Race, Ethnicity, and Education Policy


Hochschild JL, Shen FX. Race, Ethnicity, and Education Policy. In: Oxford Handbook of Racial and Ethnic Politics in America. New York: Oxford University Press ; 2014.

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Race and Education Policy

Jennifer L. Hochschild and Francis X. Shen

March 4, 2009


For Oxford Handbook on Racial and Ethnic Politics in America, edited by Mark Sawyer, David Leal and Taeku Lee. Oxford University Press, forthcoming 2010.


            A complex mix of new and old race politics shapes contemporary education policy.  The growing presence of Asian and especially Latino children and parents in multiethnic schools and districts will shape education policy in the 21st century (Clarke, et. al. 2006)., but these new actors will act within the contours of the United States’ history of (often failed) reform efforts on behalf of African-American students. This combination of history and innovation suggests that the already tense arena of schooling is poised to become even more fraught – and possibly also more dynamic and successful.

            Although racial and ethnic politics pervade education policymaking, so do nonracial narratives and explanations. Thus making the distinctive role of race clear is a delicate as well as important task for scholars and policymakers. To date, a racial lens has done a better job of raising important questions about the efficacy and purpose of education policies and governance structures than it has in answering them.  Research results conflict on everything from bilingual teaching methods to the appropriate subgroups in the federal law known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB); the field needs better data, improved methodologies, and less tendentious scholarship. In this chapter we review some of the most critical debates for scholars and policymakers.


Opportunity and Achievement: How Are Race and Ethnicity Associated with Schooling Outcomes?

Attainment:  Racial and ethnic disparities in schooling outcomes begin with the simplest and perhaps most important measure of success – years of schooling.  In 2007, 91 percent of non-Hispanic Whites, compared with 83 percent of Blacks and only 60 percent of Hispanics over age 25 had at least a high school degree.  The proportion of adult Americans with B.A. or higher degrees followed a similar pattern: 32 percent of non-Hispanic Whites, 19 percent of Blacks, and only 13 percent of Hispanics.  Data for other groups come from the 2000 census so are not quite comparable; as of 2000, 80 percent of adult Asian/Pacific Islanders, and 71 percent of American Indians/Alaska Natives held a high school degree or more.  The comparable figures for a B.A. or higher degree are 44 percent and 12 percent.[1]

            In short, Asian Americans are by far the best educated group in the United States, followed by Anglos, Blacks, American Indians, and Latinos, in that order.  These outcomes result from a complex interaction of residential location, recency of immigration, family socioeconomic status, personal preference, discrimination or biased treatment, and quality of schooling. Educational attainment and race are clearly related, but not in any simple causal way.

The Achievement Gap: Minority students’ access to high-quality education and achievement improved over the past few decades; as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the black-white test score gap narrowed between the early 1970s and 2004 in both reading and mathematics for students at all three ages tested (age 9, 13, and 17). [2] Nevertheless, the gap remains sizeable and pervasive (Magnuson and Waldfogel 2008).

Not surprisingly, researchers have struggled to explain the persistent racial achievement gap, and to identify policies that will ameliorate it. Explanations range from racial bias in testing (Jencks 1998) to discrimination or segregation in schools and classrooms (Farkas 2003), socioeconomic disparities of families and communities (Magnuson and Votruba-Drzal 2009; Lleras 2008), differences in familial interaction (Lee and Bowen 2006), teachers’ perceptions and treatment of students (Ferguson 2003),  Black students’ hesitance to “act white” (Ogbu 2002, 2004), and overall school quality (Hanushek and Rivkin 2006).  Each explanation has been criticized (for example, see Spencer et. al. 2001 and Ferguson 2001 on acting white; Fryer and Levitt 2006 on observable teacher and school characteristics; Campbell et. al. 2008 on income inequality). So far, no attempt to adjudicate among these explanations has persuaded most researchers, educators, or policy-makers.

