How Segregation Survives

This graphic from Pittsburgh Public Schools doesn’t lie — kids in AP classes have high expectations. But what does that mean for the other kids?


This week we explored the array of biases and barriers that exist in the classrooms of American high schools — ingrained prejudices and ideologies surrounding race and academic ability.

We might be more comfortable talking about getting more green vegetables in school lunches and the duration of summer vacation, but under the radar, a system of separation has survived and advanced. Once hailed as a means of accelerating students’ progress, ability grouping has come under fire for forcing many students into rigid groupings — meaning success for some, and failure for many.

Derek Black, a professor of law at the University of South Carolina, says what on the surface may look like remediation for slow learners is often a subtle form of racial segregation.

“African-American students are very disproportionately placed in lower level classes,” he said on this week’s show. When litigating a case against a school board in Thomasville, GA accused of racially segregating students, an expert told the court, “It’s better to be white and poor than middle class and black when it comes to ability grouping.”


Jason Okonofua’s talk at Stanford’s Center for Education Policy and Analysis, laying out his latest research on racial bias and class discipline.


Stanford University social psychologist Jason Okonofua, a guest on this week’s show, is attempting to deconstruct these racial groupings by tackling the high suspension rates that keep many African-America students out of class. He’s developed a training course that instructs teachers on how to act with empathy.

His work began with a startling statistic.

“Black students can be anywhere from three to six times as likely to receive suspensions or expulsions as compared to their peers,” Okonofua said.

In one trial, his workshop halved suspension rates, but still could not fix the disproportionality in discipline faced by black students.

The stakes for finding a fix are high. Suspensions and expulsions are a major cause of what Okonofua and others call the “school to prison pipeline” — the symbiotic relationship between repeated disciplinary action in public school and rates of criminality. 

But what if racial segregation and high suspension rates were not a problem? Would there be a way to make ability grouping work?


Jo Boaler’s math drawings, showing different approaches to the same problem. For more from Jo, see below.

Stanford University professor Jo Boaler says the latest brain science is showing ability grouping to be a sham. Boaler’s research focuses on mathematics education, where she says ability grouping is particularly harmful.

The idea that some students are “math people” and others not is a pervasive myth, she says, that hampers children’s ability to see themselves as dynamic, evolving individuals.

“Students believe it, teachers believe it, parents believe it and until we change that single myth, we will continue to have widespread underachievement in this country.”

Boaler has introduced innovative ways to identify higher levels of mathematical comprehension based on finger perception, which could lead to better identifying the educational needs of a student.

Watch Boaler’s mind-bending TED talk below, where she explains why musicians are better at math and shows just how many ways there are to solve a simple math problem like 12 x 4.


Have you listened to the other parts of our series? Part I: Origins explores the roots of the modern education system and asks how the promise of equal public education was broken from the start. Part II: Primary traces the progress of our youngest learners and explores how classrooms advantage whites as early as kindergarten. Check them both out below!