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E(race)ing Inequities: An introduction

This is an excerpt from “E(race)ing Inequities: The State of Racial Equity in North Carolina Public Schools” by the Center for Racial Equity in Education (CREED). Read the full report here, and find all content related to the report here, including the companion report Deep Rooted.


Racial inequities have existed since the inception of the modern American public school system in the 1800s. Prior to the 1950s, students of color were largely relegated to separate, resource-deprived schools. The Brown v. Board Supreme Court decision of 1954, and federal legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Elementary and Secondary Schools Act of 1965, held out hope of a racially integrated, increasingly equitable public school experience for students of color and students living in poverty. Despite the initial promise of these reforms, over the next three decades those who troubled to look promptly began documenting continued school segregation, along with racial differences in achievement, school resources, quality of teachers, school discipline, funding and school facilities (Coleman et al., 1966; Children’s Defense Fund, 1975: Kozol, 1991). Race-based inequities in education remained a serious problem.

Indeed, analyses prepared for school finance litigation in the 1990s revealed that schools serving greater numbers of students of color had significantly fewer resources than schools serving mostly white students on “every tangible measure” (Darling-Hammond, 1998, p. 2; Murray et al., 1998). 

The federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001 brought an explicit intention to close racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps through clear academic standards, more standardized assessments, increased accountability, and measures to increase teacher quality. Yet, within the decade, it was clear that NCLB was faltering on all fronts (Dee & Jacob, 2010; Reardon et al., 2013). NCLB’s replacement and the current basis of federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), retains standardized testing mandates, but permits states to design their own plans for accountability. Under North Carolina’s current ESSA plan, racial subgroups will be given performance grades (e.g. A-F) based on a composite score derived from End-of-Grade and End-of-Course testing (U.S. Department of Education, 2018). With such a strict focus on testing outcomes, differences in access and opportunity are neither measured nor accounted for in North Carolina’s ESSA accountability framework. 

North Carolina’s accountability plans follow a familiar pattern with the discourse around education, where a tremendous amount of attention is paid to various “gaps” in student achievement outcomes, but rarely do we hear anything about attendant opportunity and access gaps. While virtually all analyses have found that non-Asian students of color are not achieving on par with their White counterparts, we are interested in whether they are expected to do so despite persistent racial differences in access to educational resources and opportunities. Differences in access and opportunity have been documented across the educational landscape, from lower expectations from individual teachers to more structural factors like segregated, underfunded, and understaffed schools. However, the overemphasis on “achievement gaps” leaves questions about how large and diffuse racial differences in access may be. 

In our companion report, “Deep Rooted: A Brief History of Race and Education in North Carolina,” we established a long historical pattern of unequal treatment on the basis of race. While many acknowledge the abject history of racial exclusion in American public education, many also assume that it is a vestige of an unfortunate, albeit bygone era.

However, we share the concerns of a large and growing number of scholars and practitioners that recognize that racially inequitable access to the full benefit of public education persists today and presents one of the most pressing and stubborn problems facing the field.

In many ways, “Deep Rooted” provides important context for the current inquiry, which attempts to provide a balanced and comprehensive view of the state of racial equity in North Carolina public schools across a variety of indicators of both access and outcomes.

Another important factor informing the present work is the observation that comprehensive analyses of the racial landscape in education are not conducted regularly by state, regional, or district agencies. While federal agencies require the collection and reporting of numerous metrics related to both access and outcomes as part of national accountability legislation, decades of well-documented racial inequities have not resulted in sustained efforts to critically examine the relationship between access, opportunity, and outcomes.

As a result, discussions around racial differences in education often ignore the basic reality that equitable access to quality instruction and educational resources are powerful determinants of achievement outcomes. The constant reporting of racial differences in outcomes like test scores or graduation rates with no mention of underlying differences in access and opportunity has no doubt contributed to the general lack of clarity about where racial differences in education exist, the reasons they exist, and what reforms might produce more equitable systems. Furthermore, it contributes to the prevailing sense of inevitable “normalness” around racial inequities in education, in turn making them that much easier to ignore.  

To further clarify what we mean by outcome vs. access/opportunity and the relationship between the two, we offer an example drawn from our data analysis. If one looks at student grade point average (GPA) in the state by race, it appears that overall White students earn higher grades than non-Asian students of color. How might stakeholders explain these differences? Simply reporting the educational outcome (GPA) by race may reinforce, or at the very least fail to qualify, deficit-minded explanations that appeal to racial differences in things like ability, intelligence, or the cultural value placed on education.

