-white schools, while African-American or Latino students attend minority-majority schools. These schools usually have fewer resources available because the families within the district come from lower tax brackets. So-called “reforms” meant to raise the quality of teaching often have the reverse affect of driving good teachers out of the schools where they’re most needed.

“Locked in the doubly segregated or triply segregated schools, which are segregated by poverty and race and sometimes language, are kids who have virtually no chance of being ready for college,” explains Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles at UCLA. “And we accept that segregation and do nothing about it. We think that we can make everything equal just by putting pressure on those schools where all those kids with problems are concentrated, and where we have all the newest teachers with the least experience. That’s not sensible.”

Orfield made these comments at a panel discussion that was one of the highlights of the NEA Foundation’s recent two-day convening of union-district leadership teams to discuss new and innovative reform measures. The panel conversation focused on issues of race and equity in public education and was moderated by Michael Lomax, president and CEO of the United Negro College Fund. In addition to Orfield, the panel also featured Gloria Ladson-Billings, professor of urban education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Early on in the discussion, Michael Lomax cited Frederick Douglas’ famous words, “Education is the pathway to freedom,” to highlight the transformative role a good education has on lifting all students up to a better life. But the conversation soon focused on the many roadblocks facing minority students –  post-secondary readiness, resegregation of public schools, and the harmful affects of misguided reform measures.

And because most jobs place a premium on post-secondary degrees, Orfield said that the traditional notion of PreK-12 schooling needs to be expanded to include Pre-K-16, as a way of ensuring that all children have a chance of attaining middle class status. Higher education opportunities tend, however, to skew away from African-American and Latino students, and the risings costs are a major deterrent.

“You can’t be in the middle class unless you have a post-secondary education now,” Orfield said. “We’re creating a lot of barriers to college—namely financial barriers, we’re not keeping our aid programs high enough to make up for those barriers, and we’re having more and more selective admissions. We’ve got a lot of problems.”

For many minority students who attend post-secondary schooling, the opportunity to attend top-tier universities is often elusive. Gloria Ladson-Billings cited a recent study by Georgetown University to illustrate the growing racial disparity in post-secondary education. The study, “Separate & Unequal,” found that “82 percent of new white enrollments have gone to the 468 most selective colleges, while 72 percent of new Hispanic enrollment and 68 percent of new African-American enrollment have gone to the two-year and four-year open-access schools.”

“The 468 top-tier universities in the country are largely white and Asian,” Ladson-Billings said. “The 3,250 two-year, four-year lower tier schools are black and Latino. They are overcrowded, they are under-resourced, you’re less likely to graduate from one of these, and you’re more likely to have to work while you’re doing it. So, the system is unequal all the way through.”

The panelists pointed out that many students pursing an advanced degree at lower-tier universities will have less life and career aspirations than their white and Asian counterparts—and those are the ones who can even afford to further their education.

The experts agreed that drill and kill testing, rising post-secondary costs, misguided reforms, and a rollback of policies supporting integration are all playing a large role in limiting the opportunities for many Latino and African-American students. So what are some of the potential remedies?

Ladson-Billings cited the successful incorporation of magnet schools into many at-risk communities around the country as an example of how meaningful solutions can extend beyond reforms centered on tests and evaluations.

“Magnet schools draw students from all over to attend,” she said. “These are schools that set kids on the road to high-quality post-secondary models. We need to expand on these.”

With 70% of African-American students who are eligible for Advanced Placement based on their PSAT scores never taking an AP course because they have no access to these opportunities, Ladson-Billings said it’s clear that high-minority schools need to focus on these kinds of classes to give students the academic enrichment they need to succeed in top colleges.

And while she and the other panelists agreed that there was no silver bullet for creating inclusive school environments, working towards creating districts and schools that value diversity, academic enrichment, and teacher retention—all with an eye on post-secondary opportunities for students—can go a long way in providing the stability and equity that schools need.

“How do we create the sort of stability that all families are looking for, not just white families?” Ladson-Billings said. “All families are looking for schools where teachers stay, where the administration is stable, and where they can be fairly assured their children are getting a high-quality education experience.”