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Segregation within schools


Antonio Gois

The level of segregation in Brazilian schools is similar to that seen in the USA, a country where various intentional practices in dividing students into classes lead to high levels of separation between whites and blacks. This situation is verified when, within the same school, there are predominantly white classes alongside others that are mostly black. In Brazil, however, even though the mechanisms of separation between students are not explicit, we still end up reproducing a pattern of high racial inequality within schools. These are the findings of a study by sociologist Josh Leung-Gagné, from Stanford University, which has just been published in one of the academic journals of the Association of Educational Researchers in the United States (Aera, for its acronym in English).

To arrive at these conclusions, Leung-Gagné compared the distribution by color or race of students in the 5th and 9th grades of Brazilian elementary education with the patterns observed in high schools in North Carolina, a state with high levels of segregation. Although the final results are similar, the study identifies that the mechanisms that lead to this situation are different.

In North Carolina, as in other American states, one of the factors that induce racial segregation is “tracking”, which basically consists of separating classes based on the academic performance of students. What could be considered simply a criterion of merit turns out to be, for several reasons, a way of perpetuating inequalities, since the socioeconomic level of families is the main impact factor on school performance. As black students come, on average, from poorer families, they already carry a disadvantage that has nothing to do with their effort.

In addition, there are also studies in the USA that show that the criteria used by professors to direct students to the most advanced classes are not totally neutral, making black students, even with equal performance in standardized tests as their white colleagues, less likely to be identified as able to be part of the most advanced classes.

What is intriguing about the findings of the Leung-Gagné study is that these practices are rare in Brazil. Here, racial segregation occurs, in the words of the author, “at random”. Even so, the research identified classrooms in the same school where in one class the proportion of blacks reached 70%, while in another it did not exceed 30%.

The finding that segregation in the division by classes within the school occurs here “by chance” does not mean that they should be naturalized. Since this is an easily observable data from the beginning of the school year, Leung-Gagné argues that it is up to schools to take proactive action to prevent this from happening early on.

The finding of high levels of segregation within Brazilian schools reinforces the need to expand our knowledge about practices that, even implicit, are contributing to this situation. We know that racial segregation is reinforced by differentiated access to schools. However, a relevant part of our inequality is also built inside schools and classrooms. Without identifying and seeking solutions to this problem, we will continue to reproduce inequalities within the educational system.

published by O Globo (*)

All Authors: 
Josh Leung-Gagné