‘American Schools Are Disturbingly Racially Segregated’

Education Department official says Americans have low expectations for minority students.

Next America event
National Journal
Oct. 22, 2014, 11:26 a.m.

For the first time in Amer­ic­an his­tory this fall, stu­dents from ra­cial and eth­nic minor­it­ies rep­res­ent a ma­jor­ity in pub­lic schools. That even Des Moines, Iowa is an ex­ample of this grow­ing di­versity may sur­prise some, but the pop­u­la­tion of white stu­dents in the city’s pub­lic schools has dropped to 45 per­cent, and the dis­trict is home to stu­dents rep­res­ent­ing more than 100 lan­guages and dia­lects. 

That di­versity is a source of pride to many—but Cath­er­ine Lhamon, as­sist­ant sec­ret­ary for Civil Rights at the U.S. Edu­ca­tion De­part­ment, warns that the trend hasn’t been ac­com­pan­ied by equal ac­cess to qual­ity edu­ca­tion for stu­dents of all races. 

“Amer­ic­an schools are dis­turb­ingly ra­cially se­greg­ated, peri­od,” Lhamon said Wed­nes­day in Des Moines at a Na­tion­al Journ­al event presen­ted with sup­port from Emer­son Col­lect­ive. “The real­ity is that north­ern schools are more se­greg­ated than they ever have been, that all too many south­ern schools are re­vert­ing back to se­greg­a­tion, and we are not see­ing the kinds of school­ing that the Su­preme Court prom­ised us that we should see in the Brown vs. Edu­ca­tion de­cision, and that I want for our kids.”

Lhamon used the Des Moines Pub­lic School Dis­trict as a case study. The school sys­tem has com­mit­ted to hir­ing teach­ers from more di­verse back­grounds to bet­ter re­flect the stu­dent pop­u­la­tion, and to fo­cus more re­sources on help­ing black and Latino males, who are dis­pro­por­tion­ately more likely to drop out or be sus­pen­ded. While she praised pro­gress already made and con­tin­ued ef­forts at im­prove­ments, Lhamon noted that the city had much more work to do in cor­rect­ing “poor per­form­ance.”

The Of­fice for Civil Rights col­lects data on each Amer­ic­an school dis­trict’s demo­graph­ics and to what ex­tent edu­ca­tion­al op­por­tun­it­ies are provided to each of their stu­dents. Al­though white stu­dents in Des Moines schools ac­count for just un­der half of en­roll­ment, the OCR re­ports they are dis­pro­por­tion­ately overrep­res­en­ted in gif­ted pro­grams and in ad­vanced classes such as al­gebra, cal­cu­lus, and chem­istry, and un­der­rep­res­en­ted in counts of sus­pen­sions and ex­pul­sions. 

“That is con­sist­ent na­tion­ally, but it’s very dis­turb­ing to me,” Lhamon said. “What we’re say­ing is that we are re­serving our ex­pect­a­tions for our highest rig­or of courses, the courses we know our kids need to be able to be full and pro­duct­ive mem­bers of so­ci­ety, but we are re­serving them for a class of kids who are white and who are wealth­i­er. We know we can’t do that if we want to be the rich and di­verse na­tion that we are.”

Lhamon and her of­fice are push­ing schools and dis­tricts to ex­pand ac­cess to and in­crease ex­pect­a­tions for all stu­dents, no mat­ter their so­cioeco­nom­ic back­ground, eth­ni­city, or race. It will re­quire schools to be­lieve that all stu­dents can be—and en­cour­age them to be—high achiev­ers, she said.

For ex­ample, Lhamon de­scribed a school dis­trict in Clev­e­land that offered ad­vanced STEM courses to its high school stu­dents, yet many of the seats in those classes went un­filled. The OCR in­ter­vened, real­iz­ing that the dis­trict had not ad­vert­ised the class to all stu­dents, and pushed the dis­trict to com­mit to reach­ing out to all fam­il­ies and ad­vert­ising the class in Span­ish as well as in Eng­lish.

Minor­ity stu­dents are more likely to live in low-in­come neigh­bor­hoods and at­tend schools that do not provide the full se­lec­tion of high­er-level courses in sub­jects like al­gebra, chem­istry, cal­cu­lus, and phys­ics. OCR data finds that 57 per­cent of black stu­dents and two-thirds of Latino stu­dents simply do not have ac­cess to the full range of those classes that are provided to schools edu­cat­ing their white and Asi­an peers.

“We have to change those prac­tices so that we are ready for each of our stu­dents in every school,” Lhamon said, “and that we are com­mu­nic­at­ing to them that they are be­loved, valu­able learners.”

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