In high school, I was the only student of color in all but one of my advanced classes. Except for my time on the basketball team and some joyful moments in study hall, I didn’t see my friends from the neighborhood at school.
I created a term to describe this experience: “academically alone.”
I rationalized my solitude by telling myself that I was unique. I never questioned the process that put me on the path to college while my friends were being left behind. Looking back, I now know that my uncommon path and academic isolation were symptoms of something else entirely.
As the youngest child of a single parent with no child care, I had no choice but to join my mother in her local community college classes. Attending classes with my mother introduced me to advanced concepts at an early age and empowered my mother to advocate for my access to advanced courses.
My friends without such advocacy found themselves systematically excluded from certain courses by the invisible hand of adults who did not know them and used the school schedule to cajole them toward courses and pathways that, over time, calcified and shaped their identities — and aspirations.
In some ways, I was lucky to attend advanced classes in isolation. Data shows that too few students even get that chance.
Black and Latino students often lack access to advanced courses altogether. The U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights found that 25 percent of the high schools serving the highest populations of Black and Latino students don’t offer the second year of algebra usually required for college.
Participation in advanced courses matters because students who take them (Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, dual-enrollment and honors classes) are more likely to succeed in postsecondary education. And it matters because these gaps in access to more rigorous courses manifest as disparate outcomes in college persistence, completion and success.
But while the data is striking, it would be a mistake to attribute these gaps to access alone. Because even when advanced courses are available, students of color are often scheduled out of pathways that would lead them to those courses and put them on a track to college.
A report from the Center for Public Research and Leadership (CPRL) at Columbia University found that if school and district leaders would consider not just which rigorous classes are taught each semester but whether all students can actually access them, they could play a critical role in making good on the promise of quality education for all.
Schools’ “master schedules” are intended to accommodate teachers, address standards and provide universal student access to the courses that will point students toward postsecondary success. The CPRL report suggests that the promise of access is often undermined by scheduling policies that steer students of color in the “other” direction. It highlights the ways in which a school’s master schedule can inadvertently sort students into segregated learning environments by mandating requirements for accessing advanced coursework that disproportionately exclude marginalized students. Master schedules also often prioritize parent requests for particular teachers or course sequences; but parents who are front-line workers, leading a family alone or managing multiple jobs, or who didn’t go to college themselves — all disproportionately Black and Latino — rely instead on the school system to get it right for their children.
Educators can also play a role in perpetuating or even exacerbating inequality. When experienced teachers opt to teach more advanced coursework, they leave newer and less-prepared teachers to teach classes where students have the most academic needs. This fuels a cycle in which students in the lower academic tracks are more vulnerable to instructor instability. In the worst-case scenario, certified teachers are paired with higher-level classes and uncertified teachers are assigned to lower-tracked classes.
The good news is that a growing number of schools and districts are recognizing the challenge and beginning to approach scheduling differently. San Diego Unified School District discovered that many students, including a large number from marginalized populations, were taking classes that didn’t fulfill the admissions requirements for University of California schools.
Gaps in access to more rigorous courses manifest in disparate outcomes in college persistence, completion and success.
The district decided to eliminate “singleton,” or “junk,” courses to encourage enrollment in its college-prep offerings; officials warned that failure rates would go “through the roof.” Instead, the CPRL report revealed, the percentage of Black and Latino students in academically rigorous courses increased “almost overnight,” with significantly higher pass rates than administrators predicted.
In Washington State, leaders took a similar tack. There, the state’s analysis of more than 10,000 high school transcripts uncovered systemic demographic patterns of enrollment in each advanced course — many of them attributable to scheduling issues. In response, the districts redesigned their course request processes, reshaped student and parent counseling and have begun to adjust course catalog offerings.
Taking a hard look at these ingrained practices and norms unlocked opportunities for children in San Diego and Washington State. Fixing the ways in which our highest values are often inadvertently thwarted by school schedules can do the same for students in school districts around the country
Making good on commitments to equity and access demands that we consider the operational dynamics that leave students feeling academically alone.
This story about inequity and master schedules was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.