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date: 08 August 2020

Racial Disparities in the Education System

Abstract and Keywords

Despite years of education reform, the United States continues to have disparities in academic outcomes among racial and ethnic groups in primary, secondary, and post-secondary education. High school graduation rates have increased for racial and ethnic minorities, but gross disparities in high school graduation and college attendance still exist. In this article, the authors first examine the literature on racial and ethnic group disparities in education within public K–12 education, followed by a brief review of recent research literature on racial and ethnic disparities within higher education. In each section, there is some examination of race, ethnicity, and critical factors that lead to disparities within the education system. Information on socioeconomic status, school readiness, special education, school discipline, culture, and teacher bias are discussed. The authors conclude that while family income and socioeconomic status help to explain disparities in education outcomes among racial and ethnic groups, cultural factors are a salient part of the conversation.

Keywords: race, ethnicity, education outcomes, academic achievement, special education


Racial disparities are ingrained within the U.S. educational system. These disparities are deeply rooted and based on a host of individual and structural factors. There are general patterns demonstrating that African American, Latinos, and Native Americans are underperforming academically in comparison to whites and Asian Americans. While factors affecting academic achievement are similar across racial and ethnic groups, there are differences in the influence of such factors. African Americans (16%) and Hispanics (25%) are the largest racial and ethnic minority groups with the United States, and these groups experience a range of disparities across areas that are critical for scholastic success. Disparities in education refer to a lack of equality or similarity in opportunities and in educational outcomes, while disproportionality in the educational systems refers to the overrepresentation and underrepresentation of a particular demographic group based on educational opportunities and outcomes. According to the APA, educational disparities may result from “(a) differential or biased treatment of ethnic and racial minority students within the education system, (b) differences in socioeconomic status, and (c) difference responses to educational systems or different set of educational needs” (American Psychological Association, 2012, p. 11).

This article will first examine the literature on racial disparities in education within public K–12 education followed by a brief review of 21st century research literature on racial disparities within higher education. Within each section there is an examination on the link between race and ethnicity and critical factors that lead to disparities within the education system. This includes information on socioeconomic status, school readiness, special education, school discipline, culture, and teacher bias. There are other risk factors that help create racial and ethnic disparities in the U.S. education system that are not discussed. These includes topics such neighbor and community factors, within-group differences, school choice issues, sexual identity, and the intersection of social identities.


The United States has always had segregated school systems based in part on racial and ethnic backgrounds. In order to understand racial disparities within the U.S. education system, it is important to briefly examine the history of educational inequality that undergirds the U.S. public school system. Although little is shared on the plight of Hispanics and school segregation, it is important to note that a 1947 federal court case, Mendez et al v. Westminster, held that segregated schools for Mexicans in Orange County, California, were unconstitutional and unlawful. Likewise, in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education (1954), it was declared that state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students was unconstitutional. Although the Brown decision ruled against de jure racial segregation in schools by the state, it did not spell out how to end racial segregation in schools. It was the Brown II (1955) decision that ordered states to desegregate public schools using the term “with all deliberate speed.” With this decision many states immediately generated legal and other obstacles to the implementation of desegregated schools. Tactics such as passive and outright resistance, halting school construction, closing schools, firing black teachers, residential relocation, rezoning school districts, and the development of policies that restricted educational funding and resources to integrating schools were used throughout the country to create de facto segregated school systems. While legislation and court actions during the Civil Rights Movement and beyond were instrumental in undoing many of these obstacles to educational opportunities for racial and ethnic children and youth, the U.S. public school system is still increasingly segregated by race and class (Nowicki, 2016).

Although the United States spends more money per pupil on public K–12 education than most industrialized nations, it has one of the most unequal education systems in the industrialized world: “In contrast to European and Asian nations that fund schools centrally and equally, the wealthiest 10% of school districts in the United States spend nearly ten times more than the poorest 10%, and spending ratios of three to one are common within states” (Darling-Hammond, 2004, p. 214). In many ways, educational inequalities are growing within the United States. To illustrate, a report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (Nowicki, 2016) based on an analysis of national data from the Department of Education of K–12 public schools in the United States, found that “the percentage of K-12 public schools in the United States with students who are poor and are mostly Black or Hispanic is growing.” The analysis revealed that for the school years of 2000–2001 to 2013–2014, “The percentage of poor and Black or Hispanic students grew from 9 to 16% . . . These schools were the most racially and economically concentrated: 75–100% of the students were Black or Hispanic and eligible for free or reduced-price lunch—a commonly used indicator of poverty” (Nowicki, 2016). In comparison to other schools, the report determined schools involved offered disproportionally fewer science, math, and college preparatory courses and had high rates of school suspension and expulsion.

