Dr. Liliana Garces and Dr. Erica Frankenberg are in the process of establishing the Center for Education and Civil Rights at Penn State University. The Center’s first guest presenter, Dr. John Diamond, discussed how racial inequality is persistent in even the best, and sometimes most liberal K-12 schools. His presentation dealt with findings from his and co-author, Dr. Amanda Lewis’s, book, “Despite the Best Intentions: How Racial Inequality Thrives in Good Schools.” In this book, Dr. Diamond studied the institutional policies and racial inequalities found within a good, suburban school district. What he found, was that this school, like so many others struggle with policies that systemically reinforce inequity.
In the Lewis Katz Law School lecture hall, that was so packed it became standing-room only, Dr. Diamond began his presentation with a discussion about the concept of race and how it is “embedded in the context of schools”. He delivered the point that, “It is important to think about race as a social phenomenon, it’s not biological.” In the case of racial inequality, artificially constructed perceptions are being used in the United States’ school system to perpetuate a culture of inequality through organizational routines. Examples Dr. Diamond gave of organizational routines that were being enforced with racial bias in his study were dress codes, discipline enforcement, and reaction to drug possession.
One of the more troubling instances of racial bias in the school’s organizational routine was in tracking. Coming from a teaching background, this one hit me hard. Year after year, teachers at faculty meetings would comment on how some students were misplaced in AP or honors courses. I taught AP courses and for the most part the classes were comprised predominantly of students who were white. The classes were not reflective of the racial makeup of the school I taught in, but being a newer teacher I didn’t challenge the guidance department’s placement of students. However, what was more important to think about was the long lasting implications of such placements. Dr. Diamond’s research found that white parents were more likely to argue with the school for their student to be placed in honors courses. Parents, he found, often viewed their child’s education as a zero sum game. If other children were receiving some academic opportunity (such as access to honors courses), then their child would lose out in some way. Often times students in honors courses receive weighted grades and hold a higher perception of academic prestige. If these grades are mainly what are being used to determine which institutes of higher education students have access to, then this is deeply problematic for students who do not receive these placements. Dr. Diamond found that the students who were not receiving these placements were largely students of color. Again, education is not a zero sum game, but it was often treated that way. When I think back on comments made by administrators and other colleagues about certain parents who were particularly vocal, the research findings of Dr. Diamond ring particularly true. Parents who were waiting after school to talk about their students certainly stood out in my mind, even if sometimes their work did not.
Some who listened to Dr. Diamond’s presentation may have been aware of the degree of racial inequality in our nation’s schools, but what was so compelling about his presentation was the impeccable clarity with which he connected all of the dots. He painted a picture that illuminated how the seeds of racial biases generate a string of negative ramifications starting in grade school and that follow students of color throughout their lives. His work should encourage the further study of racial inequality in suburban schools. His work made me think of my interests in district funding and equity in Pennsylvania. In a way, opportunity hoarding occurs when more well-funded districts sit next to ones that may be struggling financially. Due to artificial boundaries and residents of that district only wanting their taxes to go to their schools, districts with vastly different financial situation can be situated less than five miles away from one another. If we look at quality education as a public good that all children should have equal access to, then this situation should strike us as problematic. Hopefully, with the clarity of research like Dr. Diamond’s, school districts and communities can implement policies which will fight the organizational routines which have perpetuated a system that has underserved so many students for so long.