Beyond Policing, We Also Must Address Black-White Educational Disparities

By Anna Rosefsky Saavedra, Morgan Polikoff, Shira Korn, Amie Rapaport, and Marshall Garland

In addition to police brutality and other forms of systemic racism failing Black Americans, U.S. education systems are also failing to provide Black children with adequate educational opportunities. Despite educators’ deep concern for and commitment to educational equity, the systems and structures that define American K-12 education are stacked against Black children. While there is growing attention to systemic problems related to policing, we must not forget the other ways social structures disadvantage Black Americans. As Gavin Newsom, the Governor of California stated on June 2, “Our institutions are accountable. We have a unique responsibility to the Black community in this country, and we’ve been paying lip service about that for generations. … We better start listening. We better start hearing people. We better own it, live up to our responsibility.”

COVID19-driven school closures in spring 2020 have affected more than 55 million K-12 children in the United States and their families. Virtually all schools nationwide are physically closed and only a handful are physically opening before the end of the 2019–20 school year. District responses to the closures have been disparate, with those serving predominantly students of color and those experiencing poverty slower to provide specific distance learning plans. With most districts and states immediately focused on meal service provision, some chose to offer no educational services to any children after school closures rather than exacerbate educational opportunity gaps. Researchers are estimating students overall may return to the 2020–21 school year with less than 50% of their mathematics learning gains and 30% of their reading gains from the prior year.

Academic achievement gaps between White and Black students have been well-documented, consistent, and severe on all National Assessment for Educational Progress subjects and grade levels tested between 1992 and 2019 including math, reading, and civic knowledge. Gaps in civic skills and empowerment are alarming and unjust as are those in high school graduation rates, college enrollment and persistence rates, and selectivity of colleges attended.

There are numerous contributing reasons for these gaps, many of which are outside of school systems’ control such as long-standing racial gaps in wealth and income. State policies create school finance inequities and segregated schools and neighborhoods that are legacies of and persist through racist housing policies. Education systems are not blameless though, with Black students receiving fewer and lower-quality educational opportunities, including lower expectations from teachers, less access to advanced courses, and disproportionate disciplinary referrals.

We were concerned that, during the pandemic, Black students would experience COVID19-related educational impacts differently from their White peers, and that this would exacerbate COVID19-induced learning losses among Black students. Consequently, we analyzed data from the University of Southern California Dornsife Center for Economic and Social Research’s nationally representative survey of households: “Understanding American Study (UAS).” The UAS has been tracking the same families over time since 2014, and so is a good source for documenting COVID19’s impact on our nation’s schoolchildren.

In short, our results demonstrate structural inequalities playing out in the educational experiences of Black children during the pandemic. These inequalities have the potential to widen the already-substantial gaps mentioned above. The UAS survey data shows stark racial differences in educational experiences that should raise red flags for national policymakers, governors, and school and district leaders.

For instance, while 88% of White parents reported that their children had completed new school work set by a teacher during the pandemic, only 77% of Black parents reported the same level of completion. While three-quarters (74%) of White households reported that they had interacted directly with a teacher, only 60% of Black families had enjoyed such interactions. While 71% of White parents reported their children received feedback from a teacher, only 58% of the children of Black parents had received the same.

Since schools’ distance learning plans rely heavily on students’ access to computers, tablets, and wireless connections, lack of access is hugely consequential. Among Black households, just over three-quarters (79%) of parents reported their child had access to the internet and a computer for learning, seven percentage points less than White families (86%).

We know that while schools are physically open — relative to all other school-based “inputs” including technology, books, buildings, and other students — teachers matter more than any single other factor. With schools closed, lack of interaction with teachers will harm educational quality in ways we cannot yet begin to measure.

As the nation is gripped with unrest regarding the racist structures and actions of our criminal justice system, so too must we grapple with the systemic inequities in our educational systems. Policymakers must immediately begin working to address these disparities by dramatically increasing provision of educational opportunities to those most in need.