Analysis of achievement gaps now extends to Latinos (Valenzuela 2005). The Hispanic-Anglo gap has also narrowed since the mid-1970s, but remains sizeable and has in fact increased in some age groups since 1999.[3] Explanations include not only those listed above for the Black-White gap, but also focus on language facility and bilingual education programs, the disruptions of immigration, and possibly cultural differences with regard to schooling (Reardon and Galindo 2008, Ryabov and Van Hooka 2007; more generally, see Baumann et. al. 2007).

NAEP scores are a good example of the ways in which issues of race and ethnicity are inevitably entwined with other dimensions of social life.. The gaps between students whose parents have a college degree or more, and those whose parents have less than a high school education are now larger than the gaps between Blacks or Hispanics and Anglos. They have also declined less since the earliest years of testing.[4]  Of course, Blacks and Latinos are a disproportionate share of students with low socioeconomic status, so these results are not independent of race.  But the majority of low status students are still non-Hispanic Whites, so it is important to remember that class disadvantages may play a role separate from racial or ethnic disadvantages (Berliner 2006).

Other issues are more specific to race and ethnicity. For example, several times during the past few decades, debates over bilingual education have been especially heated (Schmidt 2000); as immigrants and their children become an ever larger share of students, these debates may reemerge. As with the achievement gap, scholars have produced dueling studies and meta-analyses about the efficacy of various forms of bilingual education (Greene 1999; August and Hakuta 1998).  In our judgment, the primary issue is not whether bilingual schooling works or which program works best, but rather how to attain high quality teaching in any program. Good teaching enables students to learn in English; bad teaching does not (Hochschild and Scovronick 2003).

            Considering education through the lens of race and ethnicity raises a more fundamental question: what outcomes should a school system focus on?  Do schools succeed if English Language Learners become competent in academic English, or should they also help students maintain their native language? How much attention should schools pay to multicultural reading lists and curricular offerings, as compared with the traditional canon? Does Afrocentrism warrant a place in public schooling (Hochschild and Scovronick 2003; Binder 2004)?  Will students learn more from teachers who focus on improving mathematical and literacy skills, or from teachers who share the background, values, and identity of their students?  

School Choice:  Of the many proposals to address achievement disparities, public school choice through charter schools and voucher programs has sparked some of the most contentious debate.  Some argue that choice does or will raise student performance, perhaps especially for minority populations (Howell and Peterson 2002).  Others fear that choice produces more racial stratification in schools, distracts educators and parents from what they really need to work on, and – for privatized voucher programs -- undermines the highly desirable publicness of public schools (Hochschild and Skovronick 2003).

            The empirical evidence on choice suggests that its effects are not strong enough to warrant passion in either support or opposition.  Voucher schools are occasionally associated with small improvements in students’ test scores, and more often with increased parental satisfaction (Rouse and Barrow 2009; see also Jacob and Ludwig 2009).  But achievement has changed little, many students leave their chosen school, most people do not really know what a voucher system is (Moe 2001), and vouchers have always been rejected in referenda and almost always in state legislative processes.  Only a few hundred thousand students, in the most generous definition of individual school choice, are involved in these programs and there is little reason to expect many more to be.

            Charter schools are more significant, since over a million students now attend them (out of 49 million students in K-12 schools).  The number of charter schools is growing, and their structure and organization seems to be stabilizing.  Some are lauded as the best hope for poor Black and Hispanic children (Thernstrom and Thernstrom 2003), but others worry that charter schools openly (Dee and Fu 2004, Wells 1998, Bulkley and Fisler 2003), or implicitly (Weiher and Tedin 2002; Lacireno-Paquet 2002) reinforce racial stratification (for counterevidence, see Forman, Jr. 2007). To sound the same theme one more time, the research literature is mixed on whether charter schools do or do not improve academic outcomes (Jacob and Ludwig 2009).

