The U.S. spends significantly more on education than other OECD countries. In 2010, the U.S. spent 39 percent more per full-time student for elementary and secondary education than the average for other countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Yet, more money spent doesn’t translate to better educational outcomes. In fact, American education is rife with problems, starting with the gaping differences between white students and students of color: More than 60 years after Brown vs. Board of Education, school systems in the United States are separate and unequal. By 2022, the number of Hispanic students in public elementary and secondary schools is projected to grow 33 percent from the 2011 numbers. The number of multi-racial students is expected to grow 44 percent.
As the percentage of white students in our education shrinks and the percentage of students of color grow, the U.S. will be left with an education system that doesn't serve the majority of its children properly; the gaps in education will prove especially problematic.
Since the killing of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, by a white police officer, U.S. News examined the persistent gaps between black and white Americans, finding both the health and the justice system full of disparities.
As with those areas, many factors contribute to disparities in education. Lower wealth, lower health, lower parental education levels, more dealings with the justice system and other circumstances create a perfect storm that leaves blacks without the same educational opportunities as whites.
A Different Starting Line
Educational expectations are lower for black children, according to Child Trends, a non-profit and non-partisan research center that tracks data about children. Black parents, most of whom are less educated than their white counterparts, don’t expect their children to attain as much education as white parents expect. Lower expectations become self-fulfilling prophecies, contributing to lower expectations from the student, less-positive attitudes toward school, fewer out-of-school learning opportunities and less parent-child communication about school.
By age 2, disparities already show between black and white children. Fewer black children demonstrate proficiency in development skills such as receptive vocabulary, expressive vocabulary, matching, early counting, math, color knowledge, numbers and shapes. While 91 percent of white children aged 3 to 5 who weren’t enrolled in kindergarten were read to by family members three or more times per week, 78 percent of black children were read to with the same frequency.
Black parents may have less access to materials, have less time because of job and family obligations or be less comfortable reading. While the average number of words read correctly per minute for white adults with basic reading skills was 102, for blacks it was 85. Children’s books also may not be as interesting to black children (or their parents) because of the lack of diversity in them: While about half of children under 5 are non-white, characters in children’s books are overwhelmingly white.
Formal schooling starts at about the same time for black and white students. Black children who are about 4 years of age are just as likely to be involved in center-based care, thanks in large part to Head Start programs. But black children are much more likely than white children to be enrolled in low-quality day care. High-quality care environments have been shown to provide a lasting impact on the child’s education, which prompted government attention in President Obama's recent State of the Union address when he mentioned plans to bring high quality childcare to more American families.
Formal Schooling, Same Inequalities
Once formal schooling begins, inequalities continue. More than 140,000 students were held back in kindergarten in the 2011-2012 school year. Black students are more likely to be held back, despite mounting research showing that holding back children doesn’t benefit them socially or academically and makes them more likely to drop out later on. Retention rates for students hit a high in ninth grade, when 34 percent of students held back are black. While 12 percent of black students are held back in ninth grade, just 4 percent of white students are, according to the U.S. Department of Education's Civil Rights Data Collection. When all grade levels are combined, black students are nearly three times more likely to be held back as their white peers. They’re also more likely to drop out before earning a high school diploma.
As with retention, disparities in test scores start early, in kindergarten. Black students entering kindergarten for the first time score lower than their white counterparts in reading, mathematics, science, cognitive flexibility and approaches to learning — every category tested. The gaps persist throughout schooling, at fourth, eighth and 12th grades, according to a report from the Forum on Child and Family Statistics. On the SAT, black students had a mean score of 428 for critical reading and 428 for math, compared with mean scores for white students of 527 for critical reading and 536 for math.
The elephant in the room when talking about racial disparities in American schools is the school-to-prison pipeline, another disparity that begins early.
Disparities in discipline begin in preschool and continue through every level of schooling. While blacks make up 18 percent of students in preschool, they account for 42 percent of students with an out-of-school suspension and 48 percent of students with multiple out-of-school suspensions.
Black Americans are suspended and expelled at three times the rate of white students. They make up 16 percent of school enrollment, but account for 32 percent of students who receive in-school suspensions, 42 percent of students who receive multiple out-of-school suspensions and 34 percent of students who are expelled. Black students are arrested more and are referred to law enforcement more. The disparities in punishment even reach to black students with disabilities, who are more likely to receive out-of-school suspensions or to be subjected to mechanical restraint than their white peers.
Separate and Unequal
More than 2 million black students attend schools where 90 percent of the student body is made up of minority students. Dozens of school districts have current desegregation orders. Minority students represent 57 percent of the population in “dropout factories” — schools where the senior class has 60 percent or fewer students who entered as freshmen — but only 30 percent of the population in all schools.