However, if we look closely at the policies and procedures used to calculate GPA in North Carolina, we find that advanced coursework provides students a substantial boost to GPA. Grades in Advanced Placement (AP) courses, International Baccalaureate (IB), Honors, and certain advanced math and science courses are granted additional points when calculating GPA, such that students with access to numerous advanced courses can attain GPA approaching 6.0 rather than the traditional 4.0 earned with “straight A’s” in all courses. 

To understand any racial differences in student GPA, we need to examine any potential racial differences in access to advanced coursework.

It turns out that students of color in North Carolina attend schools that offer substantially fewer advanced courses such as AP and Honors courses.

As such, we are forced to conclude that part of the explanation for racial differences in GPA is likely related to attendant racial differences in access to the courses that confer GPA bonuses. Does this mean that there are no differences between students that may be related to grades? Of course not. However, this brief example demonstrates how only looking at differences in outcomes serves to reinforce inequity and masks how racial differences in access and educational opportunity condition the experiences of all children in North Carolina public schools. 

This report endeavors to provide a comprehensive analysis of the ways that systemic racial inequities in access and opportunity persist alongside difference in achievement outcomes and illuminate how those inequities serve to accumulate educational disadvantage among many students of color in our state.

Race and equity at the center

As the title of this report suggests, our analysis is centered on race as a construct and how it conditions the educational experiences of students. Centuries of denied access, decades of documented inequity across all known metrics, and the inability of massive, widespread reform efforts to adequately address racial equity should suffice to justify our focus on the role of race in the educational experiences of the children of North Carolina’s public schools. We also note that the patterns of inequity present in education can be found in criminal justice, healthcare, employment, housing, and virtually all social, economic, and political institutions.

In this context, racism is understood not only as the accumulated behaviors of individual actors, but as part of a system woven into the fabric of our social institutions. As such, we reject the notion that public education can proceed in a race-neutral or colorblind fashion. Rather, we position race as central to a full understanding of educational processes as they proceed on the individual, classroom, institutional, community, and structural level.   

While we recognize that “race” is socially constructed (as opposed to scientifically constructed), its “modes of existence” are quite real and have innumerable material, social, and educational consequences (Leonardo 2005, pg. 409). That is, race is a fundamental axis upon which educational (dis)advantage is distributed, not merely an addendum to other supposedly more scientifically grounded relationships, such as social class or ability (Gilborne et al., 2018). Simply stated, race is an illusion, but it is a powerful illusion. Based on our framing of race, we also reject the notion that racial differences in education can be fully explained by attendant differences in class, locality, ability, or any other factor or set of factors. To empirically test this position, we include measurements of social class, ability, gender, and language into our data analysis.  

It is also important that we clarify what we mean by equity and racial equity in education. We define racial equity in education as a state in which educational access and outcomes are independent of students’ social racial/ethnic backgrounds (Bloom, 1979; Hutmacher et al., 2002; Perry 2009). In other words, racial equity is when race alone does not predict access or outcomes. For some, this definition leaves room for notions of merit to explain differences between the performance of individual students (Rawls, 1992, 1993). As such, racial equity does not demand that all students have the exact same level of performance. However, in an equitable system we would continue to observe differences within racial categories based on individual and environmental factors, but we would not observe gross differences between similarly situated students from different racial groups (Benadusi, 2002). Therefore, our data analysis includes empirical tests of whether substantial differences exist between racial groups across numerous indicators and whether race is indeed independent from measurements of access and outcomes.

Analytical strategy

The ways that we define race and racial equity prescribe a particular type of analysis. Because empirical research cannot adequately separate the influence of students’ race from other background and environmental factors (class, gender, ability, school context, etc.), and because of the difficulty of generalizing individual cases of prejudice and racism to larger systems, we employ “big data” and the notion of “disparate impact” (U.S. Department of Justice & U.S. Department of Education, 2014) as key components of our approach to assessing racial equity at a systems level. That is, we ask whether the overall patterns of racial (in)equity can indicate where policies and practices have different consequences across racial lines regardless of the intent of the policies or educational actors involved.

Ultimately, our goal is to show how race contributes to the accumulation of (dis)advantage within the present public education system through a comprehensive analysis of racial gaps in outcomes and the access and opportunity gaps that condition them. 

In the sections that follow, we provide disaggregated data by race for the following indicators to determine if gaps exist between different racial groups: 

These descriptive results represent full tallies of “what actually occurred” (as reported) during the 2016-2017 school year.1 While these descriptive results document what are often remarkable differences between racial groups, they do not indicate whether racial differences may (or may not) be due simply to chance. Nor do they account for the ways that race may interact with other factors (class, gender, ability, language status, giftedness, etc.) that may also be contributing to observed differences. In other words, simple descriptive results do not show whether race is actually moving the dial. Therefore, we also built prediction models for each indicator to show whether race has a significant influence (not due to chance) and whether race remains a strong predictor after statistically controlling for those other plausibly related factors. 

