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Who Needs Data on Race? The Schools, for One

October 05, 2003|Jeannie Oakes and John Rogers | Professors Jeannie Oakes and John Rogers direct UCLA's Institute for Democracy, Education and Access.

If California voters pass Proposition 54 on Tuesday, it will become illegal for state, county and city agencies, as well as schools, colleges and universities, to collect, analyze or report most information about race. The measure's author, Ward Connerly, hopes that "by removing race from the equation, we will force our state government to look at actual people and solve real problems." History suggests otherwise.

In 1963, a committee of the Los Angeles Board of Education took testimony about discrimination and inequality in the schools. African American teachers reported being routinely assigned to schools in South Los Angeles rather than to schools in the Valley or on the Westside. Latino and African American students told of being channeled into vocational instead of academic classes. It was a grim picture, but the committee, wary of what it saw as anecdotes and "informal polls" by interest groups, requested "hard" data about the alleged discrimination.

The information wasn't there. At the time, like most districts outside the South, the LAUSD avoided racially categorizing its students and teachers. The committee asked the district to conduct a racial and ethnic survey of its students and teachers to ascertain facts that would "enable the board to see what progress has been made toward equal opportunity." But the school board stepped in to stop the survey, saying that the collection of racial information would prevent the LAUSD from being "colorblind." Without data, the students' and teachers' claims of unequal treatment were dismissed.

Three years later, the federal Civil Rights Act finally prompted California districts to conduct a racial census of students and teachers. Its results made clear that the claims of discrimination were real. But by then, angry students and parents had already decided to take their cause to court. Might the community have found a less wrenching path to addressing school inequality than the 19 years of contentious litigation that followed if racial data had been available earlier? Quite possibly. And it's a certainty that ignorance of the problems did nothing to correct them.

The collection of racial data proved important in addressing another inequity in 2000. Shameful disparities, the numbers showed, existed in access to Advanced Placement courses. Some of the brightest high school students in the state could not compete for admission to UC Berkeley or UCLA because their schools offered too few of these high-level courses -- or even none at all. Often the schools without enough AP classes were in low-income neighborhoods. But the data we analyzed revealed that poverty didn't tell the full story: Latino students were shown to be particularly at risk of being in schools where fewer AP courses were offered.

State Sen. Martha Escutia (D-Whittier), armed with these startling data about disparities in opportunity, persuaded the Legislature and the governor to establish the state's Advanced Placement Challenge Grant Program. The result has been more fairness in college preparation across California's diverse high schools. Collecting racial data neither caused nor eliminated discrimination in Advanced Placement classes. But, access to these data provided responsive legislators with the tools needed to craft good policy.

Decent policy and fair laws are not the only benefit of collecting racial data. At local schools, educators use such information to improve the daily practices that law and policy can't reach. When Sylvia Rousseau, now District 1 superintendent for the LAUSD, was principal of Santa Monica High School, she asked us to help her analyze data that illuminated what she came to think of as Santa Monica High's "two schools problem." We examined which students were taking advantage of the school's excellent college prep classes and found that Asian and white students were far more likely to be enrolled in them than African American and Latino students. She used this analysis to begin discussions with teachers, students, parents and the school board about how best to address the inequities. Educators designed innovative programs and developed new instructional and support strategies.

The efforts paid off. Follow-up data showed significantly more Latinos and African Americans participating in student government, taking more rigorous classes, getting good grades and applying for and enrolling in four-year universities. The data also showed the school's white and Asian students continuing to thrive, reassuring parents that the school's equity efforts were working for everyone. None of this would be legal under Proposition 54.

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