Students’ Study Released by CUNY Graduate Center

A piercing new look by New York metro region high school students at race and education affirms their strong support for racially integrated schools, but cautions that 50 years after Brown v. Board of Education access to quality education and resources have not been fully or evenly implemented. The research and ensuing report were part of the “Opportunity Gap Project” conducted by The Graduate Center, City University of New York (CUNY). A spoken-word theater/dance production and a multimedia book with DVD were also produced.

The unprecedented 18-month research project — in which more than 100 metropolitan area high school students participated as researchers — shows common ground between city and suburban high school students in their high aspirations to attend college, interest in civic engagement, and belief in the value of integration, but reveals significant differences among racial and ethnic groups in their perceptions of the quality of education and opportunities for advancement within their respective schools. For example, more than 40 percent of African-American and Afro-Caribbean students and over one-third of Latino students registered concerns about the imbalances they witness and experience in their classrooms. These views led the student researchers to re-characterize what is known as the achievement gap as an “opportunity gap.”

The Graduate Center project is the only one to involve multigenerational research in exploring the Brown decision and education today. It brought together a diverse team of researchers—adult and youth, suburban and urban—to probe the views of more than 4,000 secondary school students at racially integrated high schools in metropolitan New York and New Jersey.

“The Opportunity Gap Project clearly shows that students of all races and ethnic groups want to learn and achieve together. But it also tells us that the promise of the Brown decision — quality schooling for all children — is a promise that remains unfulfilled,” said Michelle Fine, distinguished professor of Psychology and Urban Education at the CUNY Graduate Center. “The expression ‘six degrees of segregation’ refers to the systematic policies that interfere with the vision of Brown -- testing, tracking, suspension policies, respect, finance inequity and retreat from desegregation.”

Survey Findings

  • The survey found very strong academic aspirations and support for integration among all groups. More than eight out of 10 students across all groups are motivated go on to college. In addition, a very high percentage of students across all groups—ranging from 74 to 79 percent—agreed with the statement “Attending a racially integrated school is very important to me.”
  •  Additionally, more than 60 percent of all students strongly agreed that, “It is very important to help my country.”


  •  However, many of these same students are concerned about the relative absence of integration within their classrooms. More than 40 percent of African-American and Afro-Caribbean students and over one-third of Latino students believe their school “is not as good as it should be in providing equal opportunity for students of color.” Fewer than half as many as white students registered that concern.


  • Survey responses and transcript analyses show that even when they have college-educated parents, African-American, Afro-Caribbean, and Latino students have “substantially diminished access to rigorous curriculum compared to their Asian/Pacific Islander and white counterparts.”


  • Only 42 percent of African-American students, compared to 67 percent of white students, believe their teachers think they should be in honors classes.


  • The survey also found that students most in need of academic support for college, such as SAT prep and tutors are least likely to get such assistance.


  •  Students from all groups also expressed worry about standardized tests. Thirty-three percent of Asian/Pacific Islander, 28 percent of white American, 44 percent of African American and 47 of Latino students agreed that “I worry that standardized tests can prevent me from graduating.”


The Opportunity Gap Research Project draws on contemporary youth surveys as well as interviews with “elders” active in movements for educational opportunity and racial justice in the 1940s/1950s and today. Surveys, focus groups, and elder interviews were administered between May 2002 and August 2003. Surveys were administered during the Spring of 2003; focus group interviews were conducted during Fall 2002 and Spring 2003, and elders were interviewed during the Summer of 2003.

Student Performance Reflects Lessons Learned

Thirteen of the students who served as researchers in the project were also part of Echoes of Brown: 50 Years Later, a spoken word, poetry, dance and movement, music, and video performance that looked at the history of the Brown decision, the civil rights movement, and issues of race and education today. Choreographed by renowned dancer Ronald K. Brown, it provided students with a highly creative tool to share their learning and express their feelings on the interplay of race and education. The performance also included videotaped interviews with distinguished elders of the civil rights struggle: Roscoe Brown, Jr., Adam Green, Bailey Jackson, Thea Jackson, the late Arthur Kinoy, Esther Lee, Sonia Sanchez, and Judge Jack Weinstein. Graduate Center doctoral student Rosemarie A. Roberts was Artistic Director of the production.

Book and DVD

Echoes of Brown: Youth Documenting and Performing the Legacy of Brown v. Board of Education (Teachers College Press)

Another part of the Opportunity Gap Project, the multimedia book and DVD package explores the historic and contemporary landscape of the Brown legacy in exciting and empowering new ways. Aimed primarily at students, teachers, policy makers, and activists, the innovative multimedia package offers unforgettable insights into America's long and relentless desire for educational justice.

The four-color book features statistics from the report and highlights the performance in text and photos. The accompanying DVD includes the complete "Echoes" performance, interviews, data, and suggestions for future projects.

The Graduate Center is the doctorate-granting institution of The City University of New York. The only consortium of its kind in the nation, the school draws its faculty of more than 1,600 members mainly from the CUNY senior colleges and cultural and scientific institutions throughout New York City. Established in 1961, The Graduate Center offers 30 doctoral programs and six master's degree programs in the humanities, social sciences, and sciences, and also houses 28 research centers and institutes, administers the CUNY Baccalaureate Program, and offers a wide range of continuing education and cultural programs of interest to the general public. According to the most recent National Research Council report, more than a third of The Graduate Center's rated Ph.D. programs rank among the nation's top 20 at public and private institutions.

Submitted on: JUN 1, 2004

Category: Press Room | Research Studies