Reporters in the United States often fail to include the ways educational policies have resulted in the subjugation and neglect of racial minorities in this country. There are numerous stories about how “black schools are broken” or how various cultures don’t value education. These perspectives are often based on insufficient, superficial reporting.  It’s crucial to recognize race in the context of the modern education environment in order to explain why racial minorities are so unhappy about the ways they are treated in today’s public schools.

Background and context

The analysis in this section shows that the U.S. is capable of providing students with an education  that few countries in the world can match, but it also emphasizes that such education is available almost exclusively to white students. For this reason, the evolved narrative that American educational strategies are inherently flawed — many assume this to be the case — isn’t necessarily true. Instead, we should identify and demonstrate how racial barriers and other instances of structural racism have prevented many Americans of color from achieving personal success.

Any understanding of modern socioeconomic systems must emphasize the importance education has in improving a community’s quality of life. This fact is consistently demonstrated through any formula or measure that tries to quantify a nation’s educational success. The United States, although not on par with the most advanced European and Asian nations, regularly ranks among the top nations in the world in terms of economic capacity. In some indices, such as the Education Index, the U.S. is ranked as high as fifth in the world. There are few places in the world where education is more available than it is in America.

In score-specific rankings, though, the U.S. ranks 10-20 places lower. Look, for example, at the effective Programme for International Student Assessment rankings from 2012. In these rankings, compiled through a two-hour exam sponsored by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, the U.S. ranked No. 24 in reading, no. 28 in science and No. 36 in mathematics. Although these placements are better than the OECD averages, they certainly leave room for improvement.

What does this all mean? While the average American student is receiving more education than he or she would get in most places throughout the world, that education may be of lower quality. In some ways, we already know this. After all, it’s no real secret that Americans attend primary schools longer than students in most OECD nations.

This is the way it looks, however, when we analyze the results by race. The pattern is clear and consistent:


The United States’ Asian students are on par with the top-scoring countries in educational achievement. No nation ranks higher than that group’s 550 reading score. White Americans also score remarkably well. That group’s mean score of 518 is greater than those in Australia, Germany, Ireland, Belgium, New Zealand, France, Austria, Belgium and Norway. White Americans don’t score as well as Asian Americans, but any group that outscores that list of countries is doing remarkably well from an educational standpoint.

Hispanic Americans trail students in Russia, Lithuania and Greece. For African Americans, it’s even worse. That group’s mean score is lower than scores in Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia and Thailand.

The differences between these groups and white or Asian Americans are staggering, but they point to something important: The U.S. has the ability to score near the top in education, but it is failing at doing so. There are demographic, institutional and historical barriers in place that prevent students with these backgrounds from having the same opportunities for success.

Poverty disproportionately affects racial minorities, and many students in poverty do not consistently attend school. Other issues affect the school attendance of African-American students. Although African-American girls make up just 16 percent of the female student population in the U.S., these girls account for more than one-third of those arrested in public schools:

The American news media must rethink how those communities are covered. Given that   a younger generation consumes a great deal of media, there is a much-needed chance to start over.

A history of systemic marginalization

Differences in educational attainment are not coincidental, and barriers exist that prevent students with certain demographic backgrounds from having equal opportunities for success. Although American history has provided extensive examples of this, others are unreported. Journalists must uncover these barriers and increase public awareness.

The barriers that faced African Americans in the U.S.’s early years were obvious. Many  were slaves and slave owners prevented many from going to school. After the Civil War, changes were anticipated, but many did not occur.

The Compromise of 1877, which gave Republican Rutherford B. Hayes the White House, essentially signed away any chance of enacting racial equality through Reconstruction. One historical link that has been lost is how this and Plessy v. Ferguson, which established “separate but equal,” arecorrelated with the suppression of African-American education:

This became foundation for Jim Crow laws in the South where schools for African-American children were underfunded under state guidelines and legal loopholes.

Jim Crow no longer exists, but segregation remains in U.S. schools. In Tuscaloosa, Alabama, for example, districts are gerrymandered to the benefits of white students. Tuscaloosa’s Central High School, which is 99 percent African American, educates the city’s poorest and disadvantaged students:

White students in Tuscaloosa attend one of the city’s two other high schools with the city’s wealthier African-American and Latino students. Central has also become a “dumping ground” for inferior teachers from the area because the best teachers wouldn’t not apply to teacher.

Few cities are as segregated as Tuscaloosa, but it still serves as a microcosm for the education-related problems minorities faced. Problems exist in Memphis, Tennessee, where white residents in the city’s suburbs have voiced their opposition to a school district merger with the city:

They exist in St. Louis, where few white students attend the city’s public school systems:

They exist throughout California, where Latino and African-American children are disproportionately placed in high schools that offer fewer advanced placement or college-equivalency courses:

Wherever they live,  journalists can find the disparities and methods of discrimination that exist in their communities.

Reporting tips

  • Language is important. If you have to ask yourself whether you think a word or phrase is appropriate, it probably isn’t. Know what you should say and how you should say it.
  • Don’t be afraid to admit you don’t know something. If you don’t know what being a racial minority in school is like, admitting so can often be the right approach to take.
  • Don’t lump problems together. African-American students in Kansas City aren’t the same as African-American students in Washington. Latino students in Texas are aren’t the same as Latino students in San Diego. Some broader concepts will still apply, but you should know the specific problems facing the community you cover.
Story examples

An excellent example of race-related education reporting can be found in the Pulitzer-Prize winning series by the Tampa Bay Times. In the spring of 2016, the Tampa Bay Times reported on the way Pinellas County, Florida, failed to integrate its schools and account for the needs of minority students. The reporting highlights the systemic problems African-American children face in the county:

The Dallas Morning News published a 6-part series reported and written by students at The University of Texas at Austin that examined the “resegregation” of public schools — and how little had changed in public schools since the Brown v. Board of Education ruling in the 1950s ordering the end of segregated classrooms:

ProPublica: School Segregation, the Continuing Tragedy of Ferguson:

The Atlantic: The Ghost of Segregation Lingers on in Memphis Classrooms:

ProPublica: Segregation Now:

Resources and data