Advancing racial equity in US pre-K–12 education

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There is a significant opportunity to increase inclusive growth in America by closing persistent racial gaps in educational opportunities and achievement. Eliminating these gaps could help reverse downward trends in social mobility while potentially generating up to $700 billion in additional GDP for the nation.1COVID-19 and student learning in the United States: The hurt could last a lifetime,” McKinsey, June 1, 2020. And there are resources available to jump-start initiatives. The Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) allocated $190 billion in federal funding to the nation’s schools, from prekindergarten (pre-K) to 12th grade—a resource pool that could be used to advance racial-equity investments in education. But the clock is ticking: the funds must be obligated by September 2024.2Halftime for the K–12 stimulus: How are districts faring?,” McKinsey, November 2, 2022; ESSER received funds under three COVID-19 relief packages passed by Congress: the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act; the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act; and the American Rescue Plan. For more, see “Monitoring and reporting,” Office of Elementary & Secondary Education, last updated June 14, 2023.

Based on detailed reviews of research and case studies, we have identified six actions that leaders of school systems and their communities could take to use the remaining ESSER funding to advance racial equity in education (exhibit).3 While this list is not exhaustive, these select areas include those in which students of color may have less access, lower quality, or fewer resources. Some of these solutions may not be novel, but our experience has shown that consistent implementation of these actions, and implementation at scale, has been a challenge thus far.

Six actions could advance racial equity.

To be clear, these actions, even if taken at scale, may not eliminate racial disparities in pre-K–12 education. However, evidence suggests that these investments could help shift current trajectories for education opportunities and outcomes, generating meaningful advances in equity.4

The persistent opportunity and achievement gap

The opportunity gap in public education between White students and students of color has persisted throughout our nation’s history. When free public education began to spread in the early 19th century, children of color were often excluded. When they did gain access, they were often segregated and underserved.5 Forced segregation was permissible until the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision in 1954, and despite decades of court-ordered desegregation that followed, 98 percent of Black children in the South still attended segregated schools in 1964.6 And children of color were often forced to attend segregated schools with a focus on assimilation.7

Through the 1970s and ’80s, racial inequities in academic outcomes were closing, but there is still a long way to go. At the pace of change before the COVID-19 pandemic, it would take an estimated 60 to 160 years for students of color to achieve educational parity in the United States (see sidebar “Racial gaps in educational outcomes over time”).8 And the pandemic, which wiped out two decades’ worth of math and reading progress for the nation’s fourth and eighth graders, exacerbated existing gaps.9COVID-19 and education: The lingering effects of unfinished learning,” McKinsey, July 27, 2021. Declines in National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) math scores were much larger for Black students than for their White peers.

While strong literacy instruction benefits all students, it could have an outsize impact on closing racial gaps. Struggling readers are disproportionately students of color.

These developments, and the availability of federal funding to combat pandemic-related learning delays, offer an opportunity for action.

Three actions school systems can take directly

Below are three actions school systems can control directly to help close equity gaps, as well as steps they could take to jump-start initiatives.

1. Strengthen core early-literacy instructional practices

Early literacy is closely linked to student success. Students who do not read proficiently by third grade are four times less likely to graduate from high school.10 While strong literacy instruction benefits all students, it could have an outsize impact on closing racial gaps. Struggling readers are disproportionately students of color; for example, of the one million fourth graders who do not read at a proficient level, two-thirds are Black or Hispanic.11

Research on tens of thousands of children and adults summarized by the National Center on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) provides a road map to potentially reduce the rate of reading failure from three in ten children to one in ten.12 This road map includes a strong phonics curriculum and intervention, paired with vocabulary and background knowledge gleaned from broad exposure to varied content.13 School systems have achieved significant growth in early-literacy results by implementing research-backed actions.14

Starting in 2013, Mississippi passed a series of state laws that overhauled the state’s approach to teaching reading, aligning it with research-backed literacy practices. Between 2017 and 2019, it was the only state to see fourth-grade literacy gains on the NAEP, with Black students’ scores improving at a faster pace than those of their White peers.15 Other states are now following a similar strategy: in 2021, Louisiana proposed investments and passed legislation focused on early literacy, and in 2020, Tennessee passed legislation focused on foundational literacy skills.16

Getting started. ESSER investments can help jump-start efforts to strengthen approaches to early-literacy instruction. To ensure those funds deliver maximum impact, system leaders could start by assessing the degree to which current literacy practices are backed by research. This could lead to curricular changes, new approaches to professional development, or other adjustments that could strengthen literacy instruction for students of color. States could also consider taking on a stronger role in overseeing teacher prep programs, which are currently largely outside their purview; requiring professional development that is aligned with curriculums and research; and publishing standards for state-approved curriculums and assessments.17

