From SCOTUS’s Fisher v. University of Texas decision to the anniversary Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream Speech,” this summer was rife with claims that the post-racial era has come. True– minorities are better off than they were 50 years ago. But for anyone who saw the film “Fruitvale Station,” you’ll know that all are not yet equal under the law.
But while “Fruitvale” highlights the inequalities of our laws, I see it as simply an outcome of a much bigger problem: separate and unequal education. The discrepancy starts far before college admissions and high school dropout rates are issues. Indeed, many studies demonstrate that minority children are less prepared for kindergarten than white children.
They also suggest that half of the black-white achievement gap at high school graduation could be eliminated if all students were equally prepared for the first grade. Others then ask why the gap starts so early. Two such studies find that your neighborhood and your family background are strong determinants.
In the latter case, researchers demonstrate that beyond socio-economic status, simply the number of parents and siblings of a student can significantly affect his or her performance. They also note that black students are twice as likely to live in non-traditional households, where individual parents can be absent, than white students– a fact that explains, in part, the race disparity in education.
As these out-of-school effects start to take hold, they are compounded by in-school differences. Forty percent of African-American students don’t graduate high school. Claude Steele argues that this number is so high because of stereotypes and anxiety. Minority students face a “negative intellectual stereotype” and are anxious about confirming that generalization; that anxiety decreases performance in educational settings.
Studying Stanford students, Steele and Joshua Aronson conclude that putting African-Americans in an ability-testing situation leads to lower performances than whites in that situation or African-Americans who took the same test in a non-diagnostic context. Similarly, the University of Oklahoma’s Jason Osborne concludes that as much as 40 percent of the race achievement gap can be explained by this stereotype-induced anxiety. The mere specter of racism continues to affect schools today.
Stereotypes, income inequalities, non-traditional families– all these conditions make it difficult for minority students to succeed in school. As a result, African-Americans score about 100 points lower on both the SAT math and verbal sections than whites, on average.
Among many such statistics, we know that the probability of black students attending a highly selective college is lower than the probability for whites, regardless of income. But more fundamentally problematic than college underrepresentation are the long-term effects of the education gap.
Education is an exceptionally strong indicator of mortality rates, earnings and unemployment, with post-secondary education being most important factor in re-employment. Though inequality begets inequality, it does so through education, or the lack thereof.
But, it doesn’t have to be this way. There do exist compelling adjustments we can implement to fulfill King’s dream and erase this gap. Most importantly, we must change the way we fund schools. Stanford professor Rob Reich argues in The New York Times that charity to public schools only exacerbates inequality.
If the financing solutions he advocates materialize, significant improvements in school quality can have profound impacts on black students. But even if only marginal improvements are achieved, disadvantaged minorities could see substantial economic benefits. Moreover, equitable funding would allow a more ideal distribution of good teachers, who predict academic success better than any school characteristic. Equal funding begets equal education.
More achievable than a policy change, however, is a simple attitudinal change. Teacher and administrator attitude can make or break reform efforts, according to one study. Their opinions also help perpetuate– or end– the negative intellectual stereotype faced by minority students.
To that end, psychologists have developed teaching approaches that successfully neutralize those stereotypes. Student climate is likewise important, and though it may seem antiquated, I firmly believe we need to push for better integration.
Even small changes in peer-group composition can expose new ideas and encourage achievement. It is this that is the most personal for me. Moving from suburban Minnesota to Stanford made me more aware– aware of the inequalities about which I write and aware of the drastic need for solutions.
The dream is not yet finished; let’s not stop now.