by David Hinojosa, J.D. • IDRA Newsletter • April 2018 •

David Hinojosa, J.D.

Despite much progress over the years in striking down various discriminatory acts, many schools and communities continue to target or exclude hundreds of thousands of students each year on account of race, sex, gender, national origin, religion, disability, among other factors (see, e.g., Alexander, 2012). When the discriminatory treatment manifests itself through the behaviors, actions and policies of public institutions, such as schools, it is typically characterized as institutionalized discrimination (see, e.g., Rupande, 2015).

Institutionalized discrimination may result from explicit, intentional acts or from indirect, unintentional acts. Often, such patterns and practices result from standard, historical norms, making it difficult for educators to identify.

Several practices of institutionalized discrimination impact education every day. From zero tolerance policies to English-only instruction, from faculty hiring to drawing school boundaries, state and local institutional practices harm underserved students and communities. Focusing on three critical areas – expectations, school funding and curriculum – this article seeks to assist schools and communities in identifying types of institutionalized discrimination that may exist in their schools and, importantly, some equitable approaches to replace such policies and practices.

Institutionalized Discrimination of Low Expectations

Low expectations are perhaps one of the most pervasive forms of institutionalized discrimination that harms students. Deficit mindsets and behaviors often lead to educators developing negative attitudes toward underserved communities (Montemayor, 2015), which can lead to low expectations and low student performance.

It can be seen in math classrooms where teachers do not sufficiently challenge girls as they do boys. It can occur in schools that track students of color into regular or basic courses because educators perceive some students as less capable.

At the district level, poor family engagement by under-resourced schools may result from false perceptions of families in those schools as caring less about education (Valencia, et al., 2001).

At the state and federal levels, policymakers may senselessly lower accountability measures for immigrant English learners based on negative assumptions of student groups rather than on students’ individual capabilities. In turn, schools may be less supportive and demanding of those students.

Workable Solution: Schools can study disaggregated course grades, test scores, resource inequities and course enrollment patterns to determine any differences between groups of students based on race, national origin, sex, gender, disability, language and religion. They can critically examine their own behaviors, policies and practices that may contribute to the inequities, such as prerequisite requirements that disparately prevent underserved students from enrolling in advanced courses. They also can provide deep training for teachers on cultural competency and implicit bias, focusing on both the individual and the institution.

Institutionalized Discrimination of Funding Inequities

School funding can positively impact learning, student performance and lifetime outcomes, especially for underserved students (LaFortune, et al., 2016; Jackson, et al., 2016). Schools with greater resources can offer smaller class sizes, full-day prekindergarten programs, higher teacher pay, a greater range of advanced coursework, and access to 21st century buildings (see, e.g., U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, 2018). Yet, policymakers often design school finance systems without any regard for student need, resulting in schools with the highest needs often receiving far fewer resources.

A recent study of school funding showed that districts with the highest enrollment of Latina/o, Black or Native American students received, on average, about $1,800 less per student than the districts enrolling the fewest students of color (Morgan & Amerikaner, 2018).

Inequities also can exist at the local level. One study showed that some districts allocate $300 to $500 more to schools enrolling fewer percentages of underserved students (Edjemyr & Shores, 2017).

Workable Solution: Putting politics aside, inequitable funding can be most easily addressed because any inequities are by design, not behaviors. IDRA created a “School Finance Roadmap to Equity” to assist states and advocates in applying an equity lens to school finance systems based on student needs and legitimate cost differences (Hinojosa, 2018). This roadmap connects educational standards and goals and fair, adequate revenue sources with essential building blocks of school finance, research-based costs, equitable distribution, and monitoring to ensure meaningful educational opportunities for all children.

Locally, school districts can monitor their own funding distributions between schools and examine resource inequities as identified in a U.S. Department of Education dear colleague letter (Lhamon, 2014).

Institutionalized Discrimination of Standard, Narrow Curriculum

Institutionalized discrimination also can exist in the biased content of the curriculum. When students of color do not see their own cultures and experiences reflected in the curriculum, or worse, when they receive a curriculum that denounces their culture, they can become detached and disinterested through subtractive schooling (Valenzuela, 1999). For instance, lessons on the Battle of the Alamo or the American Indian wars may reflect the heroic efforts of the White American or European “settlers” and fail to critically examine the invasion by Anglos into occupied foreign land.

Other examples of curriculum discrimination include literature that fails to include diverse perspectives, examinations of religious conflicts solely from a Christianity perspective, and historical lessons that fail to account for female experiences or perspectives.

