Equity in Education is Nice, But Do We Really Want It?

Nothing is wrong with improving your children’s opportunities, except when it means disadvantaging and disenfranchising the American dream for others.” —Thomas Shapiro By Francisco D. Carranza and Vichet Chhuon, UCSB’s Gevirtz Graduate School of Education

Underrepresented ethnic minorities’ academic underachievement is an elusive problem for researchers, policymakers and teachers. Historically, African-Americans and Latinos have been performing significantly lower in school than their European American counterparts. racial_diversity.jpgThis achievement gap has received considerable attention from the research and teaching communities; but, any success in narrowing this gap is only possible with the help of all Americans. Thus, there is one significant question that needs to be asked of the general public: Do Americans really want equity in education?

The desegregation of schools, for the most part, has seen limited success for raising minority student achievement. It seems that desegregation at most schools simply refers to having some minority students and white students together on the same school campus without really integrating them in classrooms, clubs, and other academic and social activities. For instance, academic tracking, a system of ability-based courses, creates segregated classes where minority students — often African-American, Mexican American, and those not proficient in speaking English — are placed in lower academic tracks while their white and Asian counterparts are placed in college preparatory and advanced placement courses.

Tom Lovelace, a researcher of educational policy at the Brookings Institution, has studied this practice and identified a troubling trend. He found that de-tracking, a reform policy that eliminates ability-based classes, was less likely to occur in those schools predominated by white students. In contrast to schools in which minorities constitute a larger percentage of the student body, schools with mostly white students were much more likely to maintain an arrangement of academic courses by ability groupings. Jeannie Oakes, a professor at UCLA and a scholar who has studied tracking for over 20 years, examined the tracking policies in two school systems: Rockford, Illinois and San Jose, California. She found that African-American and Latino students with the same test scores as their white and Asian peers were much less likely to be placed in advanced courses.

Annegret Staiger’s research yielded similar troubling findings. Staiger, a graduate of UCSB and currently a professor at Clarkson University in New York, revealed that schools in poor, underserved, and ethnic minority communities create “magnet” and “gifted” programs to facilitate voluntary desegregation. She found that although the ostensible societal objective of integration is to increase educational opportunities for minority students, white students were often the ones who benefited the most because they filled most of the slots in these enrichment courses. In another study, Oakes and John Rogers — associate director of the Institute for Democracy, Education and Access — discussed what happened when a principal of a diverse Los Angeles area high school attempted to de-track his school by converting all low track classes into college preparatory courses. A number of positive results emerged: increased participation of non-white students in student government and other extracurricular activities, increased academic achievement of minority students, and an increased number of minority students were successfully satisfying university admission requirements.

However, not all were pleased with the changes. A large number of community members, particularly white parents, argued that their children were experiencing a “watered down” version of college preparatory instruction. These parents believed that their children were no longer being challenged. The authors explained that white parents pushed forward a dual system where the school would have a less “rigorous” college preparatory curriculum for those students, African-American and Latinos, who were “watering down” their children’s education. This counter movement by white parents took place even though their children were still performing well in school.

Unfortunately, the educational struggles of minority students are conveniently explained by teachers, school administrators, and the public through a focus upon families’ moral and cultural deficiencies. That is, it is the lack of achievement-oriented norms, values, and work ethic that explains why minority students, particularly African-American and Mexican American students, just are not doing that well in school. Asian students are given a pass here because the group’s exaggerated success provides fuel for those looking to problematize other minority groups. For some people, holding on to these cultural deficit explanations is comfortable. After all, if you are on top, why acknowledge that it is the structural organization of schools that really determines who does well? Besides, these are other people’s children.

We certainly do not pretend to have the answers to this elusive problem, but we might want to start by asking: Do we really want equity in education? Francisco D. Carranza and Vichet Chhuon are doctoral students in the Gevirtz Graduate School of Education at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

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