No Child Left Behind:  However educators design future school reform efforts, they must act within state and federal accountability frameworks. Currently the framework results from the federal NCLB’s emphasis on schools’ “adequate yearly progress,” determined by standardized tests devised by each state. NCLB requires that, with a few exceptions, schools break out their performance by racial or ethnic subgroup, and show adequate yearly progress for each group (Kim and Sunderman 2005, Darling-Hammond 2007)

            Schools with high proportions of poor and nonAnglo students often have special difficulties in making adequate yearly progress; getting educators to focus on this problem was the reason for requiring these subgroup measures . Whether this type of accountability will improve student performance, however, remains an open question (Darling-Hammond 2007). Schools may expend more energy finding ways to reduce the number of students in a particular category or otherwise gaming the system than actually doing the hard work needed to improve struggling students’ level of achievement.  Students who do poorly on the state tests, a high proportion of whom are minorities, may drop out or be pushed out of school (Orfield and Kornhaber 2001). 

            Nevertheless, some scholars provide evidence that schools’ responses to accountability mandates do in fact help at least some minority students.  Eric Hanushek and Margaret Raymond (2005: 298-9) point out that the effects of NCLB cannot be separated from the effects of states’ own new accountability systems, but that together they “lead to larger achievement growth than would have occurred without accountability.  The analysis… supports the contested provisions of NCLB that impose sanctions on failing schools…. Hispanic students gain most from accountability while African Americans gain least.  [To address the issue of schools gaming the system,] we analyze the rate of placement into special education across states but find no evidence of reaction in this dimension.”  Carnoy and Loeb (2002) even find gains for all students, including Blacks and Hispanics, in states with strong accountability systems. They too find no harmful effects on retention or progress toward graduation (although some uncertainty about Hispanics remains on that score).

Reflecting the continued uncertainty about the effects of NCLB, some civil rights groups and liberal politicians strongly favor its continuance after some revision (Kahlenberg 2008; Jacob and Ludwig 2009), while others equally strongly support its abolition (Wiley and Wright 2004).  Sorting out those issues is not only a matter of race and ethnicity – among other things, students’ class, urbanicity, immigration status, or personal behaviors and preferences may matter just as much.  But in the arena of American schooling, racial and ethnic politics will inevitably play a role in trying to resolve disputes over what constitutes a good education and how we can provide it.  


Representation and School Governance: How Are Race and Ethnicity Associated with Power?

Not only outcomes but also processes of education have racial and ethnic inflections – along with other explanatory factors such as class, region, or individual actions and views.  In this arena also, researchers are much better at posing questions and defending their own chosen answers than at generating a set of explanations compelling to most analysts. 

Urban School Politics: The biggest problems in American schooling lie in large urban school districts.[5]  Fully 71 percent of the students in the 100 largest school districts are non-Anglo (compared with 44 percent in all school districts), and over half are poor enough to be eligible for free or reduced-price lunches (compared with two-fifths in all districts).[6]  Thirteen percent of urban students have Individualized Educational Programs (IEPs), meaning that they are in some sort of special education; 14 percent are in English Language Learner programs.  Over 40 percent of eighth graders in large central city schools read at a level “below basic,” compared with a quarter in suburban and rural schools. The comparable figures for math are 50 and 29 percent.[7]  About 70 percent of first year students in these high schools graduate within four years, but the graduation rate in New York City, Los Angeles, Detroit, Milwaukee, Baltimore, and elsewhere hovers around 50 percent or lower. This is a challenging set of students to teach, even under the best circumstances – which are seldom obtained in urban schools. Urban students’ lower test scores reflect the difficult circumstances of their schooling.

It should be no surprise by now to realize that scholars differ on the salience of race in determining policies for improving urban education.  If “race is a fundamental component of personal identity and perception,” then race-based coalitions seem essential for meaningful education reform in cities, and racial cleavages should be a central concern of reformers.  Conversely, if race is a more “vestigial and spurious variable,” such that the “significance of race can be expected to decline” as an explanation for schooling processes and outcomes, then reformers should emphasize economic development of the city and its residents, and should orient the inevitable political bargaining around material incentives (Henig et. al. 1999, 18).  Although education politics often remains racialized (Stone 2001; Henig and Rich 2004),  election of Black mayors and elevation of more Blacks to positions of civic power have not necessarily helped Black students (Orr 1999; Thompson 2005).  In fact,some White mayors or school superintendents have arguably been more effective in improving graduation rates or achievement levels.

