Equity & Diversity

Racial Gaps Found to Persist In Public’s Opinion of Schools

By Catherine Gewertz — May 21, 2003 4 min read
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Nearly a half-century after a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling struck down racially segregated schools, African-American and Hispanic students still have less academic opportunity and success than do their white peers, a study contends.

Those findings by the Education Trust, a Washington-based research group, were echoed in a survey by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in which black and Hispanic adults assigned their local public schools lower ratings than did whites.

Both studies were released last week, only days before the 49th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision of May 17, 1954.

The Education Trust posts its national report (requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader) and state summaries.

The “2002 National Opinion Poll on Education,” is available from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

“There still is a terrific need for sustained effort in so many of our schools to close these achievement gaps,” said Martin L. Johnson, the director of the Maryland Institute for Minority Achievement and Urban Education, at the University of Maryland College Park’s college of education.

“It’s a national problem,” said Mr. Johnson, who was not involved in either study. “And you have well-meaning persons at the national level who will speak to the problem, but it has to be addressed state by state, school district by school district.”

Differing Views

The poll by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington research group that specializes in issues of particular interest to minorities, was conducted in fall 2002. It found that both whites and blacks were more positive about their local schools than they were in a 2000 poll by the center.

But the satisfaction gap—while narrower than in some recent years’ polling by the center—was still wide. A little more than a third of the black respondents rated their schools “excellent” or “good,” compared with just over half of whites.

Hispanics, polled in numbers equal to the black and general-population samples in the center’s survey for the first time, fell between the two: Four in 10 rated their schools good or excellent.

“The dissatisfaction is pretty reflective of where things are,” David A. Bositis, a senior political analyst with the center, said in an interview. “Schools are a pretty good mirror for the larger society, and there is a feeling things aren’t equal.”

African-Americans had a dimmer view of the schools’ progress over time. Thirty-two percent of black respondents said their local schools had gotten worse in the past five years, compared with 27 percent of whites and 22 percent of Hispanics.

Sixty-one percent of Hispanic respondents said they favored school vouchers, as did 57 percent of African-Americans and 51 percent of whites. The center’s materials suggest blacks’ support for the tuition aid has “plateaued"; vouchers drew favorable responses from 60 percent of African-Americans in the center’s 1999 poll and from 57 percent in 2000.

The 2002 poll—based on phone interviews with 2,463 adults, roughly evenly divided among blacks, whites, and Hispanics—has a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.

Gaps Remain

The Education Trust study used results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress to show that while the nation’s students are improving over time in academic performance, the gaps between black and white students and between Hispanic students and their non-Hispanic white peers are growing.

For instance, in 1990, there was a 33-point gap between the scores of black and white students on the 8th grade NAEP mathematics test, but by 2000, the gap had grown to 39 points. Latino students lagged 28 points behind non-Hispanic whites in 1990, but 33 points behind on that test 10 years later, the Education Trust reports.

White and Asian-American students are overrepresented in Advanced Placement classes and college, and African-American and Latino students are underrepresented, the study shows. Black and Hispanic students are also placed disproportionately in special education classes, and minority students are taught more often by less qualified teachers than are their white peers.

Still, some bright spots emerged from the Education Trust study.

Some states, for instance, showed striking gains among minority students on NAEP. Between 1990 and 2000, 8th grade math scores rose 51 points for Latino students in North Carolina, compared with 29 points for non-Hispanic whites. With that gain, the Latino students lagged 22 points behind white peers.

On the 4th grade math test, black students in North Carolina, Texas, and Indiana showed gains of 20 to 24 points between 1992 and 2000, while the nation’s average gain for African-Americans during that period was 13 points.

At the district level, Education Trust officials detailed student progress in San Jose, Calif., and El Paso, Texas, in implementing what they contend is a crucial piece of the achievement-gap solution: a rigorous curriculum for all students.

Reflecting on the nation’s educational record since the Brown decision, the Education Trust’s director, Kati Haycock, said findings like those buoy her faith that if a challenging curriculum and qualified teachers are offered to all students, it is possible to close the achievement gap.

“If I just spent time with the national data, I’d feel pretty darn discouraged by now,” Ms. Haycock said in a conference call with reporters last week. “Why do I feel some optimism? Because we’re looking hard at schools and districts and states that are actually making it clear that if we put our minds to this, if we really try, we can do this.”

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