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"Is Racial Integration Essential to Achieving Quality Education for Low-Income Minority Students, In the Short Term? In the Long Term?,"

by Sheryl Denbo & Byron Williams May/June 1998 issue of Poverty & Race

Current reform initiatives are insisting that all students benefit from school improvement, thereby making it more difficult to pose the goals of educational excellence and educational equity as conflicting or contradictory. A view of the "equity problem" as one that is created by students, something that children of color bring with them into the school, is no longer sustainable. This view is slowly yielding to one that sees an "equity problem" as something
that children 'of color and girls encounter in the schools they attend.

Societal pressures, economic constraints and professional limitations all contribute to the educational problems that students of color and girls face. These problems can significantly affect the potential for schools to effectively change. From a school's perspective, these problems are more acutely felt as its demographics reflect more diversity. From the perspective of students of color, the problems they experience in school may appear to link up in a seamless status quo of exclusion that is more vigorously defended as their numbers grow. Let's examine some of the problems faced by educators as they work toward reforming our educational institutions.

A disproportionate number of children of color live in poverty and attend school that suffer from severe funding disparities: Education agencies face shrinking budgets and fading, public economic support for education, which limits their capacity to invest in reform. Since the poorest children attend the poorest schools, often with the least experienced teachers, poverty has become the best predictor of low educational achievement. The 1990 National Assessment of Educational Progress (8th grade math) found that while 84% of teachers in schools with middle- or upper-class students received all or most of the materials and resources they asked for, 59% of teachers in schools with the largest percent of poor students received only some or none of the instructional materials and resources they sought. Higher-spending districts have smaller classes; they have higher paid and more experienced teachers and higher instructional expenditures, while students in poor school districts are more likely to lack necessary instructional resources.

Nowhere is there evidence of a strong political will to reduce the economic disparities that hit segregated and high minority concentration schools the hardest Funding disparities mean that poor minority students get relatively little benefit from the research, techniques, programs and practices that have proven to be highly effective in improving learning opportunities. Reduced class size; increased attention to individual learning style; team teaching and planning; peer coaching among teachers, for example, all require financial resources. Investment in high-quality in-service professional staff development is cost-effective, but costly. Science labs, computers, library books, counselors, equal financial support for boys' and girls' athletics, teachers trained to teach advanced math classes or dual language development programs may be beyond the means of a high poverty, high minority concentration school.

A new set of problems arises as the federal government abandons its "categorical" assistance approach for one that supports "whole school reform." The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1994 relaxes past limitations on the use of program funds. For previously targeted groups, this new approach may hold promise-or potential danger. On the one hand, the schools they attend may become better. On the other hand, the limited resources heretofore specifically targeted to their needs will now go to create a "common pot" of educational benefits. Unless education agencies combine funding streams in new and integrated approaches carefully designed to include all students, students of color and girls will continue to face a context where those who need the most are given the least.

Stereotypes and prejudice can mask discriminatory practices and prevent communities from working collaboratively: Prejudice can make differences in expectations and opportunity by race, national origin or gender seem "natural." The disproportionate expulsion of minority boys may seem unremarkable if society's disproportionate imprisonment of men of color seems inevitable. Schools' expectations of students, in general, parallel and reflect societal expectations. For example, although teachers are almost always unaware that they treat girls and boys differently, research has demonstrated that, in fact, males receive more teacher attention. African American females receive the least attention of all-even when they actively seek it. Even when schools are physically desegregated, students of color may face problems created by stereotyping and racial bias that are reflected in within-school segregation patterns. Curricular tracking, ability grouping, application of discipline policies, supportive versus non-supportive counseling may divide clearly along racial lines in desegregated schools.

Societal pressures can cause serious problems for minority students and girls when they intrude into the school culture and environment. Students may face racial, cultural and/or sexual harassment, hostility or conflict. Societal biases, expressed within schools, can set student against student, student against teacher, and school against community. Hostility and sus-picion may separate "mainstream" teachers from those assigned to educate minority or otherwise "disadvantaged" children and reinforce in-school "ghettoization." Students reacting to group isolation may, in turn, face increased problems of discipline and even violence.

Community and political attitudes can put pressure on schools in support of-or opposition to-programs and practices that affect learning opportunities. Mistrust of public schools, economic anxiety, inter-group hostility, political partisanship and religious polarization impact on school boards, school administrators and teachers. Even basic reform efforts to set learning standards, align curricula and design more useful testing can be dismissed as less substantive substitutes for the "three Rs." When prejudiced societal pressures are unresolved outside the school, they may result in within-school practices that violate the civil rights of students because of their race, national origin or gender.