Socioeconomic Status

An extensive body or research has demonstrated the link between socioeconomic status and academic outcomes, and there is a long-standing link between racial and ethnic groups and poverty (Nowicki, 2016). Family income is an important factor in educational outcomes. Findings from the U.S. Government Accounting Office, investigating disparities in racial and ethnic public K–12 education outcomes, indicate that 48% of Hispanics and 30% of African Americans attend schools in high poverty areas, as compared to 15% of whites and just 4% of Asian Americans (Nowicki, 2016). These are mostly urban dwellings with high population density, high numbers of low-income families, larger class sizes, fewer resources, higher student ratios, and fewer credentialed teachers—all factors that contribute to disparities in educational outcomes (American Psychological Association, 2012).

Traditionally, unemployment for African Americans has been higher than that of other racial and ethnic groups (American Psychological Association, 2012). For example, during the Great Recession, African American unemployment went from 8.6% in 2007 to 15.8% in 2009, while Latino unemployment went from 5.8% to 12.9% during the same period. Conversely, unemployment for whites remained under 10% for the same period (American Psychological Association, 2012). In general, students from low-income families are associated with the worst academic outcomes, and schools with pupils from middle- and higher-income families are more likely to be associated with better outcomes (p. 8).

Lack of employment opportunities for many African Americans and Latinos is related to discriminatory employment practices and part of a repetitive cycle of receiving a suboptimal education as part of a low-income family, leading to a lack of preparation for higher education and therefore low employment opportunities (Nowicki, 2016). Then changing demographic patterns within family structures reveal that “children in high-income families are increasingly likely to be raised by two parents, both with a college degree, whereas low-income children are more likely than ever to be raised by a single mother with a low level of education” (Reardon, 2013). High-income families spend nearly seven times the amount spent by low-income families on their children’s education. In general, low-income families and communities have fewer educational resources, opportunities, and school support services compared to middle- and upper-income families and communities (Cook, 2015).

School Readiness

School readiness is a known protective factor for achieving academic success in K–12 education. It has been defined as “a set of skill and competencies that relate to a child’s preparedness for kindergarten” (De Feyter & Winsler, 2009, p. 412). Physical well-being, cognitive skills, emotional maturity, language richness, social confidence, and general knowledge are general attributes of school readiness. Research studies demonstrate that when children attend high-quality early childhood education programming, it serves as a predictive factor in school success (American Psychological Association, 2012). There are long-standing gaps in school readiness among racial and ethnic groups, which are based on socioeconomic status and many sociocultural factors including family background that affect children’s preparation for K–12 education (De Feyter & Winsler, 2009).

Gaps in school readiness among racial and ethnic groups have been closing; however, the data demonstrates that the “progress in terms of closing race gaps is uneven. While the Hispanic-white differentials in school readiness have narrowed, the black-white gap has shown less movement” (Reeves, 2015). Parental income and social capital—resources generated from social relationships—have a major influence on school readiness (De Feyter & Winsler, 2009). Children from affluent families and those who are white have greater access and attend higher- quality Pre-K programs. On the contrary, children from low-income families have less access to high-quality pre-K programs and greater access to early child education through public welfare programs or those that are unregulated. Head Start is a public Pre-K program where participants have to meet income guidelines for qualification. The research on Head Start programs demonstrates success in the readiness preparation of attending children when compared to control groups, and that African American children benefit more than children from other groups (American Psychological Association, 2012). The unfortunate story here is that factors such as child poverty, household income, intergenerational mobility, neighborhood, poverty, and incarceration are identified within the research literature impacting school readiness for African American children (American Psychological Association, 2012). Despite decades of school reform, students of color, on average, continue to be disproportionately overrepresented in nearly all negative school-level categories (such as disciplinary referrals, special education placements, school dropouts, and tracking) and underrepresented in all positive school-level categories (such as gifted and talented students, advanced placement courses, high school graduates, and college/academic tracking) (Skiba et al., 2008).

Special Education

Racial and ethnic disparities in special education programs have been a problem for nearly four decades (Maydosz, 2014). About 13% of children and youth receive special education services (U.S. Department of Education, 2016). Policy efforts to address disproportionality in special education were introduced as part of the reenactment of Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA, 1997). Mandates within this reauthorized policy required states to monitor the presence of disproportionality. These provisions were strengthened with the reauthorization of IDEA in 2004, which not only focused on monitoring for disproportionality but also covered prevention through tiered interventions using evidence-based research and practice. There is also a requirement for Local Educational Agencies (LEAs) to commit 15% of the their total IDEA allotted funds to early intervening services when racial disproportionality was evident. Equally important, the 2004 amendments to IDEA incorporated additional due process procedures for disciplining disabled students (Maydosz, 2014). These provisions were incorporated in students’ access to a Free and Appropriate Education (FAPE) and access to an education in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) (IDEA, 2004).

