Skip to main content
University of Wisconsin–Madison
School of Journalism and Mass Communication

More inclusive reporting needed to combat racial disparity in education

When a report from a state nonprofit revealed a racial disparity in Dane County schools, journalists adopted the term “achievement gap” to describe the problem.

But Rachelle Winkle-Wagner, a scholar in education policy, doesn’t think the widely used term  accurately describes the problem. Although intended to label the phenomena, it potentially puts wrong blames on black youths, suggesting that they fail to “achieve” as much as their white peers, she said.

It is the education system that fails young African-Americans, in turn creating the gap, Winkle-Wagner said. Even after the racial segregation in public schools officially ended in 1950s, the negative stereotype of black students has long been perpetuated in the education system, she further explained.

“Teachers have lower expectations for black students,” Winkle-Wagner said. And when the students do turn out to achieve less, discriminatory treatments are not reflected on, but rationalized instead, she said.

Nearly half of black high school students in Madison, Wisconsin, did not graduate on time for the 2010-11 school year, according to the  Race to Equity Report from the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families, which focused on racial disparity issues in Dane County.

White students were three times as likely as black students to graduate on time, the report also revealed. Additionally, in 2011, African-American children were four times more likely to be not reading-proficient in their third grade, six times more likely to be arrested in their teenage, and five times more likely to be unemployed later.

But as a substitute for  describing the problem as “achievement gap” when reporting on it, Gloria Ladson-Billings, a fellow scholar of Winkle-Wagner, proposed the term “education debt.”

The way racial disparity is framed in the news matters because it affects where funding goes and how the public evaluates the current policies, Winkle-Wagner said.

“Journalists decide how people start to talk about the problem,” she said.

However, most news stories are told from the perspective of white establishment, said Jennifer Stoever, a Binghamton University professor with expertise in race representation in literature and media.

“People in color are presented as outsiders,” Stoever said. Journalists tend to have predisposed ideas of what to hear from racial minorities even when they actively seek for their voices, she said.

When covering education issues, white journalists often adopt a simple “good-versus-bad” binary and use few prominent activists of color to represent the whole minority community, said Sue Robinson, former journalist and current professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison. Robinson studies media discourse of racial disparities.

Also, news media rely very much on the school institution itself for story ideas and narrative frames, Robinson said in an email. This professional norm further strengthens the voice of the school boards and officials.

These privileged voices have their own bias in Stoever’s opinion. School teachers and supervisors are predominantly white, and, with the stereotype of “louder black students” in their minds, they have double standards for what constitutes misbehaviors, Stoever said.

In 13 southern states, nearly half of suspended or expelled K-12 students were African-American in 2011-2012 academic year, while African-Americans only constituted 24 percent of the enrolled students, according to a report by researchers from the University of Pennsylvania.

A police officer was suspended for violently slamming a 16-year-old black girl onto the floor and dragging her across the classroom after the videos of his conduct went viral online in 2015. The police officer was called to arrest the student for refusing to leave the classroom while keeping using her cellphone.

Robinson said journalists should challenge themselves to find sources of color, as racial minorities in difficult situations may not be willing to speak on record.

As a result, current news coverage about racial issues in education focuses more on individual issues rather than the systematic reasons behind racial disparities, she said.

Journalists need to include voices from a wider range of backgrounds and demographics, and to locate current problems within historical context, Robinson suggested.

Robinson will appear on a panel for race and education reporting during a journalism ethics conference April 29. Winkle-Wagner will moderate the panel, which will also include New York Times Magazine writer Nikole Hannah-Jones.

Register for the conference here.