Disparity by Race in Education

I was eating dinner and watching the NewsHour on PBS when Judy Woodruff announced that for the first time in almost 15 years, the Department of Education had published data…from all 97,000 public schools across the country. “The findings highlight big patterns of disparity by race,” she said.  My fork dropped and my ears perked up. “No kidding!” I thought, but then I learned that although only 18% of students are African-American, they account for half of all suspensions and that even pre-schoolers get suspended! I didn’t know about the pre-schoolers, but at Trenton High, of course, about 98% of the suspensions were Latino or African-American because 98% were students of color. With regard to punishment at least, it was impossible to see disparity by race.

The report went on to say that African-American, Latino and Native American students attend schools with higher concentrations of first-year teachers and less experienced teachers than white students do. That sounded familiar. Positions at Trenton High were never all filled by September. One year, when I took over a homeroom, the students called me “Mrs. Staff” because “Staff” was the name on the classroom door. No teacher had yet been hired for the math class scheduled for that room. But was it that few teachers were willing to teach in an urban school or that the Trenton School District was too disorganized to contact those who did apply? For two years in a row, even though I’d applied in spring, I, an experienced teacher, wasn’t contacted by Human Services until the week before Labor Day. The first time around, I’d already accepted another job. The second time around, I called Human Services myself to ask about the status of my application. It had been overlooked. I was then offered a choice of two vacancies, one at an elementary school, the other at the high school. After two brief interviews, I chose the latter.

The DOE report also found that while more than 80 percent of Asian-American and more than 70 percent of white students had access to a full range of math and science courses in high schools, only 67 percent of Latinos were at a school that offered a range of advanced classes. The figure was 57 percent for African-American students and less than 50% for American Indian and native Alaskan high school students. I recalled an evening meeting of the Trenton High School Management Team in 2001. A student had come to protest that Advanced Placement courses were being discontinued. Our principal told him that because few, if any, students had passed the AP over the previous 10 years, success was unlikely. She reassured him that she had contracted instead with the College Board for Pacesetter, a course of study that would be more appropriate for our students. She suggested that he could take up to six advanced credits at Mercer County Community College. She’d been told by the provost that those credits would be transferable to 40 institutions of higher learning. The young man wasn’t happy; he didn’t want to lose time commuting.

Was our principal, a black woman, just being sensible, not wanting to waste time and money on AP? What role does “If you build it, they will come” play? In the ’80’s, Trenton High had a gifted and talented program that produced gifted and talented graduates. It vanished. In 2002, a colleague suggested resurrecting it, but her committee was stymied because the title sounded too exclusive. Perhaps we should have called it the “AP Small Learning Community.” Sadly, what the DOE found out after 15 years is what Trenton students have known for the past 30 years.

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