In any case, the traditional Black-White binary is no longer sufficient for analyzing or producing efforts toward reform because emerging Latino, and in some cases Asian, electorates are making new demands on schools and their children are bringing new needs and talents into classrooms (Clarke et. al. 2006). Minority political actors who are neither White nor Black also make coalitional possibilities both more flexible and less stable (Clarke et. al. 2006; Sidney 2002; Vaca 2004).  In keeping with work on coalitions more broadly (Kaufmann 2004, Hochschild and Rogers 2000), rainbow coalitions in urban education policy are difficult to form or sustain under pressure (Rocha 2007).

School Boards:  Elections to the local school board provides an opportunity for coalitions or contestation over urban school reform.  Blacks and Latinos have attained increased descriptive representation over the past forty years. Not surprisingly, variation in school board representation is associated with variation in minority population across the states, so that Black representation is greatest in the South and Hispanic representation greatest in the West and Southwest (Marschall 2005). In addition, most scholars find that single-member electoral districts make Blacks and Latinos more likely to be elected to school boards (Leal, et. al. 2004), although a few have found at-large elections to be just as effective, at least for Latinos (Fraga and Elis 2009). 

However achieved, greater Black or Latino power in educational decision making leads to more non-Anglo district administrators (Fraga, et. al. 1986, Leal et. al. 2004, Fraga and Elis 2009). But evidence that descriptive representation on boards has any relationship to students’ educational outcomes remains elusive (Pitts 2007).

            Largely out of frustration with the apparent ineffectiveness of directly elected school boards (Howell 2005), some of the United States’ largest school districts such as Boston, Chicago, New York, and Cleveland have returned to an older model of mayoral-appointed school boards (Wong et. al. 2007).  The theory is that mayors with direct control over the school district can do more to promote reform and can be held accountable for their success.  Either state legislative actions or citywide referenda have introduced this innovation, in each case with prominent and contentious racial and ethnic politics (Henig and Rich 2004). Opponents argue that handing over control of the school board to a mayor would deprive Black voters of hard won rights to deliberate and choose their own representatives (Chambers’ 2006); supporters argue that what would mostly be lost are patronage jobs and cronyism in contracting that have no legitimate place in efforts to improve student achievement. Empirical analysis lends support to both sides: mayoral control may lead to significant, positive gains in achievement, but it still makes little dent in the district’s achievement deficit (Wong et. al. 2007).  To understand why this deficit has become so large we must return to considerations of race, class, immigration, and history.

The Courts: Desegregation: As the issue of choosing school boards implies, improving schools is a matter of identifying not only the right strategies for reform but also the right location in the policy stream for issues to be decided.  Under some conditions the courts, as well as legislatures, mayors and boards, have the power to change education policy (Lucas and Paret 2005).  The federal courts’ most visible policy has been racial desegregation (Ogletree 2004; Clotfelter 2004; Bell 2005).  In the state courts, the comparable issue has been school finance (Bosworth 2001; on both see Hochschild and Skovronick 2003).

The Supreme Court has come almost full circle on school desegregation in roughly a century.  The 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, which legitimated “equal but separate” accommodations, was implicitly overturned in 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education.  A period of more or less energetic desegregation of schools followed, but was largely halted by the Supreme Court’s 2007 decision in Parents Involved in Community  Schools v. Seattle School District. That decision invalidated voluntary race-based student assignment policies in Seattle and Louisville, thus renewing questions about whether and how the Constitution allows the public school system to consider race in student assignment (Fischbach, et. al. 2008). 

Are students still impermissibly segregated?  Some argue that policymakers still need to “continuously acknowledge the vast, interlocking structural barriers to equal opportunity… [including] discrimination and government policy [and] segregated neighborhoods of concentrated disadvantage” (Ogletree and Eaton 2008: 298).  In this view, the educational system continues to demonstrate racial and, increasingly, ethnic separation within classrooms, schools, districts, and states  (Orfield and Lee 2007).  Others, however, offer a more optimistic interpretation of the history and future of school desegregation:

Because desegregation was so strongly legitimated in the decades after the Brown

decision, court mandates were no longer a necessary condition for race conscious

district policies in the 1990s, when these mandates were being withdrawn. [S]chool patterns observed in 1970 represented a “regime of segregation” that was replaced by 1990 and 2000 by a very different “regime of desegregation” (Logan et al. 2008: 1614).

