Why America's Education System Is Like Apartheid

A new report reveals just how deep the education disparities in New York City really are.

We like to believe all students have an equal opportunity to learn regardless of the color of their skin or the amount of money their families have. However, a new report by the Schott Foundation for Public Education details just how far from that ideal the education available to students from differing backgrounds in New York City actually is.

The report's authors analyzed data on the city's public school students and found that students in Harlem, the Bronx, and central Brooklyn—neighborhoods that are overwhelmingly black, Hispanic, or low-income—have less educational opportunity than the predominantly white, Asian, or more affluent students living on the Upper West Side and Upper East Side of Manhattan and parts of Queens.

The report refers to these disparities as de facto "redlining" after the discriminatory practice that keeps people from certain backgrounds from living in a particular area or accessing resources. Pedro Noguera, a prominent education professor at NYU says the inequities are so staggering, they're "tantamount to Apartheid-like separations."

Just how unequal is it? Seventy-one percent of black and 69 percent of Hispanic New York City students score in the two lowest achievement levels on the eighth grade English Language Arts test. In comparison, 60 percent of Asian and 59 percent of white, non-Hispanic students score in the two highest levels.

New York City students from any background that qualify for free or reduced-price meals are most likely to be enrolled in the lowest performing high schools. Black and Hispanic students regardless of economic background are also four times more likely than Asian or white students to be enrolled in a low performing high school. Once there, they only have a 29 percent chance of graduating with a diploma.

Low-income students are likely to be taught by teachers with less experience and education and their schools are more likely to experience high rates of teacher turnover. Because teachers with more education and experience are more highly paid, the report found that the New York City Department of Education ends up spending 19 percent more to educate students living in wealthy communities than it does on poor children.

And, although psychologists say giftedness is evenly distributed regardless of background, kids coming from poor families are less likely to be tested to see if they qualify for the city’s coveted gifted and talented programs. In 2011, 21 percent of kindergarteners overall were tested, but in wealthier sections of the city, as many as 70 percent were assessed. In comparison, some poor neighborhoods saw as few as 7 percent tested.

John Jackson, president of the Schott Foundation says what’s happening is akin to "testing black, brown, and students of any race or ethnicity living in poverty, on their swimming abilities while also knowingly relegating them to pools where the water has been drained." When the kids can't compete in an unequal landscape, they're "stigmatized as failures", their teachers are labeled as ineffective, "and ultimately their community schools are closed rather than being furnished with the necessary resources and supports to flourish."

Given the economic and racial segregation across the United States, the larger implication of the report is that educational redlining exists in most American cities. The report offers some common sense recommendations for improvement, like ensuring equitable funding and testing all students to see if they're gifted. But since many of the policies being implemented in New York City that are worsening the disparities—closing schools, increasing standardized testing, and evaluating teachers with test scores—are being rolled out nationally, our separate and unequal education system is likely to grow unless Americans demand change.

Photo via Some rights reserved Flickr user blmurch

Julian Meehan

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