The Center for Public School Renewal

NOTE: Published in slightly different form by UTF Action, 2/11/72.

Urban Schools Promote Racism
by Barry McGhan

The racism in society has a great impact on urban schools. The still-hopeful thing about this situation is that since schools are man-made structures, we can change them in ways which will reduce their racism. In time, such changes in schools can reduce racism in general.

As in the larger society, school racism comes in different varieties. Overt racism in education includes the kind where attendance boundaries are gerrymandered to increase segregation (allegedly the case in Flint in the past), and the kind (found by federal courts in Washington, D.C. and Pontiac, Michigan) where per-pupil expenditures for majority-black schools are kept substantially lower than for majority-white schools.

The personal racism of teachers can extend beyond derogatory thoughts and remarks about students. The fact that most teachers are middle class whites causes schools to be run according to the values and beliefs of this class. Sometimes, some of the values peculiar to this class are assumed to be general human values. When this happens, black students are made to feel that some of their behavior is wrong, when in fact it is only different.

Institutional forms of racism are of major importance in education because they are built into the system and operate largely automatically. The common school practices of IQ testing and ability grouping are examples of institutional racism.

School IQ testing is based on the assumptions that individual differences in innate intelligence exist, that these assumed differences are significant to the school program, and that the differences can be reliably measured by standardized tests.

The truth of these assumptions is in doubt. Research has often questioned the reliability of IQ tests, and now it also indicates that these tests probably measure environmental and cultural differences rather than intelligence differences.

The Coleman Report (Equality of Educational Opportunity--U.S. Office of Education) has shown that environmental differences among students are important to the outcomes of education. It revealed a substantial direct correlation between the socioeconomic status of students and their achievement in school. In fact, the social characteristics of students were found to correlate more highly with achievement than such presumably important school characteristics as class size and per-pupil expenditures.

The Coleman Report also found that students who are identified as "low achievers" in the early grades, where they may be less than one year below average in achievement, wind up in low-ability groups (or tracks) in the 12th grade with achievement scores which are 3.3 years below average. One could say that the schools cause, or allow, educational disabilities to increase three-fold during the course of twelve years of "education."

There may be a number of reasons why schools let small cultural differences become large, but two of the most important relate to teacher expectations and the general climate of attitudes about achievement in a given school (for a more detailed explanation of these ideas see Society Schools and Learning by Wilbur Brookover and Edsel Erickson).

This is the way it works. Children from all kinds of backgrounds come to school and are tested. [In Flint, for example, children are tested six times by the end of the fourth grade.] The tests mostly measure the degree to which children have attained the (white middle class) goals of the school.

Since lower class black children are the most socially distant from the school's goals, they show the lowest achievement on these tests. Consequently, they are placed in homogeneous groups which are supposed to make up for their "deprivation." (Incidentally, the low scores of minority children help reinforce the myth of racial inferiority held by a number of white teachers.)

At this point, teacher expectations come into play. Suppose a teacher has been given two achievement groups, one high, one low (both "scientifically" identified by standardized tests). The teacher will probably not expect the same performance from both groups and will set lower minimum standards for the low group. The students will strive to meet the minimums (whatever they are) and will be rewarded when they succeed; most of them will naturally go no further, thus justifying the teacher's differential expectations.

Not only are many students given the message that low achievement is satisfactory, but also that low achievement is probably all they are capable of anyway. After awhile, this message becomes absorbed into the students' self concepts. Soon the parents learn the "awful truth" and they too lower their expectations.

The whole process feeds on itself so that teacher expectations, achievement, self-concept, and parental expectations spiral down and down, with the school-manufactured low "IQ" providing everyone with an excuse to escape responsibility for low achievement.

There are two common reactions to the theory that schools and teachers contribute to low achievement. The first is very negative and goes like this: "Some people simply can't be educated, and the schools can do nothing for them." This attitude is rooted in a pessimistic view of a fixed and limited human nature, one that is almost daily becoming less viable as we learn more about ourselves.

There is no reason for teachers to continue using a rationale which expects a large number of their "products" to be seriously defective. The evidence shows that if we hold higher expectations for student achievement we will get higher achievement--without holding anyone else back. We must follow this lead into new ways of working with students.

The second reaction is more positive, but still misguided. It goes like this: "Most students can get a good education, but some have deficiencies in their background which the school has to make up through special programs." The catch here is that the deficiencies are never made up.

What happens is that self-perpetuating little ghettos of low achievers are created, where the teachers' expectations and group norms are kept low and the students only have other low achievers to model their behavior after.

In this context, providing for individual differences means practicing discrimination. Contrary to the educational gospel of the last 20 years, we need to treat people more alike and less like individuals. We should seriously consider calling a moratorium on "providing for individual differences" until and unless we can figure out a way to do it without discriminating against anyone.

The leaders of this teachers union are clearly on record in favor of human relations programs aimed at reducing racism. The members of the Human Relations Committee have sacrificed much time and energy in working for improvements in these areas, and during the last contract negotiations the UTF team spent much time trying to get the school board to move in this area.

Even with all this effort only a discouragingly small amount of progress has been made. The reason is discouraging too--it is that as yet, the union leaders have seen little evidence that they have general support in this area.

The course of action, in part, is clear and we can begin to follow it now. Collectively, as a union, we can direct our leaders to work through the Professional Study Committee or in other ways to halt the inherently discriminatory practices of IQ testing, ability grouping, and tracking.

  • All standardized testing which is used to predict future achievement at any grade level should be stopped immediately, and all such test results already obtained should be removed from students' records.

  • Homogeneous ability grouping should be halted at the early level, and entrance restrictions for courses in later grades reduced. Other special efforts can be made to reduce the artificial differences already created, so that grouping and tracking will end as soon as the last tracked group has graduated.
  • Individually, we can forsake the practice of looking up students' past records and thus make it more difficult for ourselves to prejudge them. We can refuse to help administer the standardized tests which are used to differentiate students. We can stop making negative remarks about students to other teachers.

We may not be able to make children who have already been robbed of intelligence by the schools whole again. But we can repair some of the damage, and we can prevent future students from being cheated by the system.


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