Why So Unequal? The Racial Achievement Gap in American Public Urban Schools

by Katie Shine

©Medium Magazine

Countless non-white Americans, particularly African-Americans, continue to have unacceptable access to high-quality schools, experienced teachers, and challenging academic curriculum. Why? After excavating the racial academic achievement gap in public urban schools, historians have analyzed our past. In doing so, it is evident that the U.S.’s negligent view towards white privilege and segregation’s legacy has led to unequal educational opportunities and harmful race-based theories about the reasons for the gap, such as the concept of a “cultural deficit” (a perceived deficiency in African Americans’ attitude towards education). This inaccurate and offensive theory is a direct consequence of the inability of many Americans to acknowledge our own history of racism which to continues to hinder the educational experiences of many non-white students. 

Fact: The last year of minimal difference between the average black American student’s academic performance compared to a white peer can occur as young as 6 years old.1Tim J. Wise, Affirmative Action: Racial Preference in Black and White. (Positions, Routledge, 2005), 41. This frustrating statistic points to current conditions in America that are still suffering from the legacy of segregation, racial discrimination, and deep inequalities in family wealth and income between races.  The average black high school student is 17% more likely to reside in a low-income, poverty-concentrated neighborhood than the average American high school student.2Wise, 42. This statistic is more than two times the percentage of a similar white high school student. In America, academic performance has recently been characterized by methodically “tracking” the performance of students. This tracking is often exercised by white, middle class teachers and administrators who may not have had the experience to understand the socioeconomic and behavioral needs of their students. Students, that are deemed academically poor performers, are more likely to believe their teachers do not have faith in their academic abilities, possess lower self-esteem, never graduate high school, and never apply to college.3Wise, 54-55. The tracking of students does not take into full consideration the educational inequities that have contributed to the student’s performance, such as the luxuries of time and money to seek tutoring, Advanced Placement (AP) courses, and access to experienced, well-paid teachers.4Wise, 52. White high school seniors are nearly four times more likely to have been offered and taken an AP exam for university credit than their non-white counterparts because they simply had the opportunity to do so.5Wise, 52-53. The theory of cultural deficiency, that non-white students are less able to handle the same challenging coursework  as their white counterparts, sorely lacks in evidence. As Tim J. Wise remarks in Affirmative Action: Racial Preference(s) in Black and White, race does not have to be a contributing factor: “studies show that greater than 90% of all students can master virtually any course material so long as the material is presented in a challenging way, using appropriate instructional techniques”.6Wise, 52. 

For the past six decades, large urban school districts have suffered a series of frustrations in battling the racial education gap. However, the gap also presents an opportunity to provide an education that is more racially conscious, absent of the dichotomy of white educational performance vs. performance of the “other” races, and fortified by experienced instructors.7Joseph P. Viteritti, When Mayors Take Charge: School Governance in the City (Brookings Institution Press, 2009). 2-3. This nod to the “other” is an issue because its invocation as a means of comparison reinforces the narrative that white academic success is the norm and that the “other” must catch up to the white student norm. Non-white students face additional hurdles such as their access to challenging AP courses and fair evaluation by their teachers; this not a failure of the students themselves but an oversight of the school administration to focus on curriculum, accountability and leadership.8Viteritti, 3-4. 

By 2007, after nearly a decade of extensive district assessments and reform initiatives focusing on improving reading skills, mathematical levels and test scores, the Boston school district reported that 89% of whites in 10th grade met or exceeded standards in reading and math. Only 45% of African-Americans and 48% of Hispanic Americans had met those same standards.9Viteritti, 107. In Chicago, by 2010, despite a decade of attempting to improve the performance of students placed in remedial courses in high school, teachers and administrators provided undeserved waivers for ⅓ of all detained students. The “odds of receiving a waiver were significantly higher for white students than for African Americans” and those students that received a waiver were more likely to pass their classes.10Viteritti, 127. By 2001, the standardized test scores between African American students in Chicago public schools and their white counterparts had widened significantly from previous years and the high school graduation rate was similarly low.11Viteritti, 129. 

Proposed solutions in the 21st century have included new models based on culturally sensitive teaching methods, accountability for administrations, adjustments to meet the specter of violence in schools, and increased advanced curriculum.12Viteritti, 219-220. Additional brainstorming sessions have produced methods like the recruitment of more diverse teachers, and productive dialogue with current teachers regarding effective, realistic instruction methods customized to the needs of non-white students. In his landmark book, Why Race Culture Matters in Schools, Tyrone Howard confronts the difficulty in executing these ideal solutions. He describes the achievement gap as one that is rooted in America’s past history of racism: a “discrepancy in educational outcomes between various student groups namely African-Americans ,Native Americans, certain Asian Americans and Latinos on the low end of the performance scale, and primarily white students at the higher end of the academic performance”.13Tyrone C. Howard, Why Race and Culture Matter in Schools: Closing the Achievement Gap in America’s Classrooms, (Teachers College Press, 2010), 10. Howard’s solution includes the fierce denial of “cultural deficiency”; the rejection of colorblind policies and diversity initiatives as an ineffective healing balm; and “culturally responsive” instruments that acknowledge systemic disparities between white and non-white students.14Howard, 68. These methods, of course, entail admitting that the history of racism in America still affects opportunities in school.  Despite popular belief, we are not living in an America “post-racism”.15Bettina L. Love, and Brandelyn Tosolt,  “Reality or Rhetoric? Barack Obama and Post-Racial America” (Race, Gender & Class 17, 2010), 19. 

