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Discrimination in Elite Public Schools: Investigating Buffalo

reviewed by Elyse Hambacher & Katherine Ginn - July 03, 2019

coverTitle: Discrimination in Elite Public Schools: Investigating Buffalo
Author(s): Gary Orfield & Jennifer B. Ayscue (Eds.)
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 080775935X, Pages: 168, Year: 2018
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In their compelling book, Discrimination in Elite Public Schools: Investigating Buffalo, Gary Orfield, Jennifer Ayscue, and colleagues expose the myriad ways the high-stakes system of school choice excludes Black and Latinx students, English learners (EL), and students from low-income backgrounds from attending competitive-admissions choice schools, referred to in the text as criteria-based schools. The focus of this book is on the urban Buffalo school district in New York, whose deep history of segregation led to an Office of Civil Rights (OCR) investigation into racial disparities in school choice in 2014. The authors identify the audience for their study of the Buffalo Public Schools (BPS) as “Researchers, consultants, and educational leaders” (p. 141), but their work has relevance for any educator wishing to understand barriers to achieving equitable educational outcomes. The patterns of exclusion observed in BPS function similarly in many U.S. schools and include ability grouping, gifted and talented programs, remedial requirements, stringent course prerequisites, merit-based awards, disparately applied exclusionary discipline, and a variety of both subtle and obvious methods for guarding and allocating scarce opportunities.

Chapter One provides an expansive overview of school choice. In the decades of desegregation orders that followed Brown v. Board of Education (1954), many urban districts such as Buffalo’s created magnet schools with special programs to attract students across communities in order to desegregate schools through a choice process. Therefore, the early effect of school choice was to broaden opportunity for students of color who did not previously have the option to attend well-resourced, strong schools. When the Supreme Court ruled in 1991 that such desegregation plans were only temporary, local officials in Buffalo converted many interest-based magnet schools into exam schools with competitive admissions processes and largely abandoned the diversity agenda that was central to the original purpose of magnet schools. Discrimination in Elite Public Schools illustrates how this original integrative intent has effectively reversed in the context of growing residential segregation in U.S. cities; under the guise of providing “choice,” criteria-based and exam schools exacerbate social and economic gaps by excluding students of color, particularly Black students.

In Chapters Two and Three the investigators explain their project aimed at identifying barriers to equitable access in the context of school choice in the wake of the OCR complaint. These chapters make connections to Buffalo’s segregation history and ongoing racial and political tensions. The chapters describe the eight criteria-based schools and the fierce competition over the limited number of spaces, especially in the most desired of the choice schools. To understand the admissions and enrollment processes at these eight schools, the research team used a mixed-methods approach, including individual interviews, focus groups, and survey data from all community stakeholders.

Chapter Four documents enrollment patterns and deepening segregation through BPS’s choice system. The chapter details racial, socioeconomic, and linguistic disparities in enrollment within the criteria-based schools of BPS and the resulting limits to intergroup student contact. For example, although Black students made up 51% of total district enrollment, they represented approximately 19% and 28% of the total population in the district’s two most elite criteria-based schools. In addition, the percentage of English learners (EL) in criteria-based schools was practically non-existent. The data indicate that a disproportionate number of Black and EL students found admittance to high-quality criteria-based schools virtually inaccessible.

The text then focuses on the barriers to admission to criteria-based schools in BPS, including information practices that produced “highly unequal knowledge about the criteria-based school system among different groups of parents” (p. 79) in Chapter Five. The authors note that the processes for application and registration were often opaque and unwelcoming, discouraging all but the most tenacious families. In a particularly effective argument about the reproductive mechanisms of educational testing and unequal educational capital, the authors write that perspectives about preparation for the criteria-based schools in earlier grades showed marked disparities across the sending schools, an effect rooted in racial segregation and amplified by a rigid cognitive testing requirement. Ultimately highlighting scarcity as a central barrier to achieving equitable access to competitive schools, the chapter ends with recommendations for expansion through the addition of criteria-based schools and support services within them.

Subsequent to the findings in Chapter Five, Chapter Six addresses the cited barriers with a set of recommendations intended to counteract the tendency of information and admissions opportunities to concentrate among White families. These include implementing more systematic outreach approaches, de-emphasizing educational testing in favor of more holistic measures of achievement, and building multicultural literacy among elementary and middle school teachers to combat biases in identification of students for gifted education. The chapter reminds readers of the strict guardrails imposed by judicial challenges to earlier desegregation efforts, but also describes a range of legally permissible integrative policies and practices: admissions lotteries, weighting of various socioeconomic and familial characteristics, and automatic acceptance to top students from all feeder schools.

One of the book’s major contributions is the attention it lends to the highly political nature of civil rights research, specifically in Chapter Seven and in the Postscript. The high stakes of implementing a successful plan becomes clear in Chapter Seven, as the authors point out that a “plan that does not work gives the victims of discrimination no gains and diminishes their right to make new claims” (p. 117). They describe efforts by a powerful White majority on the school board to defend the district’s choice policies, including one member’s notably threatening correspondence with the research team. While the school board elected to implement some suggestions from the study, it rejected several that the team believed would have made the greatest impact in reducing racial disproportionalities in enrollment. During the two-year period following the release of the study findings, the proportion of Black students at the two most competitive BPS schools fell.

Discrimination in Elite Public Schools provides an illustrative example of ways that discriminatory systems are maintained through uncritical acceptance and defended vigorously by those who stand to benefit the most. The authors’ treatment of school choice is complex; they do not call for school systems to abandon choice policies or dismantle competitive criteria-based schools where students “benefit from a very strong positive stereotype that creates a powerful network of connections, leading straight into good colleges and other opportunities” (p. 5). Rather, they recommend expanded access to these elite schools as well as measures to remove barriers and produce equitable enrollment outcomes. The researchers found broad support for the existing choice system and admiration for the elite magnet schools across the communities of Buffalo, whose members understood the system as a vital lifeline for exceptional students who would otherwise remain in underperforming neighborhood schools. Some who expressed pride in the city’s top schools had not pursued admission for their own children, believing it was out of reach. This fact suggests a paradox at the heart of competitive schooling: that the appeal of excellence can find popularity even as it excludes so many deserving of membership.



Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 03, 2019
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22958, Date Accessed: 7/16/2019 12:36:55 AM

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About the Author
  • Elyse Hambacher
    University of New Hampshire
    E-mail Author
    ELYSE HAMBACHER is an Associate Professor of Education and core faculty member in the Womenís Studies Program at the University of New Hampshire. Her research examines the social and political contexts of schooling, the development of educatorsí critical social justice literacy, and how teaching for social justice is operationalized in education settings.
  • Katherine Ginn
    University of New Hampshire
    E-mail Author
    KATHERINE GINN is a high school special education teacher and a PhD student in Education at the University of New Hampshire with a specialization in children, youth, and communities. Her research interests include family-school relations, teacher learning, and their roles in issues of educational equity.
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