Responding to Educational Inequality



Americans are steadfast in their belief in the power of education. We believe in education’s ability to transform the lives of youth and communities by enabling greater opportunity. This strongly held ideal also motivates teachers, educational leaders, and policymakers who passionately believe that their work has the potential to facilitate greater economic, political, and social well-being. 

Despite these laudable goals, too often reforms are crafted and enacted with a limited vision for how schools can bring about transformational social and educational change. The problem of educational inequity is often expressed as a problem of achievement gaps or teacher quality, locating inequities in the performance of district and school personnel and students. While inschool factors and entrenched disparities undoubtedly affect schools and students (Adamson & DarlingHammond, 2012; Darling-Hammond, 2010; Edley, 2014; Lee & Orfield, 2006; Reardon, 2011), broader social, political, and economic patterns and indeed, structural racism, impact schools and their students, helping to explain the inequitable schooling students and their families continue to experience.

A Plan to Respond

Over the past three decades, many youth in the U.S. have experienced the debilitating effects of growing economic inequality and its widespread effects (Steil & Menendian, 2014). Rising income inequality has occurred alongside astounding levels of re-segregation (Johnson, 2011). Schools and communities are increasingly segregated along class and racial lines, exacerbating unequal social contexts and resource distribution (Reardon & Bischoff, 2011) while leaving many students increasingly racially and linguistically isolated (Frankenberg, Siegel-Hawley, & Wang, 2010; Mickelson, 2001; Orfield, Kucsera, & Siegel-Hawley, 2012). Income inequality also coincides with and contributes to the growing health disparities among the rich and less privileged (Johnson, Schoeni, & Rogowski, 2012; Pickett & Wilkinson, 2011). Overall, this increasing bifurcation of wealth, felt acutely among racial and other marginalized groups, has implications for the well-being of the schools and our democracy (Nasir, Scott, Trujillo, & Hernandez, 2016; Wilkinson & Pickett, 2009).

All the while, racialized violence and racial inequality persist in national headlines daily, particularly as protests surrounding the deaths of Black men and women at the hands of police continue to spark the nation. These events point to the entrenchment of racism in our institutions and the manner in which these institutional biases can impact marginalized racial groups. This structural racism also plays out in schools in myriad ways. African American, Latino, and other marginalized students have limited access to highquality curriculum, are subject to harsher discipline, encounter multiple forms of structural and interpersonal racism, and attend schools in neighborhoods that have systematically been under-resourced (Carter, Skiba, Arredondo, & Pollock, 2014; Losen & Skiba, 2010).

These alarming patterns exacerbate critical issues facing an educational landscape characterized by decreased educational spending, inconsistent distribution of quality teachers, and retrenched disparities in achievement and school quality. This historical moment calls for more robust, equityoriented, and race-sensitive policies that recognize the multiple and complex factors impacting students and communities. This policy brief reviews recent scholarship by members of the Race, Diversity, and Educational Policy Cluster of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at the University of California, Berkeley to advance a broader and more complex understanding of the persistent failure of U.S. schools for youth from non-dominant communities. Moreover, this brief suggests policy-based solutions that acknowledge and address the complexity of making schools more equitable and have the potential to mitigate the varied inequities experienced by students. An important contribution of the cluster’s collective work is its added emphasis on valued-added understandings of the practices and possibilities of youth and families from non-dominant communities.

First, the brief assesses why current educational policies focused solely on school improvement and academic achievement perpetuate rather than alleviate inequities. These policies neglect the role of socioeconomic and societal factors on academic achievement, apply universal solutions to complex problems and diverse communities, fail to adequately fund schools, and utilize a narrow research base that results in the design and enactment of reforms with minimal understanding of complex school and community environments. 

Second, the brief demonstrates how resegregation and tracking can undermine educational opportunity and achievement. Structural racism operates to ensure that marginalized students have less access to robust learning environments because of re-segregation patterns, entrenched tracking practices, and fierce resistance to policies that aim to disrupt these longstanding practices. Non-dominant students also encounter racial stereotypes regarding their academic abilities as well as culturally insensitive teaching practices, which serve to alienate rather than empower students. 

Finally, the brief presents several policy recommendations to suggest how educational policies can mitigate educational inequity by embracing a more expansive approach to educational reform. The recommendations include attending to the socioeconomic context and complexities of local communities, increased fiscal investment, balanced research usage, increased access to high-quality learning environments for nondominant groups, and increased investment and commitment to the development of robust learning environments.