Black, Hispanic Students Cite Problems in Their Schools

By Catherine Gewertz — May 31, 2006 4 min read

African-American and Hispanic teenagers are more likely to say serious academic and social problems exist in their schools than are their white peers, a survey has found.

“Reality Check 2006, Issue No. 2: How Black and Hispanic Families Rate Their Schools” is available from Public Agenda.

Interviews with more than 1,300 adolescents, conducted by Public Agenda, a New York City-based public-policy group, yielded a picture of middle and high school that is often more bleak for students of color.

“If an adult had to work in an environment where disrespect, bad language, fighting, and drug and alcohol abuse were practiced by a relative few, but tolerated or winked at by management, it might be considered a ‘hostile workplace,’ ” wrote Jean Johnson, a co-author of “Reality Check 2006, Issue No. 2: How Black and Hispanic Families Rate Their Schools,” which was released last week.

The survey was one in a series of Public Agenda studies exploring education issues. The results were based on telephone interviews conducted between last October and March with a national, random sample of 1,342 students in grades 6-12; 1,379 parents of public school children; 721 public school teachers; and two focus groups of parents.

The margin of error ranges from plus or minus 3.4 percentage points for the students to plus or minus 4 percentage points for the teachers.

Teenagers share similar views on some aspects of education regardless of their race or ethnic background, the survey found. For instance, most students believe they are learning a lot in school, but acknowledged they could work harder. More than seven in 10 report that their teachers have high expectations for them, and more than two-thirds say they have had at least one teacher who got them interested in a subject they usually hate.

Racial Patterns

But racial patterns emerge on many aspects of school life as teenagers experience them. Far more black and Hispanic adolescents than non-Hispanic white ones, for instance, say that few of their teachers provide extra help when needed.

Black students (30 percent) were more likely than Hispanic (14 percent) or white students (13 percent) to say that few of their teachers treat them with respect. They were also more likely to say that a high school diploma is no guarantee that a student has learned the academic basics. Twenty-nine percent of African-American students said that, compared with 17 percent of Hispanic and 15 percent of white students.

Hopes for Further Education

Most students in the poll say they aim to go to college, but many lack confidence that they will succeed there.

*Click image to see the full chart.

Click to enlarge: Hopes for Further Education

SOURCE: Public Agenda

Far more black and Hispanic students—53 percent and 44 percent, respectively—said dropping out is a “very serious” or “somewhat serious” problem. Only 29 percent of the white students responded that way. Studies have shown that minority students disproportionately attend crowded schools with high dropout rates. Half the black students and 43 percent of the Hispanic students said low academic standards were a very serious or somewhat serious problem, compared with 31 percent of white students.

One expert who reviewed the survey’s findings said that because children of minority groups come disproportionately from lower-income families, additional supports are needed in districts and schools that serve large minority populations

“The survey shows you that for many black and Hispanic students, they’d like [school] to be a learning environment, but it’s a hostile environment,"said Toni-Michelle C. Travis, the director of the African-American studies department at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., and the co-editor of The Meaning of Difference, a book exploring race, class, and gender.

Particular efforts need to be made, she said, to combat drugs, alcohol, and weapons as well as to improve the quality of teachers and provide more counseling.

“White students often have a support system in the home which [minority students] are lacking,” she said. “If we know that the support system is lacking, it can be put in place in other ways at the school.”

The Public Agenda survey also sought parents’ and teachers’ views, and found racial patterns there as well. More minority parents than white parents see their schools as having a “very serious” problem getting enough funding, and more say their schools have overcrowded classes.

Minority parents were also likelier than white parents to report serious problems with students dropping out, moving through school without learning, and being held to low academic standards.

Black parents worried about equity. More than white or Hispanic parents, they said superintendents were doing a poor job of making sure schools had high standards and strong supports for students, and of ensuring that low-income and minority children had an equal shot at success.

They also reported more concerns that teachers had disciplined their children unfairly.

Hispanic parents showed unique concerns as well. More than black or white parents, they were more likely to say that students dropping out or abusing drugs or alcohol are serious problems in the schools. They are also particularly concerned that classrooms place too little emphasis on basic skills in reading, writing, and mathematics.

Among teachers, those working in schools with large populations of minority students reported low morale, overcrowded classes, and disrespect for teachers more often than did colleagues working in mainly white schools.

Funding for the study came from the GE Foundation, the Nellie Mae Foundation, and the Wallace Foundation, which also underwrites Education Week‘s coverage of leadership issues.

A version of this article appeared in the June 07, 2006 edition of Education Week as Black, Hispanic Students Cite Problems in Their Schools