Study Examines Forces Affecting Racial Tracking
A pervasive pattern of disparate treatment for black and white students is documented by an elaborate new analysis of data on 173 large urban school districts.
The research confirms and elaborates upon phenomena that critics of various school "tracking" mechanisms have long pointed to. But it also paints a broader portrait of the relationship between the political participation of blacks and the degree of differential treatment of black pupils in schools.
One of its most significant findings is, for example, that as the proportion of black teachers in a school district increases, the proportion of black students who are assigned to special-ducation classes, suspended, or expelled decreases.
This phenomenon, which many experts have long suspected but which has not previously been documented on this scale, occurs because "black teachers are probably less willing to decide that a black student is not teachable in a regular classroom," said one of the three authors of the study, Kenneth J. Meier, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
The researchers also found that districts that reduce racial mixing in the classroom through the use of ability grouping or disciplinary policies are likely to have experienced less "white flight" than are districts that allow more racial mixing.
"We can only speculate on why that is true, but the pattern is consistent with the hypothesis that what is going on is concious discrimination to make desegregated school systems more attractive to white parents," said Mr. Meier.
The findings are contained in an as-yet unpublished book, Race, Class, and Education: The Politics of Second Generation Discrimination.
Mr. Meier, together with Joseph Stewart Jr., professor of political science at West Virginia University, and Robert E. England, professor of political science at Oklahoma State University, analyzed data collected by the U.S. Education Department's office for civil rights from 1973 to 1982, by the U.S. Census Bureau in 1980, and their own 1985 survey of the 173 urban districts.
In the book, the researchers develop a complex statistical model that links participation by black parents in school politics to their ability to ensure that their children are not discriminated against in a desegregated school system.
"In the end, we found that [the extent of second-generation discrimination] was related to electoral structures," said Mr. England.
At-large electoral systems, in which candidates for a school board must win a majority of votes throughout a district, typically lead to underrepresentation of blacks on boards unless they constitute a majority of voters in a district, the researchers note.
Blacks tend to achieve proportional representation on boards in which members are elected on a district or ward basis. Such school systems, the researchers say, are also more likely to hire a greater percentage of black administrators, or administrators who are more sensitive to the needs of black students.
Districts with more black administrators, in turn, are more likely to hire more black teachers, they say.
And "the teacher makes the initial assessment of a student's ability and likely is the first person to interact with a student in terms of discipline," the researchers write.
Black teachers serve a key role because "they've been there," said Mr. England. "They understand the difficulties that black students face."
Confirms Previous Findings The new study confirms previous analyses of the ocr database, which is drawn from the agency's biennial survey of thousands of districts.
These studies have found that, on average, blacks are more than twice as likely as whites to be placed in special-education classes, particularly those for students labeled educable mentally retarded.
In other words, in the average district, blacks are more than 100 percent overrepresented in special-education classes, compared with their proportion of all students.
Under the regulations for the federal Emergency School Aid Act, a program to promote desegregation that was folded into the Chapter 2 block grants in 1981, a district that had a greater than 20 percent overrepresentation of blacks in special-education classes was targeted for further examination.
Previous studies have also found that blacks are about half as likely as whites to be placed in classes for the gifted, despite the fact that the proportion of all students labeled "gifted" has grown dramatically.
For example, although blacks represent 27 percent of the total student enrollment in the 173 districts examined in the new study, only 13 percent of the enrollment in gifted classes in those districts was black.
Almost 80 percent of the students in the districts' gifted programs were white, while white students constituted under 60 percent of the districts' total enrollment.
The researchers caution that there was a wide variation in the placement of blacks in both special-education and gifted classes among the districts studied. In some districts, they say, the problem of "misplacement" of black students was minimal, while in others the problem far exceeded the expected statistical averages.
Similar, but less striking, disproportionality exists in corporal punishments, suspensions, and expulsions, the researchers say.
A 'Second Generation' Issue The researchers see the problem of disproportionality in ability grouping and discipline as "second-generation'' discrimination because, they say, these practices came into common use after other methods of racial segregation became illegal.
But the result is the same, they say.
These practices "impede equal educational opportunity the same as 'separate but equal' did," said Mr. England.
For example, he said, students in special-education classes are stigmatized by the label, are held to lower expectations by their teachers, and are unlikely ever to catch up to their peers or to be "mainstreamed" in regular classrooms.