2. Use an equity framework to allocate resources

Resources such as staff, time, and money are limited and often concentrated on students from wealthier (usually White) families.18 Nationally, historically underserved students receive between $400 and $1,200 less per pupil than White and economically advantaged students.19 Students of color are also more likely to attend schools with newer, less experienced, lower-paid teachers, who are less effective than more-experienced teachers, on average.20

Multiple case studies suggest that when resources are targeted at low-income students and students of color, achievement gaps narrow.21 For example, a $1,000 increase in per-pupil funding over four years was found to boost college attendance rates by about three percentage points and graduation rates for lower-income students by nearly two percentage points.22

Research also suggests that students assigned to higher-quality teachers are more likely to graduate, attend college, and earn higher wages.23 Given that school systems across the country are currently struggling to attract and retain K–12 teachers,24K–12 teachers are quitting. What would make them stay?,” McKinsey, March 2, 2023. states could allocate ESSER funds to strategically address teacher shortages in hard-to-staff schools by using pay incentives. The NCTQ has identified 66 districts across the United States that are doing this.25 In assessing teacher staffing across districts, schools systems could also consider the diversity of their teaching staff. Research has shown that same-race teachers have a notable positive effect on the performance of students of color, including documented improvements in student achievement,26 school attendance,27 student self-management,28 course grades,29 high school graduation,30 and reduced disciplinary actions.31

Getting started. System leaders could start by assessing whether resources are allocated with equity of opportunity in mind. This includes examining the distribution of the most effective staff, the impact of instructional and operational vacancies, facilities equity, per-pupil spend, and shared central resources. An equity framework could inform conversations about the best ways to allocate high-quality teachers and leaders to schools where they can have the greatest impact as well as other strategies to shift resources to ensure equity of opportunity.

3. Increase instructional time for students who need it the most

Research indicates tutoring can have a significant impact on student learning at scale,32 making it a potentially effective approach for combating pandemic-related learning loss to advance racial equity in education. A study by the University of Chicago found that individualized, intensive (“high dosage”) tutoring could more than double the amount of math students learned in a single academic year.33

School systems can explore many tutoring programs, such as Saga Education, Reading Partners, and the Minnesota Math Corps.34 As school systems work to establish these programs, state leaders could also help by providing dedicated funding and technical assistance. For example, Tennessee recently launched TN All Corps, a program designed to provide funding and support to systems running high-dosage, low-ratio tutoring programs, and more than half the districts in the state are participating.35

Getting started. ESSER resources provide an opportunity to increase instructional time for students of color who need additional support. State leaders could consider replicating efforts like Tennessee’s to provide incentives for and build momentum around high-dosage tutoring.

Three actions that require broad community leadership

Advancing racial equity in education also means addressing factors that are outside of school systems’ direct control. To help close gaps in education opportunity and outcomes, community leaders could take the following three actions in partnership with school system leaders.

1. Ensure access to high-quality pre-K

Research shows that children enrolled in pre-K programs typically go on to achieve higher test scores and better language development. Often, they also have better attendance and fewer behavioral problems in school.36 Moreover, the positive effects of pre-K are often larger for students of color, particularly Hispanic students and those from low-income households.37 Research suggests that attending a high-quality pre-K program can close as much as 50 percent of the racial achievement gap.38

But racial disparities exist today in both enrollment and access to high-quality programming.39 To reduce these gaps, school systems could consider investing in high-quality pre-K and ensuring access for children of color.40Expanding publicly funded pre-K: How to do it and do it well,” McKinsey, January 13, 2023.

How school system leaders can support community pre-K efforts. School systems could convene state and local leaders, district and charter leaders, childcare providers, parents, advocates, workforce partners, and others to develop a road map to expand high-quality pre-K with a focus on racial equity. And if doing so requires a new revenue source, the assembled stakeholders could help build a coalition to identify potential funding mechanisms. Some states and localities have used short-term federal funds to pilot expanded pre-K programs, though other funding sources will likely be needed to ensure long-term sustainability.

2. Provide wraparound services for families and communities

Factors that affect long-term outcomes for youth, such as stable affordable housing and exposure to traumatic events, are beyond the direct control of the school system. Children who have experienced a single adverse childhood experience earn 7.3 percent less than their peers and are more likely to depend on public benefits and live in poverty.41 Wraparound healthcare, social services, and other supports are thus considered critical complements to a strong school. This is particularly important for students of color. McKinsey research has found that many Black neighborhoods are consumer deserts, with inadequate access to food, affordable housing, healthcare services, broadband, and banks.42The economic state of Black America: What is and what could be,” McKinsey, June 17, 2021.

Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ) provides an example of what can be achieved by combining strong schools with effective community support. Educator Geoffrey Canada created HCZ in 1997 to address challenges children in Harlem were facing through what HCZ calls “cradle-to-career services” centered on education,43 including parent workshops, full-day preschool, health clinics, youth violence prevention efforts, and college admissions support. HCZ played a central role in connecting services across schools, local government, and community organizations. HCZ’s work was credited with eliminating gaps in outcomes between students of color and White students in both literacy and math.44

Numerous efforts have been made to replicate HCZ’s success, including through the Obama administration’s Promise Neighborhoods initiative. Launched in 2010, the initiative has awarded grants to 17 cities, but results have been mixed—an outcome some researchers say highlights the difficulty of measuring success and shows how varied needs can be from one community to another.45 In Buffalo, the Say Yes to Education program saw graduation rates climb 15 points from 2012 (the starting year of operations) to 2017. The program includes the promise of free college tuition for graduates and provides a full suite of wraparound services for students. Leaders highlight cooperation from local government, schools, the teachers’ union, parents, business groups, and higher education as instrumental to Buffalo’s success.46

The Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI) in Boston is another example of a neighborhood collaborative that has supported community-led initiatives to increase affordable housing and strengthen community infrastructure.47 HCZ, the Say Yes program, and DSNI have relied on partnerships with a broad base of funders that have made long-term commitments.

How school systems can support wraparound services and support. School systems with large populations of students of color living in neighborhoods that are consumer deserts could begin by identifying a leader who can build a community and school system coalition organized around long-term collaborative commitments to strengthen the community. As the coalition builds momentum, its focus could turn to ensuring sufficient funding over the long term.

3. Address school racial, ethnic, and economic divisions

Longitudinal studies of court-ordered desegregation in the 1950s and 1960s found that five years in an integrated school environment translated into a 14.5-percentage-point increase in the likelihood of Black students graduating from high school.48 More recently, an analysis of NAEP results showed that low-income students in high-poverty schools were about two years of learning behind low-income students attending more-affluent schools.49 And it’s not just historically marginalized students who benefit from attending more-affluent schools (which tend to have a higher proportion of White students than low-income schools do): students of all races and socioeconomic statuses show improvements in critical thinking, motivation, creativity, and problem-solving skills in socioeconomically diverse classrooms.50

Yet nearly 70 years after Brown v. Board of Education, the nation’s schools remain divided along racial, ethnic, and economic lines, despite student populations becoming increasingly diverse.51 For instance, one in six US public-school students attends a school where more than 90 percent of students share that student’s racial identity.52 The US Government Accountability Office found that there are 13,500 predominantly same-race schools within ten miles of a predominantly same-race school of a different race.53

Some schools and communities around the country are trying to address this issue by focusing on socioeconomic integration.54 The Century Foundation estimates that more than 900 districts have some form of integration policy in place today.55 Across these efforts, successful approaches have had support and investment from both district leadership and the broader community to help guide efforts as they evolve over time.

In Dallas and San Antonio, school district leaders worked with communities to identify new school models that would be compelling to parents across all socioeconomic groups, such as science, technology, engineering, arts, and math (STEAM) programs; dual-language schools; and advanced-learning opportunities.56 These new schools are diverse by design—when they opened, slots were prioritized for students from different socioeconomic groups.57 Initial results suggest these schools have more-representative student bodies and bring positive academic benefits to students.58

In New York City’s District 15, a community school district encompassing affluent brownstone Brooklyn and lower-income and immigrant enclaves, a community-driven process led to a controlled-choice admissions plan for middle school. Since its launch in 2018, this plan has decreased economic and racial segregation (see sidebar “Case studies in socioeconomic integration”).59

How school systems can support integration efforts. The path forward for socioeconomic integration—and racial integration by proxy—often depends on local context and requires a long-term vision for implementation. System leaders could start by studying the enrollment and demographic patterns in their community to understand the challenge and the opportunity. They could then partner with local groups to understand what kind of change families might support and listen to perspectives from all stakeholders to build a coalition for change. Districts could use federal funds to spur planning and engagement efforts, which often require real resources to be successful and inclusive.

The lack of meaningful progress in closing racial disparities in pre-K–12 educational outcomes, and the disproportionate impact the pandemic has had on learning for students of color, suggests that policy makers need to think differently about how to close these gaps. At the same time, collective community energy around addressing pandemic recovery and the resources provided by ESSER represent a unique opportunity for school system leaders to address racial inequities. To seize that opportunity, leaders could consider translating a vision for equity into meaningful actions such as the six described here, with broader community commitment for long-term initiatives.

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