Logan and his co-authors find that the level of primary school segregation between districts rose from an average score of 49 in 1970 to 55 in 2000.  However, Black-White segregation within school districts declined more, from 79 in 1970 to 50 in 2000. Thus overall levels of school segregation have decreased considerably (Logan et al. 2008: 1627-1629).  Whether those declines in segregation survive Parents Involved, or whether they accelerate as more Blacks enter the middle class, more Latinos and Asian Americans move away from gateway cities, and/or more people identify themselves or their children as multiracial, remains to be seen.

The Courts: School Finance:  In the state courts, the interrelated nature of race, class, and schooling has played out in decades of school finance litigation (Bosworth 2001). Since the 1970s, all fifty states have implemented policies for school finance equalization or equity (Hoxby 2001).  While no state has adopted an overtly race-conscious funding strategy, the strong correlation between high-poverty and high-minority school populations means that equity policies have significantly affected the resources available to minority students.  

            Are more resources associated with greater student attainment and achievement, particularly of students at the lower end of the educational distribution?  As usual, scholars differ (Burtless 1996).  Some argue that “the small gains [in NAEP scores for 12th graders since 1971] do not represent significant progress. They are certainly trivial compared to the magnitude of the increase in education spending over the same period” (Greene 2005: 11).  More precisely and usefully, “pure resource policies that do not change incentives are unlikely to be effective” (Hanushek 2006: 865).  Most researchers agree with that formulation, but many insist that resources have in fact changed incentives and opportunities sufficiently to warrant claims on even more, well-targeted, support for low-achieving students.  One set of experts, for example, calculate that even if districts became 15 percent more efficient, federal funding for poor students or districts “will have to more than double in urbanized states with relatively high student proficiency rates… and increase five to ten times in states with low proficiency rates… to meet a 90 percent proficiency target” as mandated by NCLB (Duncombe et al. 2008: 20).[8]

            As states collect more and more systematic data through their accountability systems, analysis of the use and impact of resources will move to the student and classroom level. Research will be better able to identify patterns of resource allocation across racial and ethnic groups (Rubenstein et. al. 2007). That will, in turn, lead back to questions of implementation and effectiveness.  Court-ordered reallocations of school finance leave districts with much autonomy to allocate resources.  How should those resources be allocated, for example in weighing programs for gifted and talented students against programs for students needing remedial aid? How should race or ethnicity be weighed against class, recency of immigration, and other factors in making these decisions?  How can incentives for teachers, administrators, and students be aligned with each other and with appropriate goals – and who should set the goals? How much should community deliberation weigh compared with expertise or political clout?  Once again, more conclusive research might help to connect institutional rules, educational practices, and schoolhouse outcomes.


Revisiting Race and Ethnicity

Most of the scholarship just reviewed rests on two assumptions that require revisiting. Researchers and policy actors usually assume that racial or ethnic groups have discrete boundaries and accepted definitions, and that there is a unitary “Black”, “Latino,” “Anglo,” or “Asian” interest to be ascertained and advanced. We challenge both assumptions.

            Building on the efforts of legal scholars, critical race theorists in the field of education question whether race is useful as a category of analysis or politics (Ladson-Billings and Tate 1995; see also Villenas 1999).  Racial classifications are fluid across individuals (Parker and Lynn 2002; Hochschild and Weaver 2009), and across institutions and time (Hochschild and Powell 2008; Williams 2006).  The race and ethnic classifications introduced in 2007 for collecting data to be reported to the federal Department of Education were so confusing that the Department published an aptly titled 90-page explanatory report, “Managing an Identity Crisis” (2008).  