Michael Eric Dyson has asserted that fixing the efficiencies in accountability and leadership in low-income, minority schools requires moving towards a “post-racist” society instead of a “post-racial” one.16Jeffrey S. Brooks, and Noelle Witherspoon Arnold, Anti-Racist School Leadership: Toward Equity in Education for America’s Students, (Information Age Publishing, Charlotte, N.C., 2013), ix. Post-racism equates to transcending the narrative of whiteness as the norm, and that white privilege must be the default power structure.17Brooks, ix-iv. An associated remedy is the tailoring of educational standards to local schools so that students’ needs are met and that well-intentioned yet sometimes inexperienced teachers can “learn and unlearn racism” and put their talents towards individualized instruction and support.18Brooks, xv. The additional expectations of “passion, persistence, and practice” for teachers are quite demanding especially in low-income, urban school districts already pinched for time, resources, and emotional support on the job.19Brooks, 26.

However difficult, American public schools need to move past a post-racial educational system to a post-racist one. Cheryl Harris, the preeminent scholar and legal expert, addressed this quandary with her theory,“whiteness as property”, and the employment of critical race theory in legal scholarship.20Brooks, 3. Harris asserted that the effects of racial inequality in America, and the limited benefits of the 1964 Civil Rights Act for African-Americans, has had undesired results such as de facto segregation that persists in neighborhoods and the displacement of African-American students to low-quality public schools.21Brooks, 3-4.  When Americans classify urban school districts as undesirable, low-income, unsuccessful, and most likely populated with minority students, they are enforcing an unhelpful stereotype that strengthens whiteness as property, privilege, and success. The mass media’s depiction of inner-city school districts, from Chicago to New York City, as “the other” in America only helps to support inaccurate views and create a harmful image about the potential academic success of non-white public urban students.22Brooks, 153.  

Recent calls to increase federal funding, promote diversity,  and embolden teacher’s unions are missing the crux of the argument that one-on-one interactions between teachers and students are more effective than vacant colorblind practices and indiscriminate transfer of funds to districts. All of these fail to mention the unique needs of students, the demands placed upon teachers and their lack of resources to implement these goals, and the lingering effects of the history of racism upon the academic achievement gap.23Szafir and Petersen. In social science discourse, the current racial educational achievement gap is a product of a gap between races in many areas of American life: differing rates of homeownership, the physical safety of residential neighborhoods, inequality in school facilities, and unrealistic expectations for tracking and test scores.24Reardon et al, 1171. This milieu of factors stems from segregation that continues to rule America’s schools and neighborhoods de facto long after segregation was declared illegal in 1954.25Reardon et al, 1171-1172. The metropolitan areas that have the largest examples of de facto segregation and a higher racial educational achievement gap, as of January 2019, can be found in appealing, prosperous cities like Atlanta, Washington D.C., New Orleans, Charleston, Minneapolis, and Oakland.26Reardon et al, 1171-1172. The presence and press coverage of these cities’ as plentiful tourist attractions, having higher standards of living for some residents, and showcasing gentrification conceals the fact that a harrowing racial educational achievement  gap remains.27Reardon et al, 1188. 

As a former tutor and instructor to public urban high school students with limited educational and socioeconomic opportunities, I have become infuriated that many Americans still refuse to admit that whiteness is a form of power and that segregation has still left disparaging signs of inequality in our public urban school systems. The history of race in America has led us directly to our current situation and gap in academic achievement. As more authors contribute to this field and acknowledge the historical and sociological reasons for the gap, I hope we can confront it and understand how the “local process” of curriculum offerings, teaching methods, opportunities, and school quality helps explain the continued manifestation and persistence of the gap.28Reardon et al, 1210. The answer (one that is complex and deserving of more time than solely this piece) should at least recognize that we reside in an America, still blighted by less visible signs of racial segregation.


Brooks, Jeffrey S., and Noelle Witherspoon Arnold. 2013. Anti-Racist School Leadership: Toward Equity in Education for America’s Students. Educational Leadership for Social Justice. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing. 

Howard, Tyrone C. 2010. Why Race and Culture Matter in Schools: Closing the Achievement Gap in America’s Classrooms. Teachers College Press.

Love, Bettina L., and Brandelyn Tosolt. “Reality or Rhetoric? Barack Obama and Post-Racial America.” Race, Gender & Class 17, no. 3/4 (2010): 19-37

Park, Julie J. 2013. When Diversity Drops: Race, Religion, and Affirmative Action In Higher Education. Rutgers University Press.

Reardon, Sean F., Demetra Kalogrides, and Kenneth Shores. 2019. “The Geography of Racial/Ethnic Test Score Gaps”. American Journal of Sociology 124 (4): 1164-1221.

Szafir, CJ and Cori Petersen. “Beware Warren’s Madisonian Plan for Public Education”. The Wall Street Journal. November 15, 2019. 

Viteritti, Joseph P. When Mayors Take Charge: School Governance in the City. Brookings Institution Press, 2009. 

Wise, Tim J. 2005. Affirmative Action: Racial Preference in Black and White. Positions. Routledge.