Educators and organizers have made longstanding efforts to find a way for students of color to succeed and learn within an American system of education that is pervasively rigged against them. More equity in education would mean that students who come from marginalized backgrounds have the tools and the opportunities necessary to not only catch up to their peers academically, but excel.
Racial inequity exists in the education system in various forms: zero-tolerance disciplinary rules, under-resourcing, non-inclusive curriculum, over-policing on school campuses, lack of staff diversity, limited access to gifted education opportunities, and discriminatory institutional policies. These inequities create barriers to learning that can result in lower graduation rates or students leaving school without being proficient in reading, writing, or math.
“Public education is too often the means to propagate and enforce white supremacy and racism,” said Mark Rosenbaum, director of Public Counsel Opportunity Under Law during a July virtual town hall about education in America. “Children come to school dealing with the racism they deal with in their communities without any assistance from that school in processing and dealing with it.”
Discipline at school
Currently, two-thirds of American students attend a school with an on-campus police officer. Research by the Education Week Resource Center found that in more than 40 states, Black students are more likely to be arrested by school police officers than their peers.
Black Lives Matter activists and other racial justice organizers have been pushing to get rid of school police officers for years, but with the recent uprisings and demonstrations around the country, there are more aggressive efforts to move forward with reducing or eliminating the presence of police in schools.
“The conversation around police-free schools would have never happened [and] never would have been as vocal or as widespread…had it not been for the explosion and the fusion of all these issues,” said Zakiyah Ansari, advocacy director for the Alliance for Quality Education.
On-campus police have been heavily funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, especially after the deadly mass school shooting in Parkland, Florida, in 2018. However, rather than making students feel safer and more able to concentrate on learning, research has shown that students feel intimidated by a police presence at schools and that it inhibits their ability to focus.
“When you walk into school and have a police officer standing right there at the door—the same one who just harassed you getting on the train—that doesn’t set [students] up to learn,” Ansari said.
And students aren’t the only ones who have a problem with police in schools: According to the National Parents Union, more than half of school parents have said they believe schools should reduce their reliance on officers and put a greater emphasis on the mental health of children by hiring more social workers and counselors.
“We believe education systems must be transformed to eradicate generational institutions of oppression,” said Keri Rodrigues, founder and president of the National Parents Union, in a statement. “Families across the nation have taken to the streets crying out for an end to systemic racism—racism that is an act of violence against our children not just in criminal justice, but in education as well. The school to prison pipeline begins in the classroom. It ends with us.”
School resource officers aren’t the only form of discipline in schools. Black and Latinx students are disciplined at significantly higher levels than white students, which could be due to the fact that Black girls and boys are perceived as much older than they actually are by police, and are often racially profiled as more threatening. A 2014 report by the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Office found that 50% of preschool students who get suspended from school multiple times were Black, despite the fact that Black children only represent one-third of the preschool population in America. The study also found that Black girls are suspended at much higher levels than girls of any other race.
Even when parents of color try to step in and get involved with the school disciplinary process, there can be barriers.
“Black parents frequently experience marginalization [and] disenfranchisement in their attempts to advocate on behalf of their children,” said Cheryl Fields-Smith, associate professor of elementary education at the University of Georgia and author of Exploring Single Black Mothers’ Resistance through Homeschooling.
Inequity in school curriculum
Culturally responsive curriculum has been proven to be beneficial to all students of all ethnic backgrounds, and decreases dropout rates and suspensions. It also boosts confidence levels for students and leads to better grades and graduation rates, among other perks. The New York City Coalition for Educational Justice and researchers from New York University have found that in the elementary schools they studied, 85% of the students were Black, Latinx, or Asian, but 84% of the books in those schools were written by white authors. Organizers and lawmakers want to ensure that books and curriculum are more culturally responsive and inclusive, allowing children of all ethnicities and genders to be able to see themselves reflected accurately in the materials they read.
“More often than not, the curriculum is culturally destructive, and that’s not okay,” Ansari said. “It’s not just about Black children learning about themselves. It’s about Asian children learning about Black children, Black children learning about Asian children–all of that…That’s how you build understanding and love in these spaces.”
Despite the ongoing racial disparities in education, there is some evidence to suggest that progress is being made. Recently in Denver, Colorado, students of color successfully pushed their school to include more cultural representation in their history curriculum, putting more emphasis on the Civil Rights Movement and the slave trade. Also, the Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools (NYU Metro Center) has created a scorecard to rate the culturally responsive curriculum in New York schools and evaluate the extent to which students are engaged with material.
In order to shift the curriculum on a statewide level, proponents of culturally responsive education in New York are pushing to get a bill passed on the state level to provide student-centered cultural curriculum in all public schools.
School during the pandemic
Even with the widespread closure of brick and mortar schools during the pandemic, students of color still face a disproportionate number of obstacles in their access to quality education. The pandemic has forced school districts to publicly uncover what students, parents, organizers, and teachers have been saying for decades: Too many students don’t have proper access to technology, the internet, or the basic supplies that are necessary in order to learn.
“There’s been an explosion since the pandemic started, and people can no longer deny these inequities or look the other way and they can’t stick their head in the sand,” Ansari said.
Studies have shown that students of color are more likely to face unique challenges in a remote work environment compared to their white peers, like dealing with linguistic problems, lack of internet, or living in crowded homes that can make it difficult to focus. Students of color have also reported experiencing significant emotional, financial, and academic tolls as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. A May survey by the Global Strategy Group and The Education Trust found that more than 80% of Black and Latinx students are concerned about being on track to graduate. That same survey found that while more than half of American students have the opportunity to attend virtual office hours with their teachers during the pandemic, only 39% of Black students and 43% of low-income students said they had that opportunity.
With some form of distance learning still in effect in most school districts in America for the fall, some more affluent parents have even considered putting their children in “homeschooling pods,” which would mean hiring a private tutor for their children and in some cases, a shared tutor for children in their neighborhood.
Eliza Shapiro, an education writer for The New York Times, recently tweeted about the new phenomenon of homeschooling pods.
“A note on homeschooling pods. 75% of kids who attend NYC public schools are low-income. So while a lot of people on here feel like the conversation about pods is suddenly everywhere – it’s not even relevant for the vast majority of kids in this city at least,” she tweeted. This move, if done en masse, would almost surely drive a bigger wedge between advantaged and disadvantaged students and drive even further inequities in the education system. If homeschooling pods become a common practice, government officials could use it as an opportunity to justify underinvesting in public schools.