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Measuring Up: How American Cities Are Shortchanging Black Students and What We Can Do About It

We recently published Measuring Up: Educational Improvement and Opportunity in 50 Cities, a report that provides a citywide assessment of the changing and complex public school landscape in the U.S., where multiple agencies oversee public schools and enrollments are spread across a variety of school types.

Though it comes as no surprise to anyone who looks at education through the lens of opportunity and equity, the results in our new report show that students of color—and black students in particular—face academic realities in our urban schools that can only be described as dismal. In the three most recent years of available data we found:

Black students experience significant opportunity gaps

In the figure below, we plot each city’s percentage of black students enrolled in top-scoring schools in math against the percentage of white students enrolled in these schools. If there was an equal distribution of black and white students in the top-scoring schools, we would expect equal percentages along the horizontal and vertical axes (in fact, in a perfectly equal system, since the top-scoring schools are those in the top quintile in a city, we would expect the points to cluster right around the spot where 20% of black students and 20% of white students meet). If you hover over a city’s point, you will see its percentages of white and black students enrolled in top-scoring schools, as well as the ratio of white to black enrollment shares. You can also scroll with your mouse to zoom in and out to get a better view of individual cities, click and drag the zoomed graph, and right click on the figure to reset it.

Black students were, on average, nearly twice as likely to receive out-of-school suspensions as white students according to OCR data.

Disproportionality in discipline has been well documented by others, but in some cities the disparity was striking.

  • In Miami, Fort Wayne, IN, Pittsburgh, and Minneapolis, black students faced double-digit gaps in suspension rates.

Similar to the figure above, we plot the percentage of black students suspended against the percentage of white students suspended in each city. Hovering over a city will show you the percentage of black and white students who are suspended, and the ratio of the black to white rates.

We can do better. Our report makes clear that no city is a model of equal opportunity, but some cities are defying national trends for black students.

  • Cities like Newark and Cincinnati distinguish themselves by being home to large numbers of schools that “beat the odds” for poor students and students of color.
  • In Newark, Philadelphia, Memphis, Albuquerque, Detroit, Washington, DC, and Cleveland, black students took advanced math at higher rates than white students.
  • Baton Rouge is the only city where black students were not suspended at higher rates than white students.

Our report doesn’t offer a playbook of what to do, but given the data, we think every city should be open to any possible source of good schools and more equitable policies for children. Every city should look to these “bright spot” cities for new solutions about how to provide more equity and more access, and aggressively act on them. Leaders can start by asking questions like these:

  • Has a systemwide effort to keep 9th graders “on track” significantly changed the level of course-taking in Chicago?
  • Have policies eliminating suspension for “willful defiance” reduced the rate of suspension in Los Angeles? What accounts for the lack of racial disparity in Baton Rouge suspensions?

Much of the data is in this report is disheartening. Hard-working, passionate people have put a lot of effort and investment into schools and aren’t seeing a lot of good news. Some conclude that poverty and racial inequities are conditions that schools cannot overcome. Yet there are other data in this report that show us there are good reasons to look around to see who is doing it better and find out how they got there.

There is evidence of widespread academic segregation and inequality in our cities, but there is also evidence that it does not need to be like this. Black students can’t wait for us to solve racism everywhere, but we can start by working to eliminate it in education. We urge civic and education leaders to learn from those cities that are starting to lead the way.

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