Let’s say your community has two schools.
One serves mostly white students and the other serves mostly black students.
How do you eliminate such open segregation?
After all, in 1954 the U.S. Supreme Court struck down school segregation in Brown vs. Board of Education as essentially separate and unequal.
It’s been nearly 70 years. We must have a recourse to such things these days. Mustn’t we?
Well, the highest court in the land laid down a series of decisions, starting with Milliken vs. Bradley in 1974, that effectively made school integration voluntary especially within district lines. So much so, in fact, that according to a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, from 2000 to 2014, school segregation more than doubled nationwide.
But let’s say you did find some right-minded individuals who cared enough to make the effort to fix the problem.
What could they do?
The most obvious solution would be to build a single new school to serve both populations.
So if you could find the will and the money, you could give it a try.
Unfortunately, that alone wouldn’t solve the problem.
Even when students from different racial or ethnic groups aren’t physically separated by district boundaries or school buildings, the way we rate and sort these students within the same space causes segregation.
This is because our manner of placing kids into classes, itself, is discriminatory.
We have exactly this situation in my own western Pennsylvania district, Steel Valley. We have two elementary schools – Barrett and Park – one of which serves mostly black kids and the other which serves mostly white kids. However, even when the children get to our single middle and high schools, segregation persists.
They may finally be in the same building, but they aren’t in the same classes.
Most academic tracks have at least a lower and a higher level of each course. The former is invariably organized around remediation and basic skills, the latter around critical thinking and creativity.
Moreover, being in the higher level course comes with increased opportunities for mentoring, field trips, special speakers, contests, prizes, and self esteem. And the lower courses can degenerate into mindless test prep.
Which would you rather your child experience?
We don’t enroll students in one or the other at random. Nor do we place them explicitly based on their race or ethnicity.
Increasingly schools enroll students based primarily on their test scores.
Classroom grades, student interest, even teacher recommendations are largely ignored. Kids who pass their state mandated standardized assessments generally get in the higher classes and those who fail get in the lower classes.
And – Surprise! Surprise! – since test scores are highly correlated with race and class, most of the black kids are in the lower classes and most of the white kids are in the higher classes.
Let me be clear.
This isn’t because there’s something wrong with the poor kids and children of color or something right about higher socioeconomic status and white kids.
It’s because of (1) economic inequality, and (2) implicit bias in the tests.
In short, standardized assessments at best show which kids have had all the advantages. Which ones have had all the resources, books in the home, the best nutrition, live in the safest environments, get the most sleep, don’t live with the trauma of racism and prejudice everyday.
However, even more than that is something indisputable but that most policymakers and media talking heads refuse to acknowledge: standardized testing is a tool of white supremacy.
It was invented by eugenicists – people who believed that white folks were racially superior to darker skinned people. And the purpose of these tests from the very beginning was to provide a scientific (now recognized as pseudo scientific) justification for their racism.
A standardized test is an assessment where the questions are selected based on what the “standard” test taker would answer. And since this norm is defined as a white, middle-to-upper-class person, the tests enshrine white bias.
I don’t mean that 2+2=4 has a racial bias. But most questions aren’t so simple. They ask test takers to read passages and pick out certain things that are more obvious to people enculturated as white than those enculturated as black. They use the vocabulary of middle to upper class people just to ask the questions.
This is white supremacy. Using these tests as a gatekeeper for funding, tracking, and self-respect is educational apartheid.
Black students make up almost 17 percent of American students nationwide. If all things were equal, you’d expect them to make up a similar percentage of advanced courses. However, they account for only 10 percent of students in Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) classes.
In some areas it’s worse than others.
For example, according to a Department of Education Office for Civil Rights report from 2014, black students in the northern California city of Sacramento make up 16.3 percent of the population but only 5.5 percent of GATE programs. Meanwhile, in the south of the state, in San Diego, 8 percent of students are black, but make up just 3 percent of GATE classes.
Those are big disparities. In fact, the phenomenon is so common that social scientists created a term to describe it – racialized tracking.
But it has also been the subject of civil rights complaints.
In New Jersey the imbalance was so extreme the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a complaint in 2014 against the South Orange–Maplewood School District. In a statement, the ACLU said racial segregation across academic tracks “has created a school within a school at Columbia High School.” More than 70 percent of students in lower classes were black while more than 70 percent of students in advanced classes were white.
Even so there wasn’t much that could be done. The matter ended with the Office for Civil Rights ordering the district to hire a consultant to fix the problem, but it still persists to this day.
This “school within a school” went from metaphor to reality in Austin, Texas. In 2007, a city school, the Lyndon Baines Johnson Early College High School, split into two different entities existing within the same building. And the main factor separating the two was race.
The second floor became the Liberal Arts and Science Academy (LASA), a public magnet high school serving mostly white and Asian students. Meanwhile, the majority black and Latino students stayed on the first floor taking regular education courses.
How can that be legal? Because too many people want it that way.
LASA is ranked the best Texas high school and the 11th-best high school in the United States. In fact, whenever you see those lists of the best schools in the country, they are often the result of a wealthy local tax base combined with how many poor and minority kids they were able to keep out.
It’s a matter of priorities.
Many people – especially white people – talk a good game about equity but what they really want for their own children is privilege.
It’s what happens when you let scarcity dominate public education, and it doesn’t have to be this way.
We can invest in our schools so that all children have what they need – so that they aren’t in competition for dwindling resources.
But this must go hand-in-hand with an emphasis on social justice. Black lives matter. We cannot continue to treat black children as disposable.
Being gifted, talented or advanced can’t be reduced to a score on a standardized test. In fact, I’d argue that such measures should be banished from our conception of excellence altogether as the tests, themselves, should be discontinued.
This doesn’t mean we can ignore the centuries of racist policies that keep our children of color down – housing segregation, inequitable funding, over policing, a lack of resources, being left out of specialized programs. Nor does it mean that we can ignore implicit bias white teachers invariably have about black students.
But we have to dismantle the systemic racism enshrined in our school policies. The most well-meaning individuals will make little headway if the system, itself, is corrupt.
The two must be accomplished hand-in-hand, at the micro and macro level.
Integration is absolutely essential. We must ensure that all of our students get to go to school together – but not just in the same buildings, in the same classes.
This requires an end to standardized testing but maybe also an end to advanced placement courses as we know them. Why focus on higher order thinking only for the privileged kids – do it for all. Individual student needs can be met with dual teachers in the room, pullout resources and the like.
It is important to meet the needs of every student, but we cannot in doing so allow unspoken bias to be the gatekeeper of opportunity.
Equity is not just a pretty word. It has to be one of our most cherished goals.
Otherwise our policies and our people will leave many children behind.
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