Even in Elite College Towns, Black Students Can’t Catch a Break

Evanston, Illinois, is home to Northwestern University, but minority K–12 kids attending its public schools are struggling.
(Photo: Getty Images)
May 6, 2016· 3 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

For years, education policy experts have pointed to an unequal allocation of school resources for the stubborn gap between higher achieving white students and minorities who struggle in the classroom.

Yet Stanford University researchers have found the achievement gap occurs in nearly every school district in the country—and frequently is the widest in well-off districts that have the most resources. That’s despite years of programs, accountability standards, tests, and lawsuits intended to bridge a widening chasm.

RELATED: Black and Latino Parents: Our Kids Aren't Dumb—They're Bored

Meanwhile, the research identified significant black-white gaps in several relatively small communities where major universities are located, including Charlottesville, Virginia, home to the University of Virginia; Berkeley, California, home to the University of California, Berkeley; Chapel Hill, North Carolina, home to Duke University; and Evanston, Illinois, where Northwestern University is located.

In Evanston, the statistics have become the latest ammunition in a fight that has pitted civil rights activists who want reform on K–12 campuses against school administrators who believe solutions to the problem of underachieving minority students begin at home.

“We’ve had this divide by race in our schools for a really long time,” said Cicely Fleming, president of the Organization for Positive Action and Leadership, an Evanston-based civil rights organization. Her organization and others are pushing for the school district to fix the long-standing disparities between black and white students.

Along with being diverse, “our community is very rich in resources,” she said. “We have Northwestern, and we have people with a lot of money” who are invested in the community.

“We have programs” for struggling kids, Fleming said, “but no one has really addressed the structural racism in our schools.”

Some have even questioned whether the disparities have led to an exodus from Evanston of black parents, who choose to abandon the town for areas with better schools. It’s difficult to tell, Fleming said, because no one tracks such statistics. The rising cost of living, however, has spurred a trend of black middle-class families leaving the city, a development that has drained some of the black community’s political clout.

“It’s hard to fight a big system,” she said. “I think the African American community has lost its power base.”

That means closing the achievement gap may take even longer because most whites are “doing really well,” said Fleming. For the mostly white power structure, she added, “there’s really nothing personal at stake for them to fix it.”

The problems in Evanston and other affluent suburbs “highlight some of the major obstacles to more equitable academic opportunities,” wrote Christopher Lubienski, an education policy professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, in an email to TakePart. “School choice, for example, was lauded as a panacea for such issues,” but it may also contribute to segregation.

The Stanford University analysis, posted online in April, examined reading and math test scores and other information for roughly 40 million third- to eighth-grade students from 2009 to 2013 in every public school district in the country. It also includes socioeconomic information about students and their school districts, as well as data about racial and economic segregation.

RELATED: The Recession Is Over, So Why Are School Districts Still Slashing Budgets?

Researchers focused on districts operating under local and federal mandates to close academic achievement gaps. Yet while there are 2,500 school districts with enough minority students to measure, Detroit was the only city that had no achievement gap—mostly because the white students in that district were doing as poorly as the minorities, researchers said.

It’s a different story in Evanston, where the median household income is $68,000 and the median home value is nearly $400,000. The school district’s student body is fairly diverse—43 percent of its 7,000 students are white, and 23 percent are black. Yet 64 percent of white kindergartners met the reading readiness standard in 2015, while just 34 percent of black children did, according to a state report.

RELATED: Why Kids of Color Don't Need ‘White Hero’ Teachers

The disparities continue through elementary and high school, Fleming said, including black boys being disciplined far more often than their white peers are, majority-white advanced placement classes, and minority students being “tracked” into remedial or special education classes. Studies have shown that white kids who are underachieving in elementary school end up on track by the time they get to middle and high school, but minority kids often are tracked into remedial or special education programs for most of their school years.

“We can get some kids who are at the bottom, and we lift them up,” she said, “but we get some kids who are at the bottom, and they stay at the bottom.”

Lubienski wrote that social and economic trends play a role, particularly as education policy makers “have generally turned their backs on the difficult job of school integration, represented by battles over busing in the 1970s.”

Now “they have been emphasizing individual choice for families,” he wrote, “and encouraging even more decentralized school governance in the form of efforts such as charter schools,” which theoretically could spur greater integration. “Unfortunately, choice in the U.S. and in other countries is linked to greater levels of segregation.”

RELATED: School House Shock: Bias Against Blacks Often Starts in the Classroom

Evanston’s school district is “set up on a 1955 integration model” that assumes majority-white classrooms are best and that black children are not prepared for achievement, Fleming added, pointing to the district’s failure to reopen a school in a predominantly black neighborhood that was closed decades ago to help accelerate desegregation.

While the district has made moves to address the achievement gap, it could take decades for things to turn around, according to Fleming. In the meantime, she said, parents are growing impatient, and it could be time for black and Latino residents to set up a “Marva Collins–style classroom” and take over responsibility for their children’s education.

“We live under a kind of false diversity,” she said. “We act like diversity is inclusiveness, but it’s just diversity. That’s not really how it plays out.”