Withstanding policy efforts to address disproportionality in special education and school discipline, the implementation of these programs has resulted in continued disparities among racial and ethnic groups (Gregory et al., 2010; Skiba et al., 2008, 2011). Equally concerning is that research findings reveal not only are minority students disproportionately represented in special education, they are more likely to be identified for one of the three most stigmatizing disability categories: (a) intellectual disability, (b) emotionally disturbed, or (c) learning disabled (Fierros & Conroy, 2002; Skiba et al., 2008).

The U.S. Department of Education outlines different qualifying disability categories for special education service. Researchers assert the distinctions between categories are typically based on both subjective and objective definitions of disability (Parrish, 2002; Skiba et al., 2008). Some argue that “intellectual disability,” “emotionally disturbed,” and “learning disabled” are considered “soft categories” because the diagnosis of these disabilities requires some form of judgment or interpretation by the referring agent (Parrish, 2002). In contrast, “hard categories” such as physical disabilities, blindness, and deafness are less prone to subjectivity and are medically diagnosed.

Research findings demonstrate that racial and ethnic minority students are identified at the same rate as their peers for hard disability categories but are disproportionately diagnosed for soft disability categories (Fierros & Conroy, 2002; Parrish, 2002; Skiba et al., 2008). To illustrate, the 2016 Annual Report to Congress on the Implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education reveal African American students are 2.22 more likely to be identified for intellectual disabilities, 2.08 more likely to be identified for emotional disturbance, and 1.51 more likely to be identified for learning disability in comparison to their white peers at 0.70, 0.96, and 0.73 respectively (U.S. Department of Education, 2016). Although at lesser rate, American Indians and Pacific Islander students are more likely to be identified as needing special education compared to their white peers (U.S. Department of Education, 2016). In general, disproportionate rates of African American students labeled with intellectual disabilities are in “states with a history of racial tension and segregation in schools (Maydosz, 2014). Data highlight that more than 50% of all students identified as intellectually disabled are educated outside of the general education setting more than 60% of the school day (U.S. Department of Education, 2016). The removal of students to a restrictive setting can have detrimental effects on student achievement as well as on student efficacy (Skiba et al., 2008).

Statistically, about 25% of all students in special education earn their high school diploma, and only 3% earn their general equivalency degree GED (U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2009). Fourteen percent of students who receive special education receive alternative certificates, which are considered modified high school diplomas, but indicate that normative standards for graduation have not been achieved. Seventeen percent of African Americans and Hispanics receive alternative certificates; Asian Americans are at 16%; and whites are at 11%. Based on data from the National Center for Education Statistics, African Americans make up 57% of students enrolled in special educations, while whites comprise 73%, Hispanics 59%, Asian Americans 71%, and Native Americans 17% (U.S. Department of Education, 2016a). Nationwide, 6.7% of elementary and secondary students are identified as gifted and talented. This breaks down to Asian American/Pacific Islanders at 13.1%, whites at 8%, Native Americans at 5.2%, Hispanics at 4.2%, and African Americans at 3.6%.

Special education students who have been out of school for less than two years have a 46% unemployment rate (U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2009). Equally important is that adults who have experienced special education represent 21% of all individuals who live at or near the federal poverty line (U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2009). Furthermore, few special education students go on to pursue higher education (Heward, 2003; Chapman, Laird, & KewalRamani, 2010a; U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2009). Scholars have also noted that special education students are employed at a lower rate than peers who were educated in a general education classroom setting and receive high school diplomas (Edgar, 1987; Hasazi, Gordon, & Roe, 1985; Jackson & Moore, 2006).

School Discipline

Similar to their representative population in special education, minority students are disproportionately cited for school disciplinary issues. For all racial, ethnic, and gender groups within all 50 states, including students diagnosed with disabilities as well as those who are not disabled, black males (33.8%) followed by Latino males (23.2%) have the highest school suspension rates, and whites have the lowest (Losen, Hodson, Keith, Morrison, & Belway, 2015). Among students with disabilities, black female students have higher rates of school suspension compared to white females: “It is also important to note that Black females with disabilities are suspended at higher rates than White males with disabilities—22.5% and 16.2%, respectively” (Losen et al., 2015, p. 3). In most cases, these differences are not attributable to different levels of misbehavior (Chatman et al., 2013; Fabelo et al., 2011; Losen, et al., 2015; Smith & Harper, 2015; Skiba et al., 2011).

