Equity & Diversity

Survey Probes Views On Race

By Karla Scoon Reid — May 12, 2004 9 min read
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Brown at 50

An overwhelming majority of public school teachers and students believe that racially integrated schooling is important, a national poll commissioned by Education Week suggests.

But when asked what effect racially diverse environments have on achievement, half of teachers and three-quarters of students responded that integrated classes have no impact on student learning.

The survey, which gauges racial attitudes in schools a half-century after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down separate schooling for black and white students, found differences between teachers and students on questions of race and education.

Teachers depicted more positive cultural climates in their schools than did students, who were more likely to report that racial tensions exist and that teachers have lower expectations for black and Hispanic students.

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The poll by Harris Interactive of Rochester, N.Y., was conducted online, using self-administered questionnaires, with a nationally representative sample of 2,591 public school teachers and 1,102 students in grades 7-12 in February and March.

Sixty-five percent of all teachers surveyed agreed that the goal of school integration in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, decided 50 years ago next week, has been met. And 60 percent of teachers said they believe that the United States offers equal academic opportunities for students of all races.

But there was a marked divide in responses from teachers of different racial and ethnic backgrounds.

Majorities of black (67 percent) and Hispanic (54 percent) teachers believed diverse classes would improve student learning, compared with 44 percent of white teachers.

While 69 percent of white teachers and 60 percent of Hispanic teachers said racially integrated schooling has been achieved, only 31 percent of black teachers agreed. When asked whether they thought equal academic opportunities were available to students regardless of race, 63 percent of white teachers and 52 percent of Hispanic teachers agreed, compared with just 28 percent of the black teachers polled.

A separate national online query of 3,698 U.S. adults by Harris Interactive this spring found similar attitudes. While 59 percent of the white respondents polled believed that all students have equal educational opportunities, 39 percent of the Hispanic respondents and only 23 percent of the African-American respondents agreed. The poll had a margin of error of 2 percentage points.

View on Test Gap

Attending classes, socializing, and participating in after-school activities with students of various racial and ethnic backgrounds was important to more than 90 percent of the teachers and more than 80 percent of the students questioned in the Education Week survey.

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Both teachers and students were asked to rank the factors that they believe contribute to the “achievement gap,” which finds black and Hispanic students posting lower test scores than their white and Asian counterparts. Teachers were more apt to attribute the gap to family- or student-centered factors. Overwhelming majorities pointed to lack of family support or involvement, challenging family conditions, and lack of student motivation or effort as reasons for the gap.

Black and Hispanic teachers however, were more likely than white teachers to identify low teacher expectations and “injustice or discrimination” as contributing factors. Black teachers also cited unequal access to challenging coursework and good teachers as a reason the gap exists more often than their white and Hispanic colleagues did.

Students were more inclined than teachers to identify school-related causes as explaining a great deal or some of the achievement gap. While 67 percent of students noted unequal access to challenging coursework and good teachers, 55 percent of all teachers selected that factor. But 57 percent of students cited “injustice or discrimination” in society as an explanation, compared with 44 percent of teachers.

When asked how the achievement gap could be closed, a large majority of teachers (85 percent) recommended increased parent involvement. Sixty-three percent argued that boosting student effort and motivation also would eradicate the test-score disparities.

Few teachers said that school remedies, such as giving more money to schools serving greater numbers of disadvantaged students (26 percent) and making sure students at risk of failure have good teachers (20 percent), would bridge the learning gap.

Race Relations

The survey also turned up differences between teachers and students on questions about their perceptions of race relations in their schools.

Overall, students appeared to hold less promising views of racial interactions, with 28 percent of the students surveyed rating relations between students of different races as “excellent,” compared with 34 percent of teachers. While 23 percent of teachers reported “often or sometimes” hearing or seeing conflicts between students of different races, including fights, 40 percent of students acknowledged often or sometimes witnessing such behavior.

When it comes to cross-racial relationships, more students (70 percent) than teachers (54 percent) agreed that students who share similar racial backgrounds “stick together” in school. Students reported that interaction between students of various racial backgrounds occurs less often than teachers said it did. For example, 83 percent of teachers said cross- racial interaction occurs “often” during classes, while just 60 percent of the students agreed.

