Veiled by comfortably coded references to local control, curricular discretion, and choice, racial bias subsists throughout the educational status quo. The threads of racism are deeply woven into the fabric of American schooling.
To start with the most obvious targets, school district lines and property taxes largely follow patterns of racial and income segregation, with wealthier, whiter districts often getting even wealthier by disproportionate access to rigged systems of state aid. The map of America's over 10,000 school districts is the geography of institutional racism. Whatever other more neutral reasons are ascribed to this politically determined checkerboard: "neighborhood," "community," "self-determination," it is no more supportable than protecting Confederate monuments as historical, commemorative, or educational.
America's lack of social mobility, cutting against our collective myth of limitless opportunity, is a pernicious product of district-based racial segregation and should no longer be legally supported.
Similarly, arbitrary standards lacking empirical support have become an important driver of our schools' racial enclavism and income disparities. Students, teachers, and teacher candidates are subjected to an arms race of dubious measurements, creating an ever more segregated hierarchy in schools and the professional ranks. Nationally, about 80% of traditional public school teachers are white, while only 16% are Black or Latinx (among the general adult population, about 63% are white, 28% Black or Latinx). Those rates are slightly worse in private schools (85% white, 10% Black of Latinx) and slightly better in charter schools (68% white, 26% Black or Latinx).
Deepening this divide, a 2018 Brookings Institution report notes that teachers in the U.S are even more segregated than students, finding "any new teachers of color are often steered (whether covertly or overtly toward high minority schools" despite "evidence showing teachers of color benefit white students" and "many students of color in predominantly white schools have virtually no exposure to teachers of color."
Our regulatory structure of teacher certification multiplies the racial injustice. For example, the Educators Teacher Performance Assessment (edTPA), a privately owned and widely marketed video-based tool, is used by many states as a requirement for teacher certification. Its expense alone, at $300 per administration, is a deterrent to low-income students who seek to become teachers. In addition, its ancillary expenses to schools of education raise tuition, an additional financial obstacle lacking transparency to students and the public. Like other costly high stakes standardized measures such as the SAT, the edTPA is highly susceptible to rote tutoring and, despite its questionable methodology, has become an instrument preserving a racially disproportionate status quo in the teaching corps without improving the elusive ideal of teacher quality. By eliminating many otherwise qualified nontraditional candidates, often people of color, all of our children are impoverished by this rigid, discriminatory model of teachers and teaching.
Student tracking is another instance of supposed merit-based assignment with insidious racial consequences if not intent. To take but a small example, according to a 2019 report in the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education using data from the National Center for Educational Statistics, while 44% of white high school students took either an AP course or an IB course, only 30% of Black students were enrolled. White students were found twice as likely as black students to enroll in dual high school/college programs.
These are solvable problems. In the first place, in professional circles A.P. courses are widely derided as far from meeting college-level standards. They are exactly the kind of coded sorting system that separates students even within integrated schools. Tracking as a whole must be reduced, as occurred in Stamford, Connecticut in 2009 when it reduced tracks from four to two in a hard-fought effort at moderate reform. If #DefundPolice can move the criminal justice agenda, #DetrackSchools can help bring greater educational justice.
These pressure points: district lines, financing, teacher assignment and certification, and tracking are obviously not the only areas of change needed to create an anti-racist school system. Curriculum reform, special education referrals, disciplinary policies, teacher and administrator expectations, and so many other dimensions of institutional racism require attention. But an agenda requires a specific list of targets, a series of demands. As a systematic attack on institutional structures of racialized educational injustice, these pointed governmental reforms provide a start. We may not be able to immediately change hearts and minds but the legal substrate of educational injustice needs to change now.