"The public-school system has historically been used as a mechanism for upward mobility," Mr. England said, "and if children are discriminated against because of the color of their skin, it reduces their chances to advance throughout their lives."
In addition to being educationally harmful to blacks, said Mr. Meier, second-generation discrimination "is socially detrimental to whites, because they don't learn how to live in a world that is multicultural and muliracial."
Institutions and Intentions
The researchers argue that second-generation discrimination is a result of both institutional and "intentional" factors.
Some categorical programs cause institutional discrimination, they say, because they encourage districts to label students with learning problems and separate them from other students. The use of standardized tests and other pupil-evaluation policies, they say, perpetuates the misclassification of blacks.
But the strong correlations that repeatedly appeared during their data analysis led the researchers to conclude that some of the effects they were measuring had to be the product of intentional discrimination.
Their finding that higher levels of second-generation discrimination were typically found in districts that had experienced a smaller decline in white enrollment, for example, led them to conclude that "the goal of integration is being pushed aside a bit to make desegregation as tolerable to white parents as possible," said Mr. Meier.
The researchers also found that levels of second-generation discrimnation were higher in districts with higher levels of desegregation, as measured by a statistical method known as the the Tauber index.
"If a district is not desegregated, there is no racially segregative reason to separate blacks," said Mr. Meier.
Not all of the disproportionality between races in ability grouping and disciplinary measures is attributable to racial discrimination, the researchers say. But "that a pattern similar to the one revealed here could occur without some discrimination is virtually impossible to believe," they write.
Regardless of whether the discrimination is intentional or institutional, Mr. Meier added, "for a black student, it really doesn't make any difference; it ends up hurting them the same."
Income Levels and Clout In their analysis, the researchers identified several factors besides the proportion of black teachers in a district that were useful in predicting whether a district was more likely to have higher or lower levels of second-generation discrimination.
The relative amount of resources available to blacks in the community, as measured by the ratio of black income to that of whites, was one such predictor. Presumably, the researchers said, black communities with access to ample resources are more able to exert political pressure on their district and indicate that certain policies are unacceptable.
The level of white poverty in a district was also found to be an important factor.
"Districts with larger numbers of poor whites discriminate less against black students," said Mr. Meier.
"It's my theory that part of the discrimination is class-based," he explained. It appears, he said, that districts are striving to "separate white middle-class students from both black students and lower-class whites."
The researchers also found that districts located in the South were more likely to place blacks in special-education classes, and less likely to place them in gifted classes, than were comparable districts in other parts of the country.
"That is a pattern that you would expect" given the history of racial discrimination in the South, said Mr. Meier.
The researchers were thus surprised, he said, when they found that Southern districts "are less likely to engage in excessive discipline.''
'Grim Scenario' Policymakers "can't do much about the socioeconomic status of a community, its racial composition, or the political resources available to blacks," said Mr. Meier. "The one variable they can change is the number of black teachers."
Given the declining numbers of blacks nationwide who are choosing teaching as a career, Mr. Meier said, his and his colleagues' research "paints a grim scenario if we follow a hands-off policy."
"We have to create more incentives for blacks to go into teaching," he said.
Cynthia G. Brown, former assistant secretary of education for civil rights during the Carter Administration, said the new study's findings are "disturbing and alarming, but not unexpected."
"It's crucial that we get more minority teachers into classrooms, for many reasons," said Ms. Brown, who is currently director of the Council of Chief State School Officers' center on educational equity.
But given current trends, "we can't look to solutions that rely only on" increasing the number of black teachers, she added. "The repercussions for these kids are too severe."
Data Said Inaccessible
Paul Smith, research director for the Children's Defense Fund, said the new study's findings merit further exploration, "but nobody can look at it because nobody" can obtain access to ed statistics on the number of black teachers and administrators in districts.
Prior to the early 1970's, he explained, the data on student ability grouping and discipline were gathered in the same survey as the data on teachers and administrators.
Currently, he said, federal statistics showing the ethnic breakdown of teachers and administrators are collected by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which has repeatedly refused to release the data on a district-by-district basis.
Since the collection duties were split, he said, "there has been no analysis from either agency that has ever made reference to the other data."
A spokesman for the eeoc said last week that the statistics are not made available on a district-by-district basis because to do so could ''reveal confidential information about individual employees." She said the information is available on a state-by-state basis.