Asked whether teachers have lower expectations for black and Hispanic students, 18 percent of students and 10 percent of teachers said that was the case.

Students were more likely than teachers to say that black and Hispanic students are disciplined more harshly than white students for the same behavior. But just 17 percent of students and 6 percent of teachers said so, meaning that large majorities of both groups responded that minority students aren’t singled out for tougher punishments.

In fact, overwhelming majorities of teachers and students, 91 percent and 81 percent respectively, said that regardless of race or economic background, all students are treated fairly by teachers and administrators.

‘Hard Issues’

Education experts who were asked to comment on the poll’s findings sounded one common theme: the need for better teacher training.

As more white teachers work in schools with racially diverse student populations, cultural barriers can emerge that can lead to “conflicts and disharmony,” said Lois Harrison-Jones, an associate clinical professor at Howard University in Washington and a former superintendent of the Boston public schools.

More must be done to prepare teachers—before they enter the classroom—to teach in increasingly heterogeneous environments, she said.

“Teachers need to understand and look at their own practices to make sure they’re not engaging in activities or behaviors that are a detriment to one group of students,” agreed Nat LaCour, the executive vice president of the American Federation of Teachers.

The differences between teachers’ and students’ perceptions of racial interaction in schools were not surprising to Rossi Ray-Taylor, the executive director of the Minority Student Achievement Network, an Evanston, Ill.-based coalition of districts working to close racial and ethnic gaps in achievement.

Teachers tend to observe superficial interactions—such as whom students talk to in class, she said. But students, she said, are seeking a deeper level of interaction: “Who hangs out with who? Who’s dating who?”

For teachers to point to more parental participation in schools as the solution to the achievement gap, she cautioned, is looking at education too narrowly. To Ms. Ray-Taylor, “parent involvement” has become a cliché.

“We’re avoiding the hard issues of what we can do differently in classrooms and schools,” she said. “Not that we should ignore poverty or segregated housing. But those realities cannot get in the way of what schools have to do.”

Eric J. Cooper, the president of the Washington-based National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, which focuses on training teachers to improve urban schools, said teachers are “often unaware of the stereotypes they place on students.”

“Inadvertently, [teachers] are creating a self-fulfilling prophecy that gets [minority] students to believe that they’re not really capable,” he said.

The rejection by majorities of teachers and students of the idea that racially diverse classes positively affect student achievement seems to conflict with their support for integrated schools, though teachers were only narrowly divided on the question.

Willis D. Hawley, a professor emeritus of education at the University of Maryland College Park, said the responses discounting such an effect could be an adverse reaction to a seemingly inappropriate statement.

Few people would espouse the belief that minority students get smarter simply by sitting next to white students, he said. Instead, one of the ways people learn is by comparing different perspectives on a given problem. In a classroom mixing students from different racial backgrounds, in Mr. Hawley’s view, learning is more nuanced.

“So much of our learning is impeded by stereotypes about race and class,” he added.

The attitude that diverse classes don’t help student achievement dismayed Raul Gonzalez, the legislative director for the National Council of La Raza, a Washington-based advocacy group for Hispanics.

“We’ve given up on the idea that diversity is valuable,” he said. “We tried busing. We tried magnet schools. Now we’ve run out of ideas. The value of diversity is not measured necessarily by reading and math scores. It’s part of creating the strongest citizenry we can possibly have.”

But Todd F. Gaziano, the director of the center for legal and judicial studies at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank, argued that as long as legally sanctioned discrimination is eliminated, few people are concerned with school integration.

“Too much time is wasted on calculating the metrics of racial balance in the classroom,” he said, “when what really matters is whether the schools are any good that parents without independent means have to send their kids to.”

Wendy D. Puriefoy, the president of the Public Education Network, a Washington-based coalition of local education funds, argued that the Brown decision was not about integration, but about ending legal segregation.

Schools were asked to pick up the charge of integration, she said, “without the rest of society doing anything at all. I think it’s an undue burden.”

Coverage of the 50th anniversary of the Brown decision is underwritten by a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 12, 2004 edition of Education Week as Survey Probes Views On Race

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