In Brown vs. Board of Education (1954), the Supreme Court ruled that every school must give students of all races an equal opportunity to pursue a high-quality education. This was received as a landmark decision that precipitated the eradication of educational inequality in America — or so the nation thought.
In actuality, our public schools remain segregated on the basis of socioeconomic demographic and race. Overall per-student spending is low and it varies widely by zip code. This is the distressing reality faced by students across America and particularly within California itself: According to EdWeek’s 2017 Quality Counts, California was ranked among the bottom 10 states in terms of per-student spending on public education. Although rankings are usually adjusted to account for the high cost of living in California, the state’s student expenditure is still relatively low, and significant inequalities exist in per-student spending between districts.
The gap in access to educational resources begins in early childhood, with children between the ages of three and four already suffering from income-bracket related disparity. Studies performed by Education Week Research Center demonstrate that while approximately 64 percent of children with a household income exceeding $100,000 attend preschool, only 40 percent of children whose parents earn less than $50,000 go to school before kindergarten.
Discrepancies in academic achievement emerge later on. High schools with large numbers of low-income students have low graduation rates and reduced rates of college matriculation.
As a snapshot of educational disparity in Los Angeles County alone, consider this: In Rolling Hills Estates (median income $145,628) and Rancho Palos Verdes (median income $118,893), a large portion of funding for students comes from parental donations.
In my district, the majority of six-week summer school classes cost around $700. Fees are paid entirely by parents and students rarely think twice about the money being spent on their courses. But in poorer areas such as South Park (median income $29,826), school administrators find it far more difficult to raise money for students locally. This results in an overall lack of funding for laptops, specialized lab equipment, books, and transportation for school-sponsored trips.
These disadvantages disproportionately affect students of color. Studies have shown that African American children make up 48 percent of total suspended students, indicating that teachers may unfairly target them for disciplinary action. US News reports that the graduation rate for black students is only 69.7 percent (compare this to white students’ average, 86.6 percent).
Part of the reason for this disparity may be the fact that students of color in low-income neighborhoods are not given access to teachers with the skill set they need. At the Washington Post, Emma Brown described schools with high rates of poverty as being staffed by a “rotating cast of substitutes” — Teachers assigned to poorer districts are often undertrained and lack understanding of their students’ situations, leading to a rise in teacher burnout and student-teacher incompatibility.
The typical narrative is familiar to most: Teachers come to high-poverty school districts with an optimistic mindset, hoping to transform the lives of students and their families for the better. But they are quickly bombarded with problems involving adequate classroom organization, library access, and learning facilities. These issues can turn into a hindrance when class time is devoted to organization and management instead of instruction.
As students in these schools have the greatest need for instructional time, a lack of instruction deepens the achievement gap between them and students in high-income districts. Students often sense a disconnect between their own experiences at home and their experiences at school since staff members are unfamiliar with the situations of disadvantaged students. Teachers who used to be optimistic about their students’ futures become increasingly disillusioned — and eventually, they leave altogether, hoping someone else will take charge of their classrooms instead.
The cycle can be broken if time, effort, and resources are devoted to intensive teacher training. Staff members should be taught about sensitivity to racial biases and the importance of treating all students with the same set of high expectations regardless of their backgrounds. A report on education by UCLA researchers indicates that training programs are effective tools for enhancing student-teacher understanding.
Disadvantaged students are also in need of positive role models. NPR reports that low-income students of color taught by at least one African American teacher experienced a significant reduction in dropout rates. This is no surprise, as students across the nation require mentors who understand their circumstances. If teachers are assigned to mentor certain groups of students based on shared experience and compatibility, students’ academic performance will also improve.
In order to eradicate educational disparity, teachers must set the same expectations for all of their students regardless of race or socioeconomic status. They should also be trained to handle classroom management effectively; this will increase available instructional time and reduce frustration for staff members. Researchers and educators must work together to empower the communities that they serve. Anything less is a disservice to California’s students and the nation as a whole.