Organization of the report

“E(race)ing Inequities” is a comprehensive look from the state level across a series of education indicators that assesses the influence of race. The report is organized into 14 sections: 

  • Teachers, 
  • Advanced Placement (AP), 
  • Honors Courses, 
  • Academically and Intellectually Gifted (AIG), 
  • Exceptional Children/Students with Disabilities, 
  • Chronic Absenteeism, 
  • Suspension & School Discipline, 
  • ACT, 
  • SAT, 
  • Dropout, 
  • Grade Point Average (GPA), 
  • Postsecondary Intentions, 
  • WorkKeys, and 
  • End-of-Grade & End-of Course Testing (EOG/EOC). 

The section covering each indicator provides a justification for study, a brief description of the metric under examination, a summary of what previous research has found, and any relevant policies and/or practices present in the state of North Carolina. We then present the results and interpretation of data analysis. Each section concludes with key takeaways that have implications for policymakers and education stakeholders

Position statement

Given our recognition that numbers and statistics cannot speak for themselves but must be interpreted by people who occupy and have occupied specific social locations, we feel it is important to identify our social locations as necessary context for the results we present. We write from a perspective that highlights the need to think critically about how racial inequity is routinely embedded in every aspect of the education system. The social locations of the authors of this paper differ in some respects and overlap in others. Both of us identify as males. One of us is White from the southeastern United States. The other Black, originally from the Midwest, but a long-time resident of the American Southeast. We are both former teachers from working-class family backgrounds who now locate ourselves in the world of academia, public policy, and educational reform. We both have multiple children who attend North Carolina public schools. Some of our children attend charter schools, and others attend traditional public schools. As professionals, we have converged around our shared interest in race as a lens for approaching issues of education and equity. Our commitment to highlighting the importance of race in educational institutions derives from our experiences as public school students and our concerns as academics and educators. 

Hope for lasting change

For anyone involved in public education, the conclusions of this study should come as no surprise. What we hope is unique about our findings is the comprehensive nature of our approach across leading indicators and measuring the strength of race in relationship with other variables. However stark, the interpretation of these data alone do not initiate change.

Our hope is that this report draws attention to the need for sustained effort in measuring, analyzing, and addressing racial inequity from the educational entities tasked with ensuring our students’ right to an opportunity to receive a sound public education.

We suggest that North Carolina adopt racial equity as a stated goal for our public school system. Doing so will enhance the sustainability of equity related reforms and implies a careful consideration of the abject history of racial injustice and oppression in American public schools. Furthermore, we note that unlike the dominant modes of economic and political activity in our state and nation, we position education as a public institution with an explicit goal of producing the conditions necessary for all students to succeed. 

This report, along with “Deep Rooted,” represent the first effort in what will culminate in the formation of the Center for Racial Equity in Education (CREED).

Through research, coalition building, and technical assistance, CREED will work to close opportunity gaps for all children in P-20 education, especially children of color, with the vision that one day race will no longer be the primary predictor of educational outcomes. 

The process of pursuing racial equity requires racial/ethnically diverse perspectives to be embedded within and valued across the power structures, policymaking processes, and cultural fabric of educational institutions (Museus, Ledesma, & Parker, 2015). Students and communities of color must be owners, planners, and decision-makers in the systems that govern their collective educational destiny.

To this end, we propose that racial equity is achieved when: educational outcomes are not predicted by the race/ethnicity of students; educational conditions are not predicted by the racial/ethnic composition of place (classrooms, schools, districts); the root causes of racial inequities are purposefully and continually (re)examined; and racial/ethnically diverse perspectives are fully embedded within and valued across the power structures of public education. Until these conditions are met, we hope that you will join us in our pursuit of e(race)ing inequities. 

The data: North Carolina Public Schools, 2016-2017

This report analyzed data on 1,580,2942students in kindergarten through grade 13 during the 2016-1017 school year. Approximately 1% of students were American Indian, 3% were Asian, 26% were Black, 17% were Hispanic/Latinx, 4% were multiracial, 0.1% were Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, and 49% were White.3 About 49% of students were identified as female. Roughly 6% of students were designated Limited English Proficient (LEP). Around 13% of students were designated as students with disabilities. About half of students were designated economically disadvantaged by the state of North Carolina while 58% were eligible for federal free or reduced lunch programs. Approximately 11% of students were considered academically or intellectually gifted (AIG). 