Biased testing questions also can fail to reflect more diverse student experiences, compounding the negative impact on underserved students (Reynolds, et al., 2009).

Workable Solution: States and school districts can carefully analyze their curriculum and eliminate biases. Culturally-relevant education (including culturally-relevant and sustaining pedagogy and culturally-responsive teaching) can act as gateways to a more inclusive, challenging educational experience (Aronson & Laughter, 2016).

Culturally-responsive teaching involves using ethnically diverse cultural knowledge, experiences, frames of reference and performance styles to help better reach students (Gay, 2013).

Culturally-relevant pedagogy focuses on teacher posture and “empowers students intellectually, socially, emotionally and politically using cultural referents to impart knowledge, skills and attitudes” (Ladson-Billings, 2009). When implemented appropriately, research demonstrates that culturally-relevant education leads to increased critical thinking, engagement, interest, motivation, self-perception and academic achievement (Aronson, & Laughter, 2016).


Confronting, much less overcoming, institutionalized discrimination is not an easy process. Power players (including racial minorities) often are unwilling to give up protections of privileges and advantages. However, stopping institutionalized discrimination from continuing to harm generations of children makes the effort more than worthwhile.

Several schools and communities use IDRA’s Six Goals of Educational Equity and Reform to assist in their efforts of identifying and examining inequities in their school systems (Scott, 2006). The tool includes an equity ranking scale that schools can adapt to address institutionalized discriminatory policies, practices and outcomes as well.

Should your school or district require technical assistance in this area or in other areas impacting race, national origin, sex/gender or religion, please contact the IDRA EAC-South.


Alexander, M. (2012). The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York, N.Y.: The New Press).

Aronson, B., & Laughter, J. (March 2016). “The Theory and Practice of Culturally Relevant Education: A Synthesis of Research Across Content Areas,” Review of Educational Research, Vol. 86, No. 1, pp. 163-206.

Ejdemyr, S., & Shores, K. (July 31, 2017). Pulling Back the Curtain: Intra-District School Spending Inequality and Its Correlates, working paper (Rochester, N.Y.: SSRN).

Gay, G. (2013). “Teaching To and Through Cultural Diversity,” Curriculum Inquiry, 43(1), 48-70.

Hinojosa, D. (March 19, 2018) Equity and Meaningful Educational Opportunity for All, invited testimony of IDRA before the Texas School Finance Commission (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association).

Jackson, C.K., Johnson, R., & Persico, C. (2016). “The Effects of School Spending on Educational and Academic Outcomes: Evidence from School Finance Reforms,” The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Vol 131, 157-218.

Ladson-Billings, G. (2009). The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children, second edition (San Francisco, Calif:: Jossey-Bass).

LaFortune, J., Rothstein, J., & Whitmore Schanzenbach, D. (2016). “School Finance Reform and the Distribution of Student Achievement,” American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, Vol 10(2), 1-26.

Lhamon, C.E. (October 1, 2014). Dear Colleague Letter: Resource Accountability (Washington, D.C.: U.S Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights).

Morgan, I., & Amerikaner, A. (February 2018). Funding Gaps: An Analysis of School Funding Equity Across the U.S. and Within Each State 2018 (Washington, D.C.: Education Trust).

Montemayor, A.M. (January 2015). “Gauging Grit – Gouging the Poor,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association).

Reynolds, C.R., Livingston, R.B., & Willson, V. (2009). Measurement and Assessment in Education, second edition (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson).

Rupande, G. (January 2015). “Institutionalized Discrimination in the Education System and Beyond: Themes and Perspectives,” International Journal of Humanities Social Sciences and Education (IJHSSE), Vol 2(1), 248-255.

Scott, B. (2006). Six Goals of Educational Equity and Reform – Equity Ranking Scale (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association).

U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. (January 2018). Public Funding Education Inequity, in an Era of Increasing Concentration of Poverty and Segregation, briefing report (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Commission on Civil Rights).

Valencia, R., Valenzuela, A., Sloan, K., & Foley, D.E. (2001). “Let’s Treat the Cause, not the Symptoms: Equity and Accountability in Texas Revisited,” Phi Delta Kappan, 83, 321-326.

Valenzuela, A. (1999). Subtractive Schooling: U.S.-Mexican Youth and the Politics of Caring (Albany: State University of New York Press).

David Hinojosa, J.D., is IDRA’s National Director of Policy and directs the IDRA EAC-South. Comments and questions may be directed to him via email at

[©2018, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the April 2018 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]