November 28, 2023 - 4:00pm

A Chicago area school has recently implemented an unusual tactic to reduce racial achievement gaps among its students: encouraging black and Latino students to opt into racially-segregated classes. Evanston Township High School officials believe these single-race classes offer underperforming minority students greater access to advanced instruction. Though their initial proposal received significant media backlash, Evanston officials remain committed to their race-conscious approach.

Evanston’s approach falls under a category of educational initiatives called “affinity groups,” where students are deliberately separated based on a shared identity category, such as race. Non-profit group Parents Defending Education has documented more than 70 instances of K-12 schools (kindergarten through to the end of high school) using affinity groups since 2021. Evanston’s approach is nevertheless unique because their affinity groups apply to core courses such as Algebra 2 and English 2, rather than extracurricular activities. This is a much more legally risky option. But by making the scheme voluntary, they have so far managed to skirt US anti-discrimination law.

Affinity groups are not a new idea. The concept has a long history in academia, particularly among followers of critical race theory. However, their implementation at scale in public education is a recent phenomenon that reflects the increasing politicisation of colleges of education. These colleges train the next generation of teachers and administrators, so their emphasis on race-conscious practices has significant practical implications.

Today, colleges of education hyper-focus on racial disparities. For instance, educators who take Harvard’s Leading for Equity & Excellence course will learn how to “commit your system to racial equity,” examine “blind spots related to race and privilege,” and learn to end school practices that “perpetuate inequity”. Racial equity, in this context, primarily refers to levelling outcomes across races and so racial disparities become enemy number one. 

And if racial disparities are solely caused by racial factors, race-conscious practices must be the solution. So says the University of Wisconsin, which enlightens future education leaders on “alternative approaches to schooling and society that can foster equity and justice” since white supremacy and the US education system “often work to reinforce one another.” Education experts encourage school districts to hire more minority teachers to reflect student demographics, even though these practices do not make a difference in academic outcomes of minority students. Instead, these equity-based initiatives lower academic standards, penalise high-achieving students, or contribute to racial divisions. 

Equity-based education research fails to consider various other factors that could hinder student success and contribute to racial disparities — from cultural problems at home to differences in baseline academic preparation. And if such non-racial factors end up accounting for much of the racial disparities, it implies that much of the equity-based policies are a waste of time and money. 

There are alternatives that could help all students achieve their best without resorting to racially discriminatory policies. Alabama’s Piedmont City Schools, which has a large population of economically disadvantaged students, increased maths scores during the coronavirus pandemic — an anomaly compared to many other schools in the US. Their secret? Teachers used students’ test scores to determine areas of weaknesses and targeted instruction accordingly. 

The way to help struggling students does not need to be complicated or novel, and it does not need to depend on their skin colour. Going back to the basics might just be enough.

Neetu Arnold is a Research Fellow at the National Association of Scholars and a Young Voices contributor.