References

Benadusi, L. (2002) Equity and education: A critical review of sociological research and thought. In W. Hutmacher, D. Cochrane, & N. Bottani, In pursuit of equity in education: using international indicators to compare equity policies (25-64). Berlin: Springer Science & Business

Bloom, B.S. (1979). Caractéristiques individuelles et apprentissage scolaire. Brussels: Nathan/Labor.

Children’s Defense Fund. (1975). School suspensions: Are they helping children? Cambridge: MA: Washington Research Project.

Coleman, J. S., E.Q. Campbell, C. J. Hobson, J. McPartland, A.M. Mead, F. D. Weinfeld, and R. L. York. 1966. Equality of Educational Opportunity. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.

Darling-Hammond, L. (1998). Unequal opportunity: Race and education. The Brookings Review16(2), 28.

Dee, T., & Jacob, B. (2010). Evaluating NCLB: Accountability has produced substantial gains in math skills but not in reading. Education Next10(3), 54-62.

Gillborn, D., Warmington, P., & Demack, S. (2018). QuantCrit: education, policy,‘Big Data’and principles for a critical race theory of statistics. Race Ethnicity and Education21(2), 158-179.

Hutmacher, W., Cochrane, D., & Bottani, N. (2001). In pursuit of equity in education: using international indicators to compare equity policies. Berlin: Springer Science & Business Media.

Kozol, J. (1991). Savage inequalities: Children in America’s schools. Random House LLC.

Leonardo, Z. (2005). Through the multicultural glass: Althusser, ideology and race relations in post-civil rights America. Policy Futures in Education3(4), 400-412.

Murray, S. E., Evans, W. N., & Schwab, R. M. (1998). Education-finance reform and the distribution of education resources. American Economic Review, 88(4), 789-812.

Museus, S. D., Ledesma, M. C., & Parker, T. L. (2015). Racism and Racial Equity in Higher Education: AEHE Volume 42, Number 1. John Wiley & Sons.

Perry, L. (2009) Characteristics of equitable systems of education: a cross-national analysis. European Education, 41 (1), 79-100.

Rawls, J. (1993) Political liberalis. New York: Columbia University Press.

Reardon, S.F., Greenberg, E.H., Kalogrides, D., Shores, K.A., & Valentino, R.A. (2013). Left behind? The effect of No Child Left Behind on academic achievement gaps. Stanford Center for Educational Policy Analysis. Retrieved from https://cepa.stanford.edu/content/left-behind-effect-no-child-left-behind-academic-achievement-gaps

U.S. Department of Education (2018). The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, as amended by the Every Student Succeeds Act consolidated state plan: North Carolina. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

U.S. Department of Justice & U.S. Department of Education. (2014, January). Notice of language assistance: Dear colleague letter on the nondiscriminatory administration of school discipline. Retrieved from http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/letters/colleague-201401-title-vi.html


Editor’s note: James Ford is on contract with the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research from 2017-2020 while he leads this statewide study of equity in our schools. Center staff is supporting Ford’s leadership of the study, conducted an independent verification of the data, and edited the reports.

Show 3 footnotes

  1. ACT results are from 2015-2016, the most recent year available at the time of our analysis.
  2. North Carolina does not collect data on all metrics for all students. Subsequent percentages represent the proportion for which data was available.
  3. A note on racial/ethnic designations. We recognize that racial and ethnic diversity goes well beyond those groups designated by the United States Census Bureau.
James Ford

James E. Ford is the executive director of CREED — the Center for Racial Equity in Education. He represents the Southwest Education Region on the N.C. State Board of Education. Ford is pursuing his Ph.D. in Urban Education at UNC Charlotte. He previously taught World History and Sociology at Garinger High School in Charlotte, and in 2014-15, he was the Burroughs Wellcome Fund North Carolina Teacher of the Year.

Nicholas Triplett

Nick is a faculty lecturer at the University of North Carolina Charlotte. His research and work focus on educational equity, school discipline, and the role of schools in social class reproduction. Nick has authored numerous peer reviewed articles and book chapters, and his work has been presented at state, national, and international educational conferences.

In the past, Nick has been a high school social studies teacher, a facilitator at non-traditional independent schools and educational co-ops, and served as member and chair of the board of directors at other local charter schools. He has also been (and remains) a stay-at-home dad for the past 11 years.

Nick graduated from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill with a BA in History and an MA in Teaching. He earned a Ph.D. in Curriculum & Instruction (Urban Education) from the University of North Carolina Charlotte.

He lives with his wife Susan and three children Owen (11), Jonas (7), and Olive (1.5). Owen and Jonas will attend Charlotte Lab starting in 2018-2019.