To the Editor:
We appreciated the article that shed light on racially disparate elite public school enrollment, and on admirable efforts and policy striving to counter this disturbing phenomenon (“The Battle Over Who Gets Into Elite Public High Schools,” May 7, 2019).
Racial-admissions disparities, though, are the tip of a larger iceberg. We say this with all due respect to the tips of icebergs, capable of damaging and sinking ships. Admissions disparities are a visible feature of the powerful relationship between students, schooling, and privilege in American society.
Americans tend to favor competition to access scarce, coveted spots in elite public high schools. While collaborating for a recent book, A Contest Without Winners: How Students Experience Competitive School Choice, we learned from our research that students do, too. Young people amidst the elite public high school admissions process in Chicago saw a successful or failed bid as a sign of their own and others’ intelligence, work ethic, and potential. Their conclusions reflect a belief that individuals—or even entire schools’ populations—"earned” their educational opportunities, whether excellent or subpar.
Yet, beneath this particular iceberg lie other too-familiar disparities—in preschool and elementary learning opportunities, household income, student exposure to content included on high school entrance exams, and racial and socioeconomic bias in many standardized tests—that help to explain admissions disparities. School and neighborhood reputations also place a heavy thumb on the proverbial scale. The diverse group of students we interviewed for the book chose high-performing schools in predominantly white communities and avoided schools, including well-resourced, high-performing schools, in communities of color when they could.
Students, parents, educators, policymakers, and voters must see and act upon the whole iceberg: all the factors that contribute to racial admissions disparities. If we truly believe that all students deserve a high-quality education, then we must put in place policy and practice that can ensure that all students have authentically equal access to one.
School of Education
Loyola University Chicago
Chief Education Officer
A version of this article appeared in the July 17, 2019 edition of Education Week as Admissions Gap Is the ‘Tip of the Iceberg’