Typically, either students choose a race (or their parents choose one for them) when they first enter a school, or teachers identify students based on skin color and appearance (Feldon 2006). States vary in whether students may identify with more than one race, and in the categories used for identification. States also vary in the number and array of immigrant students who do not understand themselves in terms of conventional American racial or ethnic labels.  These variations are more than a statistical annoyance, since NCLB’s emphasis on subgroup accountability makes categorization inevitable and high stakes.  Affirmative action policies and anti-discrimination policies also rest on an assumption that applicants and employees can be unproblematically sorted into groups -- and if that assumption is wrong, these policies need to be appropriately adjusted.

            Defining a “Black interest,” “Asian interest,” or “Latino interest” in education policy is even less straightforward.  For example, while LULAC (the League of United Latin American Citizens) and the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) both oppose school voucher programs and other privatization efforts (Scott, et. al. 2008), multivariate analyses controlling for income and education show that many Black and Latino parents, especially in urban school districts, support them (Moe 2001). The older civil rights organizations may have different interests than the younger parents of children in failing schools.  Similarly, the category of “Asian American” must be disaggregated in order to recognize the differences in attainment and achievement across nationality groups.  Some nationalities -- Japanese, Filipinos, Koreans, Asian Indians – are typically at the top of educational attainment measures, while others – Laotians, Hmong, Cambodian, and Vietnamese – are at the bottom (National Commission on Asian American and Pacific Islander Research in Education  2008). Two-fifths of California’s voting Latinos supported Proposition 227, while others, including nonvoters, passionately denounced it as an attack on immigrants, minorities, and Spanish language and culture.  Middle class Blacks leave inner city schools almost as quickly as middle class Whites do, given the opportunity to enroll their children in a better school system.

            In short, scholars and policy makers alike need to remember that groups may not have a coherent interest in the arena of education policy and practice, beyond the powerful but anodyne desire for better schooling for their children.



Most questions raised in this chapter have no clear answers, and many important issues have barely been explored. Nevertheless, it is at least clear that race and ethnicity are central to understanding and evaluating education policy and practice in the United States.  On average, Anglos and Asians attain more years of schooling and achieve more in school than do Blacks and Latinos.  Non-Anglos are disproportionately enrolled in urban school districts, whose resources, political dynamics, and policy choices differ considerably from those of non-urban districts.  The ruling federal legislation requires schools to categorize and evaluate students by race and ethnicity, even while the government recognizes that labeling students is much more difficult than it initially appears to be.

As if this brief summary were not sufficiently daunting, a recent Commission on Research in Black Education (CORIBE) called for shifting “the research framework beyond a narrow focus on… ‘acting White,’… ‘stereotype threat,’ the ‘achievement gap… or quick-fix school reforms” to a more “transformative agenda” (King 2005: 349).  It is right; there is plenty of work to be done, both in schools and in examining schools.




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[1] National Center on Education Statistics. 2007 Digest of Education Statistics: Table 8 (for Whites, Blacks, and Hispanics); Table 12 (for Asians and Indians). http://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d07/tables/dt07_008.asp; http://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d07/tables/dt07_012.asp 


[2] Institute of Education Sciences. The Nation’s Report Card. http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/ltt/results2004/sub-reading-race.asp; http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/ltt/results2004/sub-math-race.asp


[3] Institute of Education Sciences. The Nation’s Report Card. http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/ltt/results2004/sub_reading_race2.asp; http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/ltt/results2004/sub_math_race2.asp


[4] http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/ltt/results2004/sub-reading-pared.asp



[5] Schools in poor rural communities and Indian reservations can also be very problematic, but they affect fewer students and are much less well studied, so we cannot consider them in this short chapter.


[6] Except where noted, data in this paragraph are from http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2008/100_largest_0506/tables.asp


[7] http://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/2005/section2/table.asp?tableID=257


[8] The authors recognize that “such increases are… unrealistic,” which leaves them with the conclusion that NCLB’s standards for students’ improvement are both “unfair’ and “ineffective” for “states and districts serving large populations of disadvantaged students” (Duncombe et al. 2008: 20).



DOI:: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199566631.013.7
Last updated on 04/26/2015