Disproportionality in school discipline is unsettling for several reasons. First, racial disproportionality in school suspensions and expulsions is associated with the development of zero tolerance policies and the widespread application of exclusionary discipline practices (Fenning & Rose, 2007; Skiba, 2014). Second, research has demonstrated that suspension and expulsion are linked with poor attendance, grade retention, and failure to complete school (dropping out), all of which ultimately impact students economically and society as a whole (Hyman & Snook, 2000; Losen, 2015; Marchbanks et al., 2015). Third, considering the overrepresentation of African Americans in special education, some scholars have suggested that special education may also contribute to the proverbial school-to-prison pipeline (Jackson & Moore, 2006; Chapman, Laird, & KewalRamani, 2010a). Seventeen percent of all African American males between the ages of 18–29 are incarcerated, and 80% of the total prison population consists of high school dropouts.


Cultural and linguistic factors among racial and ethnic groups help to shape disproportionality in U.S. educational outcomes (Nowicki, 2016). With a majority minority demographic shift taking place in student enrollment in U.S. K–12 public schools in 2014, it is projected that by 2026 whites will make up just 45% of the K–12 public school system, a decline of 15% since 1997 (Krogstad & Fry, 2014). In 2026 Hispanic students will make up 29% of student enrollment in U.S. K–12 public schools; black Americans will comprise 15%, Asian/Pacific Islanders will comprise 6%, American Indians will be at 1%, and those identifying as two or more races will be at 4%. Hispanics are the fastest-growing ethnic group attending U.S. schools, which includes Latino immigrant children. Seven out of 10 immigrant parents are non-English speakers. As such, across the country, local and state education systems have had to increasingly provide English-language instruction (Krogstad & Fry, 2014). Disparities in educational achievement and school readiness for many immigrant families are based on language barriers, socioeconomic status, unexpected income shifts, family member separation, and challenges accessing health care (Han, Lee, & Waldfogel, 2012; Krogstad & Fry, 2014). Researchers have identified strengths that aid immigrant children with school readiness such as socioemotional competence in peer relations and low behavioral problems (Krogstad & Fry, 2014).

Beyond the diversifying landscape of students in K–12 education in America, cultural factors continue to shape disparities in educational experiences and outcomes within the United States. Research has demonstrated that attending diverse school settings increases academic achievement and graduation rates for black and Hispanic students. Black and Hispanic students learning outcomes are not as favorable in literacy and math skills in non-diverse school settings. There is some evidence that school climate within diverse school settings contributes to academic achievement when students perceive there is a supportive environment and can get along with one another.

Ethnically diverse school settings decrease student vulnerability, improve critical thinking, and increase social networks among students (American Psychological Association, 2012). Conversely, while there are many excellent schools with high numbers of minority students enrolled, research findings demonstrate that for schools with 75%–100% black or Hispanic students, there are lower levels of academic achievement when compared to schools with white students with similar percentages. Over two million black students attend schools where 90% of the student body are minority students (Cook, 2015).

Teacher Bias

Whether intentional or unintentional, teacher bias has been identified as a factor in reduced education outcomes for minority students (Campbell, 2015; Ferguson, 2003; Gershenson, Holt, & Papageorge, 2015). There are many forms of bias and discrimination toward racial and ethnic minorities. Patronizing attitudes, microaggressions, forms of aggression, cultural awareness bias, assessment bias, and stigma are known factors cited within research literature (American Psychological Association, 2012). Teacher bias has been identified as a factor in reduced education outcomes for minority students (Campbell, 2015; Ferguson, 2003; Gershenson et al., 2015). African American students are more likely to be the target of negative perceptions, stereotypes, and bias than white students (Campbell, 2015). Even in majority minority school settings, whites are usually the predominate group of schoolteachers (Maydosz, 2014). Attitudes and perceptions about students affect teachers’ perceptions about student learning ability, who is referred for school discipline, and the mediation of punishment in schools (Maydosz, 2014). African American and Hispanic students are more likely to be the target of negative perceptions, stereotypes, and bias than white students (Campbell, 2015; Cook, 2015; Aston & Graves, 2016). A major study of Texas schools that covered 62% of the student population within the state determined that African American and Hispanic students were more likely to be punished for disciplinary violations in schools with harsher penalties for similar infractions as opposed to white students for similar offenses (Tajalli & Garba, 2014).

