The blog of the Urban Institute
February 5, 2020

Four Ways Research Can Drive Racial Equity in Education in 2020 and Beyond

February 5, 2020

Last year, Urban’s Center on Education Data and Policy engaged a group of changemakers—including college presidents, advocates, and nonprofit leaders—to help us think about a research agenda on racial equity over the next year and beyond.

The conversation was as wide ranging as the group was diverse, and the discussion attempted to answer the question: what would it take to close equity gaps in American education?

The themes that emerged from the discussion are guiding our work as we begin to explore the ways Urban’s strengths, such as building policy and data tools, might support efforts to dismantle structural racism.

1. Acknowledge the intersections of disparities in education

Traditionally, education research has been segmented, with early education researchers working separately from K–12 researchers, who are distinct from higher education researchers. But that approach doesn’t reflect the reality that what happens in pre-k can affect what happens in college.

One changemaker cited science, technology, engineering, and math as an example. If we want more Black and Hispanic engineering graduates, we must first make sure Black and Hispanic students receive a high-quality math education in elementary school.

And although we might think of issues of race or income segregation as in the purview of K–12 education, where neighborhood boundaries determine school boundaries, the effects of segregated poverty carry into postsecondary education.

To effectively address racism, research needs to transcend traditional boundaries and consider how early education systems affect K–12, and how K–12 schools affect colleges and universities.

2. Take a closer look at school funding

Funding inequity was a theme of the conversation. School funding, one participant said, is tied to many other education equity issues, like school segregation and teacher diversity.

And though some have claimed that increased funding in K–12 does not improve student performance, there is evidence that additional money does make a difference in schools that are inadequately funded—which are typically those attended by Black or Hispanic students.

But like many issues of education equity, funding problems don’t end at high school. Leaders highlighted the need for more research on higher education funding, noting that existing evidence shows students of color overwhelmingly attend underfunded public institutions.

This can exacerbate gaps, because when opportunity gaps in K–12 education leave students underprepared for college, as is often the case for students of color or low-income students, it takes more resources to support them.

 And even more so than K–12 funding, postsecondary funding can be volatile from year to year. How should college leaders think about long-term investments relative to short-term needs? Research at both the K–12 and higher education levels can help decisionmakers understand which investments are most likely to yield gains for students of color.

3. Untangle the gaps in student achievement

The changemakers agreed that funding is an important issue, but they also feared that focusing on funding could obscure the source of these disparities. As one participant put it, investing in high-poverty or racially isolated schools is a start, but we also need to investigate the policies that cause these students to be segregated in the first place.

In higher education, changemakers saw a need for research to detangle the different factors that lead to gaps in outcomes. How much of the gap is caused by underinvestment in the colleges students of color attend, and how much of that gap is caused by structural barriers or underinvestment in the K-12 schools those students attended?

4. Prioritize both short-term solutions and long-term change

Though changes to funding structures, attendance boundaries, and college tuition policies might help, one changemaker noted the pervasive nature of racism. He noted that institutions may excuse student failures with the belief that some students aren’t “college material.”

This perception could let institutions off the hook for the success of students of color, so it must be challenged. Research, he said, can show people that it’s not the students, but, in fact, the schools and colleges that should do better in supporting students’ success.

Barry Nerhus, left, a biologist with the Institute for Conservation Research and Education in Costa Mesa, works with students from Costa Mesa High School, from left: Alexia Tapia, 17, McKayla Ortiz, 18, Sey Currie, 16, as they search for various birds near the Back Bay Science Center in Newport Beach on Tuesday, April 2, 2019. Photo by Mark Rightmire/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images.

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