The following is a paper I wrote for a course on Race and Ethnicity in American Education. We were tasked to analyze disaggregated data collected by schools and find patterns of student outcomes based on race and ethnicity. I chose to look at the Seattle Public Schools since they were very forthcoming with their data.
I analyzed data from the Seattle School District (SSD). When I began to assemble the data points, I was surprised to learn that Native American and Black student have similar outcomes, with Native students faring worse in most instances. SSD published complete information for 2017 on all the data points for this assignment so I will focus on the year 2017 and zero in on Black and Native American students. (Outcome Data Tables, n.d.) In this paper I am going to demonstrate how the systemic racism faced by BIPOC living in the region has laid the foundation for the inequality students experience as they move through the school system, discuss data that show racial inequities in the SSD, and discuss attempts (some ineffectual) that Seattle educators have made to address some of the disparities.
Inequitable Practices Then and Now
Seattle has a reputation for being a progressive city, but has a history of social problems. The city of Seattle is ranked 6th in the nation for income inequality and the tax structure in Washington State is a root cause. By having no income tax, the State is at the top of the ‘Terrible Ten’ list of states whose tax structure make the poor poorer by forcing those at lowest income to pay the highest rates. (Wiehe, 2018) Historically, racial discriminatory practices like Redlining, and even current zoning laws which prohibit affordable housing opportunities, have resulted in a segregated city that continues to worsen. Non-Whites live segregated primarily in neighborhoods in south and central Seattle.
Seattle’s public schools are also racially segregated. The U.S. Census estimates that in 2018 City of Seattle was 66% White, 7.0% African American and 0.4% Native American. SSD student body in 2017 was 47% White, 15% African American and 1% Native American.
Students of color are the majority in the SSD because many Whites have opted for private schools. Of Seattle’s 113 public schools, there are 14 located in the south where students of color make up 90% of the student body. On the flip side, 30 SSD schools are whiter than the city itself. (Balk, 2020) Data on free and reduced lunch rates show how students of color are more likely to experience economic insecurity.
The SSD Superintendent Denise Juneau’s mission was to accelerate growth for “students of color who are furthest from educational justice”. (Bazzaz, 2019) The District has the fifth largest gap between White and Black student achievement of the 200 largest school districts in the United States (Balk, 2016). Data show that Black and Native American students are the least likely to be promoted to Advanced Learning programs and the most likely to be enrolled in Special Education.
Short term suspension rates reported by the SSD show that Black and Native American students are disciplined far more than other groups. Discipline rates were so high in 2012 the SSD was probed by federal investigators as to whether students were being racially discriminated. After efforts to limit exclusionary practices were implemented, rates dropped. However, the Washington State Office for the Superintendent for Public Instruction (OSPI) reports that in 2018, discipline rates for Native American students in SSD actually surpassed that of Black students. Today, Black and Native American students are three times more likely to be disciplined than the average. (Brazile, 2019b)
“Important steps forward were followed by big steps back.” (Walker, 2019)
The brutal history of destruction, assimilation and cultural erasure of Indigenous peoples in the U.S. is well-known and imbues SSD’s current difficulties. Indigenous peoples who live in Seattle are primarily of the Duwamish Tribe who are indigenous to Seattle and who remain federally unrecognized. And they have had a complicated relationship with the SSD. Over the years programs that were successful improving outcomes for Indigenous students have come and are now gone. In 2015 the SSD closed the doors of the successful American Indian Heritage High School, and in 2019 shuttered a program run by the Urban Native Education Alliance (UNEA) which for over a decade provided a free afterschool program offering free dinners, job training, cultural activities, and nurtured community and activism. For example, UNEA youth succeeded in winning official landmark status for a local Duwamish sacred site. UNEA reported that students who participated the program had a 100% graduation rate. (SSD dropout rate for Native Americans was 50% in 2017.) (Outcome Data Tables, n.d.) Inexplicably these steps backward for Indigenous students were made under the leadership of Juneau, the first Native American Superintendent, who has just resigned after less than 2 years at SSD.
