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The Failed Equalizer: Thoughts on Race and Education

Mary Garvey, Associate Director, Pay for Success Financing

Often thought of as a modern day civil rights issue, educational disparity in the United States is in actuality a remnant of an era in which racism was codified by law. As foundations look at the array of challenges posed by inequality, I wonder how racial equity will make the list of funding priorities for these foundations in 2016. Current trends in race and education elucidate the issue:

  • Children of color are more prone to living in poverty;
  • Children of color are more likely to have newer, less experienced teachers in the classroom;
  • The achievement gap disproportionately affects low-income children of color

Never quite resolved, but rather seeming to have become systemically ingrained, educational disparities are one of the greatest threats to the pursuit of equity and a level playing field, particularly for students of color and children born into poverty. A glaring aspect of this reality is that, in the absence of a culturally competent solution, classrooms for black children have become increasingly hostile environments that are not at all conducive to providing a quality education. MaryGarvey

Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of the New York Times Bestseller Between The World and Me chronicles his experience in Baltimore City’s public schools. “I was a curious boy, but the schools were never concerned with curiosity. They were concerned with compliance.”[1]  More current data regarding this issue give credence to Coate’s experience. In the article Black Students Face More Discipline, Data Suggests, Tamar Lewin noted, “black students were three and a half times as likely to be suspended or expelled than their white peers.”[2]  Four years later a March 2016 New York Times article shed light on key findings (quite similar to Lewin’s) from a study of 5,000 charter schools done by the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at UCLA. “At the elementary school level, less than a third of charter schools suspended more than 10 percent of black students, while at the high school level, close to 40 percent of charter schools suspended one in four or more of black students enrolled that year. Black students were more likely to be suspended at even higher rates when enrolled in segregated schools, with high concentrations of African-American pupils.”[3]

Research has demonstrated the racial inequity of these suspensions. There is a pattern of black students being suspended for behavioral infractions such as defiance and disrespect, while white students are not suspended for committing the very same infractions.[4]  Former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan condemned this occurrence as a violation of “the principle of equity at the heart of the American promise.”[5]  The unfortunate paradox is that the very education that is heralded as the means to a better life for the poor and people of color may be a significant contributing factor to a poor quality of life. Coates commented: “fail in the schools and you would be suspended and sent back to…[the] streets.”[6]  Frequent suspensions are known to cause students to drop out of school. Students who drop out of school are more likely to end up in the legal system.

The educator Horace Mann called education the “great equalizer of the conditions of men [and women]”.[7]  Yet, as this debate grows, it appears that the equalizer has failed for so many black children, creating conditions that are quite the antithesis of equality and equity. Challenges are evident even in the early childhood years. I worry about the high rates of expulsion for black boys, the word gap by age three, and the lack of access to high quality early education for black children. ICS will host a seminar later this year in Charleston– Race, Justice, and the Young Child in America – encouraging leaders to think deeply and critically about the history, reality, and future of race and justice in America, and their impacts on young children and their families.

The concerns that warrant such a discussion are not new. In 1935 the sociologist and activist W.E.B. Dubois dedicated an entire essay to pondering the question of whether or not, due to racist and hostile conditions in the classroom, black students needed separate schools in order to flourish.[8]  After much thought and analysis, Dubois reasoned that the ideal educational environment for black students consisted of racially integrated schools in which there was “a sympathetic touch between teacher and pupil.”[9]  Cultural competence, understanding, and genuine consideration are still needed in our classrooms.

I saw glimmers of hope and the embodiment of Dubois’ sympathetic teacher nearly four years ago while reading Dr. Lori Ungemah’s An Open Letter to the Teachers of Trayvon Martin.[10]  A white teacher and mother with a predominantly black and Latino student population, Ungemah felt compelled to partner with parents to protect her students both inside and outside of the classroom. She went about this by creating an environment that was specific to her student’s histories, experiences, and concerns. Her teaching strategies included engaging students in such a way that they could “talk openly about race, power structures, and life”.[11]  Instead of fostering a threatening and hostile environment, Ungemah was committed to creating a safe space of learning and growth. Of her students, Ungemah said, “I am their advocate”.[12]

Throughout this week, ICS staff members, based on their expertise and passions, will present their forecasts of upcoming trends in the field and future research and policy considerations. We invite you to share your reflections on these ideas, to learn more about our vision for 2016 and beyond in our annual report, and to check out our new video.

[1]  Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me. Spiegel and Grau, 2015 Penguin Random House LLC. p.26
[2] Lewin, Tamar. Black Students Face More Discipline, Data Suggests. The New York Times. March 6, 2012.
[3] Rich, Motoko. Charter Schools Suspend Black and Disabled Students More, Study Says. The New York Times. March 16, 2016
[4] Rich.
[5] Lewin.
[6] Coates, 33.
[7] Mann, Horace. Twelfth Annual Report of Horace Mann as Secretary of Massachusetts State Board of Education. 1848. <>
[8] Dubois, WEB. Does the Negro Need Separate Schools. The Journal of Negro Education, Vol. 4, No. 3, The Courts and the Negro Separate School. (Jul., 1935), pp. 328-335.
[9] Dubois.
[10] Ungemah, Lori. An Open Letter to the Teachers of Trayvon Martin. The Huffington Post. March, 2012.
[11] Ungemah.
[12] Ungemah.

Mary C Garvey

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