The (White) Elephant in the Room

When comparing elementary, middle, and high schools against one another, typically our high schools come out as the most socioeconomically and racially diverse. In general, they are the largest of the three levels of schooling, include a number of diverse communities within an area, and therefore, hold the greatest potential for diversity. And many do. In fact, it is refreshing looking at the statistics of many high schools on paper, seeing a wide range of racial and socioeconomic groups, sometimes even accurately reflecting the demographic makeup of the city.

It is eye-opening then that when I have the opportunity to step into these schools, time after time I have seen inequities in its classrooms. It has become uncomfortably predictable that when I step into an AP or Honors classroom, I expect to see a sea of White or Asian faces in the classroom. When I go into a Standard or Remedial class, I expectantly gaze at a sea of Black and Hispanic faces. There are exceptions, of course, but I have seen enough examples of this now in my travels to say it is not anything but the norm.

To solidify this some, I want to share pieces of a study that a classmate of mine in my administration program and I did last semester at a large suburban high school where she teaches. This school has 2,040 students; approximately 78% of the students identify as White, 7% Hispanic, 7% Black, 5% Asian, and 3% other. We were interested in studying who was enrolled in particular courses. Our focus was on Advanced Placement (AP) courses, which are accelerated courses that offer college level content and provide the opportunity to earn college credit upon passing an exam.

Our research found that Asians are represented 1.6 times more in AP courses than their enrollment at the school. In other words, Asians represent 5% of the total school population, but 8.5% of the AP enrollments. Likewise, we see Black students at a factor of .636 and Hispanic at .551, which means these groups are grossly under-represented in AP courses. White students are the only racial group that are equitably represented when comparing total school enrollment to AP enrollment with a factor of 1.026.

I had a magnificent conversation with a black assistant principal at a predominantly white high school recently and wanted his thoughts on this, since I saw the same scenario as above at his school. He was honest and said it angers him going into the Honors and AP courses and not seeing kids that look like him, particularly males (who are even more under-represented than black females). He did not put blame on anyone, but he said we have to do better. I couldn’t agree more.

So what do we do? I believe that we (educators) need to begin identifying minority students with academic potential at an earlier age. Tracking (the process of placing students into certain classes) begins “officially” usually in or around 3rd grade (when Academically Gifted [AG] courses begin), though in some schools/states it’s earlier. The disproportionate representation of Black and Hispanic students is evident there as well. Some schools have begun a “talent pool,” where students who may not officially qualify for AG are still put in those classes because their teachers believe that student can be pushed and challenged. I think this is an excellent start.

I would challenge high schools to have a similar concept, where freshmen teachers are mandated to identify a percentage of minority students who are not currently being tracked to be “invited” (and urged) to enroll in Honors or AP courses as sophomores. This would also be done after sophomore year, and students could have the opportunity to enroll in Honors or AP courses junior or senior year.  A counselor or academic advisor at the school should follow up with parents as well to provide information and answer questions.

The inequities in our individual classrooms are real, even when the diverse school demographics may mask it. We need to be more intentional on who is sitting in our classrooms, and the “white” elephant that is sitting in many Honors and AP courses needs to be addressed.  

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