Dissolve Rather Than Diversity
In 2017, Black students were 15% of the SSD but made up less than 2% of gifted programs. In a move to address what Juneau called the “unacceptable and embarrassing” (Gross, 2019) lack of diversity in advanced learning programs, the SSD began moving to dissolve them. The advanced learning program was developed in the 1980’s as an attempt to prevent White families from leaving for private schools. Over the years the program developed into separate tracks or cohorts which isolated students from general education programs – one high school has been informally known as “Apartheid High”. (Gross, 2019) The SSD has been met when vehement resistance from White families to dismantle the advance learning tracks and has recently proposed shuttering only one program rather than addressing the racism that was behind the creation of the programs to begin with. Proponents for integration argue that by dissolving the program rather than integrating, the SSD is sending a message that “…black and brown students aren’t worthy of an enriched curriculum.” (Perry, 2020) The teachers themselves (84% White in the SSD) are the gatekeepers of access for advanced learning opportunities, recommending students for testing into the program. Research shows implicit bias causes teachers to hold low expectations for students of color (Banaji & Greenwald, 2013) and in Seattle is likely preventing these students from accessing advanced learning opportunities.
Barriers to accessing high quality education exist for Native American and Black students in the SSD. Data show that there are overlapping issues preventing full and equal access to education for all students of color. Black and Native American students are more likely to be poor, segregated in schools and in the community, more likely to be ignored for academic promotions, and punished for subjective offensives that rely on perception than any other group. (Dev & Brazile, 2019) But behind every programmatic or curricular decision impacting students and families is an educator that is probably White, maybe moved to act based on implicit bias, maybe unmoved (and unsupported) to examine “…how race influences school culture, the quality and delivery of instruction, and curricular choices.” (Singleton, 2015, p. 101) Unfortunately, some actions by the SSD are compounding the problem and reinforcing historic racial inequities. From UNEA leader, Sarah Sense-Wilson: “All of this that is transpiring is triggering a lot of stress and trauma for our community… To me, it’s a reenactment of historical experiences of being displaced and discarded and dishonored.” (Brazile, 2019a)
Balk, G. (May 9, 2016). Seattle schools have biggest white-black achievement gap in state. Seattle Times. Retrieved from https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/data/seattle-schools-have-biggest-white-black-achievement-gap-in-state/
Balk, G. (July 6, 2020) Why aren’t Seattle schools more racially diverse? Look at the neighborhoods. Seattle Times. Retrieved from https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/data/how-racially-diverse-is-your-public-school-use-our-interactive-to-find-out/
Banaji, M. R., & Greenwald, A. G. (2013). Blindspot: Hidden biases of good people. New York: Random House.
Bazzaz, D. (April, 2019a) At her first major speech, new Seattle schools chief Juneau restates an age-old priority: racial equity. The Seattle Times. Retrieved from https://www.seattletimes.com/education-lab/at-her-first-major-speech-new-seattle-schools-chief-juneau-restates-an-age-old-priority-racial-equity/
Brazile, L. (June 14, 2019a) Why is Seattle Public Schools canceling a successful program for Native students? Crosscut. Retrieved from https://crosscut.com/2019/06/why-seattle-public-schools-canceling-successful-program-native-students
Dev, J. & Brazile, L. (June 24, 2019b) The latest data show that while public school discipline rates have been trending downward statewide, disparities persist in who is being punished. Crosscut. Retrieved from https://crosscut.com/2019/05/despite-state-policy-changes-wa-schools-still-disproportionately-discipline-students-color
Gross, A. (Sept. 30, 2019). Seattle school officials propose advanced learning changes to undo institutional racism. Knkx.org. Retrieved from https://www.knkx.org/post/seattle-school-officials-propose-advanced-learning-changes-undo-institutional-racism
Perry, A. (March 4, 2020) Don’t get rid of gifted and talented programs in the name of integration. Integrate them. The Hechinger Report. Retrieved from https://hechingerreport.org/dont-get-rid-of-gifted-and-talented-programs-in-the-name-of-integration-integrate-them/
Outcomes Data Tables. (n.d.). Seattle Public Schools. https://www.seattleschools.org/cms/One.aspx?portalId=627&pageId=25571096
Singleton, G. E. (2015). Courageous conversations about race: a field guide for achieving equity in schools. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, A SAGE Company.
Walker, R.A. (Sept. 18, 2019). Program for Native students fights eviction, sues Seattle school district. Indian Country Today. Retrieved from https://indiancountrytoday.com/news/program-for-native-students-fights-eviction-sues-seattle-school-district?redir=1
Wiehe, M., Davis, A., Davis, C., Gardner, M., Gee, L.C., and Grundman, D. (2018, October). Who Pays: A Distributional Analysis of the Tax System in All 50 States. The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. https://itep.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/whopays-ITEP-2018.pdf