Liberty Matters

Does Systemic Racism Exist in K-12?


Systemic racism is alleged to be deeply embedded in the fabric of America. The effects of systemic racism are said to include economic inequality, education inequality, justice inequality, and healthcare inequality. The task of the reformer is to identify the legal structure and institutions in which racism is embedded. Jim Crow laws are one such example, where segregation was enforced in all facets of life – housing, education, policing, and justice. Those laws no longer exist, and in much of the urban south today Blacks dominate housing administrations, the education establishment, the police, and the justice system. The question is whether systemic racism lessens with Black people in positions of authority? At the Federal level, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Federal Housing Administration refused to guarantee loans in minority areas, resulting in a lower incidence of home ownership and property values among Blacks. These trends persist, even though the FHA is no longer pursuing racist policies. Housing segregation exists, but the reasons are now more social and economic than legal. Some may argue that lending institutions still engage in racism, however the research in that area is far from conclusive.[1]
Is systemic racism in public schools the reason for the poor academic performance of Black children?[2] That racism once existed in public education is undeniable. Black schools in the segregated south were woefully underfunded. Local school boards were generally all white as were virtually all of the school system administrators. It could be inferred that any difference between Black and white student achievement could be the result of systemic racism stemming from the inequality of facilities and equipment. However, the overt racism of the past is gone. Is the racism of the past so deeply embedded in our schools that the differentials in achievement persist even though many urban school systems have significant numbers of Black teachers and Black administrators?  
Professor John Stone finds that aggregating across race is misleading and that, “Economically disadvantaged children, both white and minority, enter school less well prepared for learning than their peers.” Stone shows that racial differences in educational achievement that are posited to result from systemic racism are instead driven by differences in economic well-being. For instance, in his charts for economic well-being versus third grade proficiency showing ethnic makeup, in the chart for New York City, charter schools are among the top performers regardless of ethnic makeup.[3]
Poor children who come from homes of parents who themselves may be poorly educated are at a disadvantage when they first go to school. Sometimes the teacher speaks a language not spoken in their homes. These children must learn English as a foreign language while they are trying to learn what is being taught in class. These children start at a disadvantage, and with current teaching methods they never catch up. It should come as no surprise that the reading scores of these children are dismal regardless of race.  
But the reading scores for American students in general are abysmal. Nationally, less than 34% of fourth graders read at grade level. Less than half of Tennessee’s third graders read proficiently. The state of Massachusetts has threatened to take over the Boston city schools where only 25% of Black elementary students read at grade level. The poor reading results cannot be explained by claiming systemic racism. But apparently, many educators think so and are changing the curricula in public schools.[4] One area in which these changes are made is mathematics.  Is math culture-bound? Some say that math reflects “whiteness,” motivating some school systems to teach “woke” math. This is described as using a social justice framework to give students a conceptual understanding of the subject. The Minneapolis school system is spending more than $2 million to incorporate “ethnic, racial and cultural” diversity into its K-5 math curriculum.[5] Oregon’s Department of Education has a teachers’ training program aimed at “dismantling racism in mathematics” through “ethnomathematics.”[6] Requiring students to “show their work” is alleged to be racist. Proponents say it is white supremacy to expect a student to write out the mathematical process and show the steps taken to arrive at the answer. However, if traditional math is white supremacy, then why do Asians excel in it? And what do we make of Shirley Mathis McBay, the first Black person to earn a Phd from the University of Georgia?
In Seattle, grade school teachers are to eliminate “preconceived biases” regarding right answers. Teachers are encouraged to not mark incorrect answers as incorrect but rather have students defend their answers. This does not seem to be a productive way to learn math. Saying that minority kids can’t learn math ignores one fact: American white kids’ math proficiency is among the lowest in the world. One of my closest friends teaches math and physics in a big city high school. His reaction to woke math is “what do I tell my white students who are struggling?” Do Black and white levels of math proficiency narrow given a “woke” curriculum? On the contrary, It is likely that woke instruction could widen disparities. Woke math is not intended to aid in students’ learning. I would not want any scientist to use a math system where an approximate answer was good enough. I’m sure the NASA astronauts were glad that the women of “Hidden Figures” were not versed in woke math.
Woke math also eliminates the showing of work and insisting on the correct way of solving a problem. This may have merit. Limitless Mind by Jo Boaler explains how traditional math teaching inhibits learning, and letting students solve problems their own way increases their neutral passageways. However, contrary to the proponents of woke math, Boaler contends that virtually all children can be proficient in mathematics if taught properly. She cites an example of how changing study habits can result in Black students outperforming white and Asian students in college calculus.[7]
Another addition to public schools’ curricula is Critical Race Theory. Like systemic racism, Critical Race Theory (CRT) argues that all facets of American life are founded upon racism. Policymakers and educators are incorporating CRT into all levels of public education. Does teaching CRT reduce the disparities between Black and white student achievement? There are no studies, to my knowledge, that test the effectiveness in CRT or woke math in changing racial disparities.
However, Professor John Stone and his Education Consumers Foundation show, much like Boaler, that the focus on systemic racism and CRT is intended to deflect from the ineffectiveness in the teaching method employed in the majority of public schools. The teachers’ unions, the textbook authors, the colleges of education, and accreditation boards have proven inflexible. Although a teaching method – Direct Instruction – has been shown to narrow and eliminate disparities, its implementation has been resisted by most educators and school systems.[8]
Stone finds that, “Overwhelming statistical evidence shows that the educational inequalities experienced by both white and minority children are linked to ineffective schooling and social promotion, not racism.”[9] Unlike the proponents of CRT and anti-racism measures, Dr. Stone has the research and data to confirm his statements. Thus, I conclude that systemic racism is not a useful concept to explain racial disparities in student proficiency. In our public school systems, those disparities have more to do with economics than with race. However, what persists is the use of systemic racism by our public school educators as an excuse to mask their failure to teach our children.
[1] See my paper, “Does discrimination in lending still persist?” Written for the Harold A. Black Academic Conference, Chattanooga, TN September 8-10, 2022. Available from the author
[2] Joe R. Feagin and Bernice M. Barnett, Success and Failure: How systemic racism Trumped the Brown v. Board of Education decision,” University of Illinois Law Review, v. 2004, no. 5, February 21, 2005.
[3] Available from the author upon request.
[4] See Kerry-Ann Escayg, “The Missing Links: Enhancing Anti-Bias Education with Anti- Racist Education”, Journal of Curriculum, Teaching, Learning and Leadership in Education, v. 3, no. 1., December 2018.
[5] Elizabeth Troutman, “Minnesota School District Pours Millions Into ‘Woke’ Math as Student Scores Plummet”, Nation and State, August 3, 2022.
[6] Natalie Argyle, Woke Progressives Target Math Class as Racist for Expecting "Right Answer" Or "Showing Your Work", February 15, 2021.
[7] Jo Boaler, Limitless Mind: Learn, Lead, and Live Without Barriers. Harper One, 2019.
[8] Jean Stockard; Timothy W. Wood, Cristy Coughlin and Caitlin Rasplica Khoury. “The Effectiveness of Direct Instruction Curricula: A Meta-Analysis of a Half Century of Research,” Review of Educational Research, August 2018. 
[9] J. E. Stone, “Is Your School Board Using Critical Race Theory as an Excuse for Failure?” Education Consumers Foundation, January 2022.