On average, schools serving more minority populations have less-experienced, lower-paid teachers who are less likely to be certified. A report from the Center for American Progress found that a 10 percentage point increase in students of color at a school is associated with a decrease in per-pupil spending of $75.
Disparities in course offerings mean students of color have fewer opportunities to challenge themselves with more difficult courses — the type of courses needed to prepare for a four-year college degree or for a high-paying career in STEM.
In seventh and eighth grades, blacks make up 16 percent of students, but account for 10 percent of students taking Algebra 1 and 9 percent of students passing the course. While nearly one in five white students took Calculus in high school, one in 15 black students did. Fewer black students have access to a full range of high school math and science courses — algebra I, geometry, algebra II, calculus, biology, chemistry and physics. They are under-represented in gifted and talented programs. Black students take fewer Advanced Placement classes than white students and score lower on AP tests.
While black students disproportionately attend schools with higher minority populations, the teachers, principals and administrators who interact with the students are a different story. When the U.S. Department of Education collected data in the 2007-2008 school year, 80 percent of principals in public schools were white. Meanwhile, only 6.2 percent of high school public school teachers across all subject areas are black — the highest percentage is for health and physical education, where 9.2 percent of teachers are black.
Different Schools, Different Neighborhoods
Part of the difference in educational outcomes likely stems from the different environments black and white children live in during their school years. Black children are far more likely to live in households that are low-income, extremely poor, food-insecure, or receiving longterm welfare support. Black children are less likely than white or Hispanic children to live in households where at least one parent has secure employment, and black children have the greatest rate of any race for families with children living in homeless shelters. Nearly 25 percent of black parents report their children live in unsafe neighborhoods, compared with 7 percent of white parents.
Black children are also more likely to have emotionally traumatic experiences impacting their childhood, such as abuse or neglect, the death of a parent or witnessing domestic violence. The child maltreatment rate (which signifies abuse or neglect of a child) was 14.2 per 1,000 black children and 8 per 1,000 for white children. More black high school students say they have been raped. Black youth at all age levels are more likely to be victims of violent crimes.
When a child doesn’t know where her next meal is coming from, when she is dealing with the loss of a parent or living in a household rife with substance abuse or neglect, it seems obvious that these home circumstances would impact her ability to concentrate at school. When a child is living in poverty, it’s easy to understand how lack of money for school supplies or lack of Internet or computer access would impede his ability to complete homework.
But it’s more than that. These factors — a mix of race, poverty and family structures — are associated with a plethora of other problems: lower math and reading achievement, behavioral problems, grade retention, obesity, risky sexual behavior, greater risk of illness, greater risk of interpersonal or self-directed violence. The list is endless and the issues continue through adulthood, creating a cycle that proves difficult to escape for many. For those that do, however, disparities don’t end with college enrollment.
College and Beyond
Fewer black students graduate from high school (16 percent of blacks drop out compared with 8 percent of whites), meaning fewer are eligible for college enrollment from the beginning. Yet, disparities continue to snowball at every level.
Of individuals aged 16 to 24 completing high school or earning GED certificates in the last year, 56 percent of black students enrolled in a two or four-year college compared with 66 percent of whites. Fewer black students make it from enrollment to graduation and, for the ones that do, graduating takes longer. For the class starting at a four-year college in 2006, only 20 percent of black students graduated in four years versus more than 40 percent of white students. Within six years, 40 percent of blacks finished, but 60 percent of whites did.
Spending more time in college for the same amount of education means accruing more debt. While 90 percent of black students receive a federal, non-federal or PLUS loan by their fourth year in college, 65 percent of white students do. Even worse, for the majority of enrolled black students who don’t finish college after six years, they may have to pay back federal aid and likely won’t see the benefits of student loans. On average, black students have a slightly higher aid package than white students. Historically black colleges and universities are also more susceptible to economic dips because they have much smaller endowments than other, older schools. According to Essence, “If the endowments of all 105 HBCUs were added up, they'd still amount to less than 10 percent of Harvard University's endowment, which at upward of $30 billion is the wealthiest of any college in the world.”
The disparities highlighted in this article, as well as many others, illustrate the severity of the unequal educational landscape. While more than one-third of whites held a bachelor's degree or higher in 2013, 19 percent of blacks did, according to the Census Bureau. But even if the educational landscape was equal, there would likely still be problems. A recent study found the unemployment rate for black college graduates was much higher than the rate for white graduates. Studies on labor market discrimination have shown that even when black and white candidates have the same qualifications, the black candidate is less likely to be called back for an interview.