The myth of racial inequality in Philadelphia public schools



Despite accusations of segregation, academic achievement and failure in district schools transcend neighborhoods and racial boundaries.


by Christopher Paslay


There’s a line in the movie JFK where Kevin Costner explains to the jury that theoretical physics can prove that an elephant can hang from a cliff with his tail tied to a daisy.


“But use your eyes, your common sense,” Costner tells the jurors.    


This is good advice when it comes to the racial achievement gap in the Philadelphia School District.  Recently, district and city officials have suggested that unequal school conditions are the reason why white students have higher math and reading skills than black and Latino students.


Philadelphia, like many other Northeastern cities, has been slow to address and remove the policy barriers that have served to keep poor and minority students in under-resourced schools,” Lori Shorr, Mayor Nutter’s secretary of education recently stated.


It’s not my policy to look at people in terms of skin color, but since the race card has been placed squarely on the table, it’s worth investigating the matter further.


Let’s start with the racial make-up of several of the highest performing public schools in the city (as well as the state). 


Despite claims of segregation, CAPA, Engineering and Science, and Girls High have student bodies that are majority black.  Central is evenly balanced between black (30.7 percent), white (31.7 percent) and Asian (28.8 percent), and Masterman is also very diverse. 


Let’s now look at the demographics of the so-called “white” schools in the Northeast.  According to school district data, Frankford, Fells, Lincoln and Northeast all have more black students than white, or any other race for that matter.  Washington is also very diverse, with more non-white students than white. 


The interesting part about these “privileged” Northeast schools is that all five of them are empowerment schools—which means they are failing because they haven’t met the standards set forth in No Child Left Behind. 


The same is true for the Northeast’s Austin Meehan Middle School and Fitzpatrick Elementary—they have more non-white students than white, and both are categorized as failing. 


A school that is predominantly white is Kensington’s Charles Carroll High School (54.8% white), but once again there are no extra privileges or resources here, because this school is also failing by state standards. 


A school that isn’t failing is Strawberry Mansion, which is 98 percent black and located in the heart of North Philadelphia.  Neither is Bok in South Philadelphia (77.3 percent black); or Communications Technology in Southwest Philadelphia (98 percent black); or High School of the Future in West Philadelphia (94.7 percent black).  And the list goes on and on.  


So where’s the unequal opportunity?


When you analyze the actual numbers, it becomes clear that Philadelphia’s racial achievement gap is more about politics than it is about a “dark stain” of inequality.  There is no legitimate racial discrimination taking place—the district’s 85 empowerment schools, as well as the ones making Adequate Yearly Progress—are evenly distributed across racial lines and neighborhood boundaries. 


But even if there were some kind of discrimination evident, it would clearly have to be of the black-on-black variety.      


Mayor Michael Nutter is black (as was John Street before him);  Superintendent Arlene Ackerman is black; School Reform Commission chair Robert L. Archie Jr. is black; 61 percent of Philadelphia public school students (and their parents) are black. 


This, of course, is opposed to the 13 percent of the district students who are white.


White students may score higher on standardized math and reading tests than their black and Latino counterparts, but educational opportunities in schools are only the tip of the iceberg.


In a newly released report titled Parsing the Achievement Gap II, the Educational Testing Service tracked national trends between students of different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds.  The report listed 16 factors that have been linked to student achievement. 


Of the 16 factors, nine were directly related to a child’s home environment.  Minority children struggle in schools for reasons such as lack of parental involvement, low birth weight, hunger and poor nutrition, exposure to lead and mercury, excessive television watching, and the fact that they are not read to enough as babies, among other things.


If we want all children to succeed in school, it’s time to take a holistic approach to education.  We not only need more resources in struggling schools, but we need true buy-in from parents and the community. 


We all must take responsibility for educating our city’s children, and resist the familiar temptation to blame our shortcomings on racism.      


6 thoughts on “The myth of racial inequality in Philadelphia public schools

  1. Paslay states:

    “If we want all children to succeed in school, it’s time to take a holistic approach to education. We not only need more resources in struggling schools, but we need true buy-in from parents and the community. We all must take responsibility for educating our city’s children, and resist the familiar temptation to blame our shortcomings on racism.”


    This is pie in the sky reform. We all hope all kids will come to school fully prepared, well rested, with homework done, and a nice healthy lunch. These are great things for any child. Let’s add in safe streets, nice houses, good health care, dental care, etc.