The professional teaching force is 90% white, predominantly female and monolingual: Increasingly, systemic reform formulations foresee the restructuring of schools in which teachers are recognized as professionals and exercise larger responsibilities. Their new role will make them collaborators with school administrators and parents in educational planning and governance, and require increased exercise of professional judgment and expertise in the classroom. In this new paradigm, teachers bear a significant share of the responsibility, both for creating high quality educational opportunities and for ensuring that those opportunities are equally available to all of their students.

This responsibility is significant, since by the year 2035, 50% of the nation's students will be children of color. Providing them with the learning environments and opportunities they need is a real challenge for a professional teaching force that is 90% white, predominantly female and monolingual, and whose education may have failed to address cultural diversity. It is not surprising, given the kind of teacher training programs that presently exist, that new teachers report little desire to teach in urban, poor or diverse schools. Many view student diversity as a problem and agree with the statement that some children cannot learn.

If we are to expect teachers to confront today's challenges, they must receive the necessary resources and tools to meet them. The ability of the teaching profession to provide students of color and girls with the learning environments and opportunities they need will depend, to a large extent, on effective professional development to improve their cross-cultural understanding, instructional practices, classroom management skills, assessment practices and other skills.

The shortage of bilingual teachers creates special problems for national origin minority students, many of whom are of limited English proficiency. As their members increase, students who have met minimal proficiency criteria for existing ESL programs may more frequently enter regular classrooms without the level of English proficiency necessary for academic success. When mainstream teachers have had little training in appropriate techniques (for example, Sheltered English), these students may be deprived of adequate opportunities to learn to the same high standards as others.

Clearly, the teaching profession must play a particularly important role in reducing the problems that students of color and girls encounter in schools. Teachers' empowerment as professionals is essential to the creation of the learning communities foreseen by proponents of systemic reform. As teachers are given the tools and knowledge to develop the techniques and skills that facilitate learning for children of diverse cultural and learning styles, they will be able to challenge all students to realize their fullest individual potentials. In this effort, teachers need and deserve the best professional development opportunities that education agencies and assistance providers can offer.

Children of color are experiencing many common problems: Students of color face a number of overlapping problems. A lack of educational resources-libraries, science labs, computers, recreational space and equipment-reduces the quality of their education. School climates that emphasize discipline over learning may penalize expressions and behaviors that are not consistent with the expectations of the dominant school culture. These factors tend to reinforce gender and cultural conflicts. African American students and national origin minority students are disproportionately identified for special education. They are almost twice as likely to be in special education programs as are white students and only half as likely as white students to be in advanced courses or in programs for the gifted and talented. In addition, African American and Latino students are disproportionately disciplined by suspension or expulsion, and boys more so than girls. Girls are significantly less likely than boys to succeed in important academic areas linked to post-high school success.

Curricular offerings in the poorest, most segregated schools are often limited, in comparison to the offerings in more affluent white schools, narrow-ing the choices of African American, Latino and other national origin minority students, both boys and girls. Instructional content, goals and practices that emphasize rote learning and repetitive drills, and "fill the bubble" assessment instruments limit the learning opportunities of all students. Dual or multiple tracking, ability grouping and segregated "special needs" programs aggravate the difficulty an individual student may experience in finding an opportunity to learn and achieve to his or her highest potential. In addition to these shared problems, children often encounter problems specific to their race, their national origin and language background, and to their gender.

Stereotyping subordinates an individual's identity and characteristics to the perceived attributes of the group to which he or she belongs. Its effect is to limit the expectations and opportunities of individual students. But while the dynamic is the same, stereotyping is not all equal: that is, the dominant culture does not attribute the same "deficits" equally to all groups. The identification a student internalizes as a male or female; as African American, Latino, Asian or Native American; as English-speaking or non-English speaking; as a standard-English speaker or a speaker of "corrupted" English, therefore, will subject him or her to treatments specific a to distinct groups.


To make the rhetoric that all children can learn to high standards a reality, we must face the fact that all children are not equal. They come from communities and homes with unequal resources into schools with unequal resources. Children of color experience prejudice and discrimination and are more likely than their white counterparts to be tracked into less challenging academic programs. Their teachers are dispro-portionately white and monolingual. Increasingly, teachers view student diversity as a problem rather than an opportunity.

If our schools are going to help create a level playing field, the schools that serve low-income students need the additional resources necessary to address the serious issues outlined above. Schools of education that train teachers must train these teachers to culture. They are most likely to attend schools or participate in programs that have the least resources and/or provide the least challenging educational environments. A country that falls to capitalize on the rich diversity of its own human resources is a country in severe trouble. America cannot and will not prosper if it fails to adequately educate its culturally diverse students who are quickly becoming America's New Majority.

Sheryl Denbo is President of the Mid-Atlantic Equity Consortium/Director of the Mid-Atlantic Center, which works nationally on school reform issues. The Consortium/Center is at 5454 Wisconsin Ave., #1500, Chevy Chase, MD 20815, 301/657-7741.
Byron Williams is a California-based educational consultant specializing in K-12 social science curricula.

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