In schools across America, Black and Latino students are being pushed into less advanced courses, while their White peers reap the benefits of taking advanced classes, setting them up for better futures in college and beyond. This practice of exclusion has continued to fortify this country’s long history of racially segregated classrooms—leaving Black and Latino students on the outside looking in.
Too many of the schools in this country are racially segregated. We know this. But what is less known is the segregation that happens at the classroom door in racially integrated schools.
This is a problem that has persisted for decades. In the 1960s, my mother was one of the few Black students in her school who had the opportunity to enroll in advanced coursework opportunities. In the 2000s, I experienced the same thing in school. Today, not much has changed: Black students are still being locked out of advanced opportunities and sent the same damaging message both my mother and I were sent decades apart: that advanced courses were not for us, or that we weren’t smart enough to be in them.
Ed Trust’s recent report, Inequities in Advanced Coursework: What’s Driving Them and What Leaders Can Do, confirms that this problem continues to plague students and families across the country. Nationally, schools would need to enroll an additional 275,000 Black students in the advanced courses we looked at, to reach fair representation in those courses.
Ed Trust’s findings suggest that in racially diverse schools (where Black and Latino students make up 10%-50% of the population), Black students are least likely to be fairly represented in advanced placement courses. This could be caused by a gap in opportunity prior to high school, racialized tracking, or both. And in schools that serve mostly Black and Latino students there are fewer total seats in advanced classes.
In this country, racialized tracking has a long tradition. So, how did my mom, in the 1960s in a predominantly Black middle school in California, end up enrolled in advanced coursework throughout her high school career? Thanks to her seventh grade teacher, Ms. Ramsey, my mom was tracked into an advanced English course and remained in advanced courses until she finished high school, where she was a part of the first integrated class at Berkeley High School. At the time, Berkeley High segregated students at the door. During my mom’s ninth grade year, the high school tracked into nine different levels, with levels 1-4 being “College Prep” courses.
While schools today are unlikely to track into that many levels, schools with racially diverse student bodies continue to track students of color into less rigorous classes, despite research showing that this practice is harmful to students tracked into less rigorous courses. This practice, which reorganizes integrated schools into segregated ones, has been depicted in the documentary, “America to Me,” where the high school offers 21 different advanced courses, but Black students are grossly underrepresented in those classes.
Advanced coursework opportunities can set students of color on the path of rigorous coursework and therefore, future success. Denying students of color access to advanced courses, while welcoming their White peers, is an injustice that we have allowed to go on for far too long in this country. It does more than fuel gaps in achievement, it sends an explicit message that Black and Latino students are not smart and school is not for them.
State leaders should push district leaders to expand eligibility requirements so that students who demonstrate proficiency (through grades, exam or state test scores, recommendations, etc.) are automatically enrolled in the courses that will challenge them and set them on the path toward success. Automatic enrollment policies will reduce the burden on the Ms. Ramseys of the world and correct the long tradition of racialized tracking.