    But teachers will never be able to change this. Is there any data supporting that added resources and better home environments will increase reading and math scores? I’d like to see it.

    DeRosa’s latest blog post offers recent data on how different reading instruction can increase reading test scores regardless of SES.

    He offers follow-ups in the next few days.

    Schools can change instruction. Let’s focus on that.

    So far this has been ignored by the District and by you. Stop wishing for something that will never happen. Let’s try to fix something we have control over and that is what and how we teach.

    Ignored by educators, Project Follow Through, which proved that instruction could overcome SES.

    Also ignored by educators, the Southwest Regional Laboratory Project, which developed a reading system that produced long term gains in reading regardless of SES.


    • Kathy,

      Reading instruction is very important, and you’re right: We must focus our attention on strategies that work.

      However, go back and re-read my blog post, because I clearly cited a report called “Parsing the Achievement Gap II,” prepared by the Educational Testing Service, which tracked national trends between students of different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. The report listed 16 factors that have been linked to student achievement. NINE of them have to do with HOME ENVIRONMENT. In other words, parents, homework, nutrition, health care, etc., ALL have a significant impact on academic achievement, on reading and math skills.

      Here’s a link to the report if you want to read it for yourself:

      Click to access PICPARSINGII.pdf

      I don’t believe holistic education is “pie in the sky,” as you put it. In fact, it’s a growing trend that is gaining momentum. The Harlem Children’s Zone, founded by Geoffrey Canada, is an educational model that ties social services (community groups, health care, adult education, parenting classess, etc.) to academics. It’s been so successful that President Obama wants to replicate the model nation wide. And it gets proven results. Here’s a link:

      There is another movement, called A Broader, BOLDER Approach to Education, that acknowledges that a holistic effort is needed if children are to succeed in school.

      The BBA consists of educators, legislators, Nobel laureates and foundations from across the country, who are embracing a community oriented approach to Education that seeks to reduce the social and economic disadvantages that sabotages achievement.

      To quote the BBA’s website: “More than a half century of research has documented a powerful association between social and economic disadvantage and low student achievement.”

      You may also want to read the Summer 2009 edition of American Educator. The theme of the issue is “Surrounded by Support,” and there are a dozen articles about the correlation between home environment and academic success.

      Granted, teachers are the life-blood of eduation, and I’ve never denied this fact, or tried to dodge this responsibility. And teachers, as well as our methodologies, have plenty of room for improvement; reading instruction IS important, and you’re right: schools can change instruction, and we must support strategies that work, and abandon those that don’t.

      But to believe that teachers and schools alone can save our children is unrealistic. I personally refuse to write-off parents and communities just because involving them in education is a difficult task. They MUST get on board, just as teachers and schools must do their part. Without a holistic approach, our public education system will ultimately continue to founder.

      –Chris Paslay

  2. Hi Chris:

    I did read the article you posted, Parsing the Achievement Gap II.

    I also have read about the Harlem Children’s Zone and saw a report on 60 Minutes on the project.

    Found this review online:

    also found this report at:

    scan down to:

    Are High-Quality Schools Enough to Close the Achievement Gap? Evidence from a Bold Social Experiment in Harlem (with W. Dobbie) April 2009

    DeRosa also has a ton of posts on the Broader, Bolder concept:

    The projects you name are great goals for any community. However when I tutor students in reading in grades K-2 my biggest obstacle is the defective reading strategies my students have learned from our balanced literacy reading instruction and not whether they come from poor home environments.

    All students respond the same way to effective reading instruction- they learn to read. Teaching kids to read correctly at an early age allows them the chance to learn what needs to be learned in grade school so that when you get them in high school they can learn from you. Without step one-learning to read-nothing else is possible. And this can happen regardless of SES. I see it everyday in my school and the data I provided in past posts also supports this statement.

    If we teach kids to read then maybe they will not drop out of school, maybe they graduate and get a job, and maybe they will eventually improve their own lives and provide a better life for the next generation. To me this is an easy and inexpensive way to break the cycle of poverty.


  3. Great piece and I was glad to see the Daily News actually printed it! I appreciate the fact that you back up your claims with facts. Too often the local Philly media merely rewrites what PR handout they get from the 440 folk. Journalistic research seems to be dead as far as this town is concerned.

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