High School Graduation

For young adults aged 18–24, the high school completion rate with diploma or a General Educational Development (GED) certificate was 91%. This represents an increase from 84% since 1980. Between 1980 and 2011, high school completion rates for black, non-Hispanic young adults increased from 75% to 90%: “At 93.5% Asian Americans have the highest high school graduation rate in America among racial and ethnic groups,” while Native Americans have the lowest high school graduation rate at 65%. “White, non-Hispanics, the high school completion rate increased from 88% in 1980 to 94% in 2011” (Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics, 2013, p. 53). Teachers who fail to understand the cultural and behavioral styles of African American students may underestimate students’ intellectual potential, language abilities, and/or achievement (Maydosz, 2014, p. 84). For Hispanic youth, the high school completion rate “increased from 57% in 1980 to 82% in 2011” (Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics, 2013, p. 53). Yet, the high school completion rates are lower for Hispanic young adults than African Americans and non-Hispanic whites.

College Education

Similar to primary and secondary education, higher education follows the same patterns of racial and ethnic disparities in academic outcomes. Disparities in college education outcomes start with who attends colleges. For those ages 18–24, a higher percentage of whites (44%) attend colleges and universities compared to blacks (32%), and Hispanics (26%) (Aud, Fox, & KewalRamani, 2010). When compared to Asians and whites, lower rates of college enrollment for black and Latino students lead to lower levels of educational attainment by their mid-20s, reducing employment opportunities. Native Americans represent 1% of college enrollment within the United States, with many of these students attending two-year institutions. At 9.3%, Native Americans have the lowest college graduation rate in the country. Financial, academic preparation, teacher and institutional support, family support, and the need to maintain cultural connections are cited as factors that reduce Native American enrollment in higher education (Guillory & Wolverton, 2008).

Given the growing expense of college tuition, income inequality is widening disparities in college education rates among racial and ethnic groups. Even when achieving a college education, income gains for blacks and Hispanics are lower when compared to the benefit of a college education for whites (Emmons & Ricketts, 2017). Although Latinos have made significant gains in college enrollment, they lag behind in the quality of higher educational outcomes. “In 2016, 47% of Hispanic high school graduates ages 18–24 were enrolled in college, up from 32% in 1999” (Gramlick, 2017). Yet, Latinos are less likely to attend a four- year college, and they are overrepresented in community colleges. Black students comprise a smaller proportion of students attending the top U.S. colleges and universities, and they account for the majority of those in bottom-ranked colleges. African Americans are overrepresented in private, for-profit schools: “Growing gaps in college-attainment rates, together with large differences in the economic and financial returns associated with any given level of education, suggest that racial and ethnic income and wealth gaps are likely to grow larger in the future” (Emmons & Ricketts, 2017, p. 3). In terms of graduate education, approximately “7% of black families and 5% of Hispanic families have postgraduate degrees” (Emmons & Ricketts, 2017).


Despite decades of legal and legislative approaches to ending inequities in educational outcomes among racial and ethnic groups, gross disparities still exist. At present, the de facto re-segregation of U.S. schools throughout the country means continued disparities in educational outcomes among racial and ethnic groups. High-income families have access to more educational resources, greater levels of community and neighborhood supports, and better schools compared to those institutions with majority minority populations. Although there are greater achievements in educational outcomes among minority groups, the plethora of obstacles to a quality educational experience for many racial and ethnic minorities in the United States has resulted in a situation where structural barriers to a quality education have become all but insurmountable for many. These barriers translate to fewer opportunities to attend institutions of higher education for many minoritized groups and reduce their chances of attending the best colleges and universities. African American, Latino, and Native American families suffer from higher rates of unemployment compared to whites, which translated into fewer educational opportunities for their children. However, while family socioeconomic status and family structure help to explain disparities in education outcomes among racial and ethnic groups, cultural factors are a salient part of the conversation and need greater attention in research and practice.

Further Reading

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Guiberson, M. (2009). Hispanic representation in special education: Patterns and implications, preventing school failure. Alternative Education for Children and Youth, 53(3), 167–176.Find this resource:

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Hines, E. M., Vega, D. D., Mayes, R., Harris, P. C., & Mack, M. (2019). School counselors and school psychologists as collaborators of college and career readiness for students in urban school settings. Journal for Multicultural Education, 13(3), 190–202.Find this resource:

Morgan, P. L., Farkas, G., Cook, M., Strassfeld, N. M., Hillemeier, M. M., Pun. W H., . . . Schussler, D. L. (2017). Are black children disproportionately overrepresented in special education? A best-evidence synthesis. Exceptional Children, 83(2), 181–198.Find this resource:

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