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In a highly segregated system, many racial gaps

New District data reveal persistent inequities in resources and achievement

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The School District, in connection with the city’s long-running desegregation case, has released new data on the conditions of the city’s racially segregated schools. For this and other reasons, the time is ripe to look at race and education in Philadelphia.

A school year has passed since the School Reform Commission adopted its “Declaration of Education,” which committed the District to achieving “equity in facilities, programs and resources” in all its schools. The No Child Left Behind Act is producing volumes of statistics comparing the achievement levels of racial and ethnic groups. And CEO Paul Vallas is implementing an array of new programs, which he argues will “lift all boats.”

How much have things changed? One point of comparison is the School District’s data from 1992, which Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court Judge Doris Smith-Ribner cited in her landmark decision calling for action to address glaring racial gaps she found in the District.

A review of current data suggests that after 12 years, many of those gaps remain. Here (and in charts available here) are some key findings.

A highly segregated system

Philadelphia’s schools are highly segregated, and the current degree of racial segregation is greater than it was in 1992.

At that time the School District was about 22 percent white, 62 percent African American, 10 percent Latino, and 5 percent Asian.

In 2004, Philadelphia had 187,000 students in public schools. Overall, African Americans made up 65 percent of the District’s students, Latinos and Whites were each nearly 15 percent, and Asians just over 5 percent. But these overall percentages tell only part of the story.

Well over a third of Philadelphia students attend the 109 schools that are 90 percent or more of one race. All but two of those schools are predominantly African American. Only a handful of schools are racially balanced with significant numbers of Whites, African Americans, and Latinos.

A total of 142 schools are 70 percent or more African American, 12 schools are more than 70 percent Latino, and six are more than 70 percent White.

In 1992, just over half the District’s students attended the 134 schools that were less than 10 percent White. Today, 62 percent of students attend the 166 schools that are less than 10 percent White.

These numbers testify to how it is hard for many students to find diverse classrooms or meaningful interracial experiences at school.

Racial gaps in achievement persist

It is difficult to track changes in achievement over time because standardized testing practices have changed. Nevertheless, it is possible to make some comparisons of achievement gaps between races.

In 1992 in grades 1-8, the gap on the citywide reading tests between the percentage of Whites above the national median and the percentage of African Americans above the median was 22 points. Today, African Americans as well as Whites are scoring higher on the current tests (the TerraNova). But the gap between their achievement levels has increased to 27 points.

Similarly, the gap between White and African American students’ math scores was 29 points in 1992 and is 31 points today.

Looking at the District’s most segregated schools, Judge Smith-Ribner reported that between 1988 and 1991, 32 percent of students in schools with a White population below 10 percent scored better than the national median. On a new test in 1992, only 17 percent did. The analysis conducted by the Public Interest Law Center showed that on the 2004 TerraNova, 27 percent of the students in the predominantly nonwhite schools scored above the national median – better than 1992, but poorer than 1988-91.

While achievement has risen across the board, the progress has not been robust enough to diminish the gaps affecting students of color.

Resource gaps in nonwhite schools

In some key areas, the District’s resources now appear to be distributed more equitably than at the time of Judge Smith-Ribner’s decision. Major initiatives of the Vallas administration – such as class size reduction, new curriculum materials and textbooks, extended day and summer school programs, services to address school climate, and technology improvements – appear to benefit students across the board.

A long-standing problem has been the almost complete absence of high-quality, advanced courses in neighborhood high schools. A lack of Advanced Placement (AP) courses, lab sciences, and foreign languages has traditionally forced students seeking quality courses to leave those schools. Change is occurring, including a significant expansion of the college-level AP courses, but racial disparities in course offerings are still apparent (see charts from center spread).

Progress has also not been sufficient to overcome the vast difference in numbers of students identified for participation in “gifted” programs in the predominantly nonwhite schools versus the rest of the schools (see charts from center spread).

Surprisingly, despite an emphasis on early childhood education as a way of equalizing experiences for children in low-income neighborhoods, none of the three new early childhood centers are planned for schools that are predominantly nonwhite.

The two biggest resource gaps between the predominantly nonwhite schools and the rest of the District are hard to quantify, but they appear to be substantial.

The first is in the District’s school buildings. An analysis conducted for the District in the mid-1990s concluded that the facilities in the most intensely segregated parts of the city were older and in poorer condition. Repair efforts have improved the condition of many schools, but there is no up-to-date comprehensive survey. The District’s $1.5 billion capital plan should provide major relief for older schools, but with the project list still in flux, it is too early to say if that plan will provide equal benefits to predominantly nonwhite schools.

The second key resource gap is the shortage of experienced, qualified teachers. Study after study has shown predominantly nonwhite schools have less experienced teachers, fewer certified teachers, and higher turnover.

A 2003 study conducted by Research for Action found that over a three-year period, gaps in the percentage of uncertified teachers between the District’s predominantly nonwhite schools and schools with more White students had actually widened. A recent analysis updating these trends found that gaps in certification, turnover rates, and teacher experience persist (see article about teacher experience).

Parental involvement still lagging

At the most recent hearing in the School District’s desegregation case in March 2004, Judge Smith-Ribner singled out parental involvement as an area “of great concern.”

“I’ve not seen the progress that I would like to have seen by this point,” the Judge noted. “I have believed consistently that without the parents’ involvement and engagement, our children will not achieve and succeed as they can.”

Information about the extent of parental involvement is sparse. One District report showed that 154 of the District’s schools had “school councils” – shared decision-making bodies that allow parents and teachers to have a voice at the school level. But at a majority of predominantly nonwhite schools there are no school councils. There has been no concerted effort to foster new councils for several years, and it is unclear to what degree existing councils actually function.

Elsewhere, the District reported in 2003 that only 137 schools had functioning Home and School Associations.

The recent creation of the Office of Language Access Services and Community Outreach may strengthen schools’ connections with families whose first language is not English.

Funding gaps have grown wider

Finally, the disparity in resources for Philadelphia’s students of color becomes even clearer when comparing school spending in Philadelphia with that in surrounding suburban areas.

In 1992 the suburban schools were spending $690 more per student than Philadelphia, or approximately 10 percent more.

In 2002-03, the difference had risen to $1,867 – more than 20 percent above what Philadelphia spends (see chart from center spread). Closing this gap would require an infusion of well over $300 million into District schools.

Even that would not bring the system into parity with the top 20 percent of the suburban districts, which spend from $3,800 to $7,962 more per student than Philadelphia.

Explaining our language

In analyzing school segregation and its effects, the Notebook uses as a dividing line whether schools have a population that is more than 10 percent White or less than 10 percent White. The latter group – schools that are therefore 90 percent or more students of color (African American, Latino, Asian) – are called “predominantly nonwhite” schools in this edition. This same dividing line was used by the Court in Philadelphia’s desegregation case.

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