Sunday, October 12, 2014


Same School, Same Opportunities? Addressing Within-school Segregation

by Halley Potter 
( a Fellow at The Century Foundation.

As we mark the 60th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision this year, promoting racial and socioeconomic integration in our schools remains an uphill battle. Re- search from the Civil Rights Project at UCLA shows that much of the progress made by legal desegregation was lost after court orders were lifted, and stu- dents of color increasingly face “double segregation” in racially iso- lated schools with high poverty concentrations.

There is so much work still to be done on the first level of integration, addressing disparities among schools, that it is easy to forget about the next frontier: addressing within-school segregation. Schools that look integrated from the outside based on aggregate demographics may be sharply segregated when you look at the classrooms, see who takes part in academic enrichment or support programs, or count the students that are not in the classroom because they have been suspended or expelled.

Remedying this internal segregation in schools and classrooms requires first identifying and understanding the problem. Adding to work on this front from scholars such as Gloria Ladson-Billings and Jeannie Oakes, R. L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy, Associate Professor of Sociology and Black Studies at The City College of New York, makes an important contribution with his new book, Inequality in the Promised Land: Race, Resources and Suburban School-ing (Stanford Univ. Press, 2014, 232 pp.). The book provides a case study of the ways in which classrooms, schools and districts create unequal pathways to resources for families of different racial backgrounds and socio-economic statuses. While the study is small-scale, focused on three fourth-grade classrooms in two schools in a single Midwestern district, the patterns and pitfalls Lewis-McCoy uncovers are no doubt common in many locations across the country. The book is a worthwhile read for researchers, stakeholders and activists, who should reflect on ways that other districts may share some of these dynamics of inequality.

A District Divided
Inequality in the Promised Land profiles an unidentified Midwestern suburban school district that Lewis-McCoy dubs Rolling Acres Public Schools. (Individual schools and interview subjects in the book are also given pseudonyms to preserve anonymity.) Rolling Acres has a reputation as a good school district, garnering national academic and extracurricular accolades. It is the kind of school district that families with means flock to when choosing where to live. The district spends more than $10,000 per pupil each year, and just 20% of students receive free or reduced-price lunch. The largest racial/ethnic group in the district is white students, at 50% of the student population. Black students are the second largest group, at 15%. (Lewis-McCoy does not provide district-wide demographic data for other racial/ethnic groups.)

Over the past 60 years, the district went through a number of legal challenges and reforms to address de facto racial segregation of schools. The attitude of most white residents in the district, however, is that their schools are now well integrated. As one interviewee put it, “Our [Rolling Acres’] children are in the same classrooms.

Children in the same classrooms have the same opportunity to learn” (p. 28). Most black families, on the other hand, saw things differently. One middle-class black parent explained why her family chose to send their children to private schools instead of the generally well-regarded public schools. In Rolling Acres Public Schools, she declared, “there’s two systems. It’s an apartheid system” (p. 140).

“Same opportunity” or “an apartheid system”? Lewis-McCoy examines the relationships among students, families, teachers, administrators and politicians that yield such different views of the same school district. And from the picture that Lewis-McCoy paints, it is not at all the case that Rolling Acres children are in the same classrooms with the same opportunities. While elementary school classrooms in the district are not systematically segregated by race or class, and there is no ability tracking at that level, students’ opportunities varied according to their backgrounds.

Lewis-McCoy writes that “race and class are conjoined twins in a process of inequality production” in Rolling Acres (p. 172). The effects of race and class showed up in small and large ways in the district. Standardized test scores showed persistent race- and class-based achievement gaps. But most important, Lewis-McCoy argues, are the “gaps in everyday schooling experiences” (p. xi).

Three students who failed to get reading logs signed by parents received different responses and consequences from the same teacher, depending on her assessment of their socioeconomic status and home environment, and whether the families were “legitimately” or “illegitimately” busy. A middle-class black student received free breakfast because school staff mistakenly identify him for the program based on race. All students brought home optional forms soliciting parent input on classroom assignments for the next year, but affluent white families were most likely to return the forms.

In one classroom, some of the black families were missing from the parent-run email listserv. Black students were also overrepresented in special education and were more likely to spend considerable portions of their day in separate classrooms for pull-out services. The cumulative effects of these differences created stratified educational opportunities and outcomes for students.

A number of racial and socioeconomic dynamics contributed to these differences in schooling experiences. Middle-class and affluent families hired housekeepers and babysitters to allow them to rearrange schedules in order to take advantage of parent volunteer opportunities and afford time to sort through information about school and extracurricular offerings. And affluent families often held out the threat of exiting the public school system as leverage for getting their child into a particular classroom or program. Social networks were also crucial pathways for finding out information about school opportunities, and these networks were highly stratified by race and class.
For example, parents in an affluent, mostly white subdivision circulated a petition to keep their children out of the classroom of an African-American teacher with a bad reputation, while families in other neighborhoods—and a multiethnic family within the subdivision—were left unaware of these efforts. Middle-class and affluent white parents were often able to act as “consumers,” customizing education for their children through frequent feedback and requests, while most black families, including some who were middle-class, were pushed into the roles of “beneficiaries,” with little influence in their children’s schooling.

Affluent white parents were most likely to write letters to the editor, spark local news stories, or advocate for policy changes with school board members. And while some affluent black families would have been well-positioned to contribute to this discussion, Rolling Acres Public Schools’ mixed record of providing strong educational opportunities for black students created a vicious downward cycle that marginalized black voices. Concern about the public schools caused many black middle-class and affluent families to choose private, parochial or charter schools.

As a result, the voices of the black middle class were largely absent from advocacy for the traditional district schools.

Where they were present, middle-class black voices were less effective when advocates did not themselves have children enrolled in the public schools. As a result, pro- grams targeting disadvantaged students seldom garnered much polit cal support in Rolling Acres.

Halley Potter ( is a Fellow at The Century Foundation.

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