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"Making the Grade: Exposing Structural Racism in Our Schools,"

by Tammy Johnson & Terry Keleher September/October 2001 issue of Poverty & Race

“…it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education.”
----- Brown v. Board of Education (1954)

Nearly a half century has elapsed since the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed school segregation, yet students of color still don’t enjoy the educational opportunities available to their white peers. The Brown v. Board of Education decision spawned widespread efforts aimed at racial integration, yet it failed to produce racial equity.

Although many community-based organizations across the country engage in organizing and advocacy efforts to address racism in schools, the very existence of racism continues to be denied or hotly contested by the general public, the media and policymakers. Without hard evidence, advocates’ charges of racism are easily dismissed, and most public policies continue to ignore the significant dynamic of race. If serious reform measures aimed at equity are to succeed, the scope of racial inequity must be fully revealed, acknowledged and understood.


In 1999, the Applied Research Center (ARC) developed a research tool called Making the Grade: A Racial Justice Report Card, to assist community groups in documenting, exposing and challenging racial inequities in schools. The program measures six quantitative and four qualitative indicators, such as graduation and college entrance rates, disciplinary actions and drop-out rates, and access to gifted and advanced placement classes. It also provides users with a sample public information request to submit to their local school district. Once users collect and enter the data, the program computes statistical calculations to assess significant variations across racial categories. The Racial Justice Report Card then produces a customized report for the school or district under study, displaying grades of Pass or Fail on each of the ten indicators, as well as a final letter grade and potential policy proposals.

A PRRAC grant enabled ARC to provide additional technical assistance to three community-based organizations around the country. These included Bell County Race and Education Group, a predominantly African American community organization based in Southeastern Kentucky that works with the Democracy Resource Center; Californians for Justice, a multi-racial statewide social justice organization that used the report card to research racial disparities in San Diego, Long Beach and San Jose; and the North Carolina Racial Justice Network, which used the tool to assess the Gilford County School District.


The Report Cards reveal that on almost every key indicator, students of color had very different experiences than their white peers, confirming what many parents and students of color already know: public schools remain separate and unequal.

Californians for Justice (CFJ) gained a better understanding of key education issues, not only in the three school districts they studied, but in the entire state. CFJ used the data to demonstrate that unequal resources and opportunities yielded unequal performance outcomes. In recent years, California has invested heavily in standardized testing, an academic performance index linked to rewards and punishments, and a high school exit exam that can result in diploma denial. CFJ’s data shift the focus from individual blame to institutional accountability. The release of their report, Still Separate, Still Unequal, attracted wide media attention from major news outlets around the state, including the Los Angeles Times. CFJ and other partners are using the collected data to develop a statewide agenda for public education in California.

The North Carolina Racial Justice Network found that although their local school district had made some attempts to address racial issues, including the provision of diversity training for some of its employees, the district still received a grade of D after failing seven out of ten areas. Currently, the group is focused on changing discipline policy in order to prevent schools from contributing to the tracking of African American males into the juvenile justice system.

In Kentucky, the Bell County School District was less than forthcoming with the requested public records, providing incorrect and incomplete data. The Kentucky activists turned this roadblock into an opportunity to educate and mobilize their community, and to hold decision-makers accountable for their actions. The community group chose to focus on teacher quality in order to bring more public attention to critical needs.

The findings of these organizations were similar to those of more than twenty other organizations around the country that have used the Racial Justice Report Card. Last year, ARC compiled data from twelve cities into a national report, Facing the Consequences: An Examination of Racial Discrimination in U.S. Public Schools. Release of this report received prominent coverage in major cities across the country, including the New York Times, Washington Post, and the Associated Press, as well as front-page coverage in USA Today. Significantly, some of the media coverage used terms such as “institutional racism” and “discrimination” to describe the inequality. Findings from the report were shared with the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, the U.S. Department of Justice and the California legislature.


  • It is significant to note that the Racial Justice Report Card does not rely on standardized test scores to measure equity in schools. Standardized tests are often inappropriately used as a sole measure of performance and have been associated with racial bias, especially evident in differential test scores across race. Many of these tests primarily measure educational opportunities, rather than proficiencies or potentials. As more high-stakes consequences are attached to these tests, individual students of color are most likely to be blamed for institutional failures. By examining other indicators, the Racial Justice Report Card keeps the focus of attention on institutions, rather than individuals.

  • Researchers and activists used the racial disparities documented in the Report Cards to claim that there was racial discrimination in the public schools. Though the courts and often the general public require the element of intent to be present in order for there to be “discrimination,” activists using the Report Card assert that racially disparate outcomes alone, whether intentional or not, are sufficient to be called discrimination.

  • By bringing more public attention and understanding to the phenomenon of structural racism, some of the most fundamental problems in our schools are more likely to be addressed.

  • Though the Racial Justice Report Card is used primarily as a tool for documenting problems, most community groups have used it as an advocacy tool as well, shedding light on needed reforms in critical areas, such as teaching quality and discipline.

Tammy Johnson


Tammy Johnson is the program director of ARC’s ERASE Initiative and recently authored the study “Vouchers: A Trap, Not a Choice.”

Terry Keleher is a senior researcher at the Applied Research Center. He has authored several reports on school equity issues and formerly served as an administrator and teacher at an alternative secondary school.

The Applied Research Center is a nonprofit public policy, education and research institute that focuses on issues of race and social change. The ERASE Initiative (Expose Racism and Advance School Excellence) is a national program of ARC that challenges racism in public schools and promotes racial justice and academic excellence for all students. Copies of reports and other materials are downloadable at For more information, contact the Applied Research Center, 3781 Broadway, Oakland, CA 94611; 510/653-3415;


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