An Expanding Cavity: Racial Disparities in the U.S. Education System

by Francesca Marquez
October 21st, 2021

In the 1960s, most African-American, Latino, and Native American students were still being educated in segregated schools with low funding compared to the schools of their white counterparts.

Over time, more efforts to equalize educational funding narrowed the gap between minority and white students’ test scores, effectively reducing the achievement gap. Indeed, between 1970 and 1990 alone, the scores of African-American students rose 54 points as the scores of white students remained stable. Undoubtedly, progress has been made towards reforming education inequality over the past few decades, yet economically disadvantaged students and English learners still fare far worse among subgroups of U.S. students, a long-standing inequity made all the more apparent with the pandemic.

As remote learning took over and schools shut down, students of color became about twelve months behind in learning by the end of this past school year; meanwhile, white students were only about four to eight months behind. Then there is the issue of obtaining important prerequisites of learning during a pandemic-- internet access, devices, and synchronous learning-- which most Black and Hispanic students are less likely to have on hand. Comparatively, all students suffered academic setbacks from remote learning, but it is predominantly those students of color who exit with the greatest learning loss, as has historically been the case for minorities.

With schools reopened, new data glimpses how wide of a cavity the achievement gap has become for communities of color. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona cited data from January 2021 to emphasize how critically imbalanced “access to in-person instruction” was for students of color. And these minority students’ communities are often the prominent majority of urban districts that already have substantially less funding and poorer facilities than their rural counterparts. So as urban districts struggled to reopen and provide personal protective equipment, sanitization, and access to testing and tracing programs, it is once again students of color who suffer some of the greatest academic and emotional learning losses exiting out of the pandemic.

Officials like Education Secretary Cardona realize the damage done to students of color, but whether they will act on this knowledge is another matter entirely. As inequity in educational achievement toes the color line like so many other American social and political issues, a dreadful trend towards disparity continues for yet another generation of students. Is this one of the prejudiced things that life will always have in store for adolescents? As of today, the answer is a resounding yes.