Tough conversations with teachers about race and diversity — and their own biases — must happen to address classroom inequalities that may change the lives of children, experts say.
Multiple studies have highlighted the unequal ways that children of different races are treated in the classroom. Many have focused on black and Hispanic girls, where the data often shows significant problems:
• Black girls are 5.5 times and Native American girls 3 times more likely to be suspended than white girls.
• Black students accounted for 15.5 percent of all public school students, but make up about 39 percent of students suspended from school.
“We know from the research that black children are disciplined or punished way disproportionately to white children for the same infractions,” said Deborah Loewenberg Ball, dean of the University of Michigan’s School of Education and who recently was listed on Education Week’s 200 university scholars influencing educational policy and practice.
Discipline, Ball said, usually is based on a subjective judgement by a teacher. In the classroom, a teacher may see a student’s lack of cooperation and make a judgement based on whether the child has a toothache, or the way the child’s facial expression looks.
“You don’t have time to stop and realize that that’s what you’re doing,” Ball said. “When a black girl is laughing in class, we do know that it’s more likely that teachers are going to perceive her as being belligerent or not being on task. People get very anxious when you say something like that.”
Ball said such an interaction is not at the level of a teacher actively thinking, “Oh I see a black girl, and I plan to think of her as belligerent.”
It’s not just about implicit biases, which are attitudes or stereotypes that affect the way people act and respond to understand others in an unconscious way, Ball said.
“These biases aren’t just beliefs and ways of seeing, but they’re also habits in the way we interact with kids,” she said.
Heather Caswell, Ph.D., is an associate professor at Emporia State University, who specializes in curriculum and instruction. She said the schools that teach the teachers, like ESU which is known as The Teachers College, are working with students to understand how their biases and actions impact their diverse classrooms.
Meeting the needs of students is not just about addressing inequalities in discipline. Caswell referred to a curriculum that is sometimes “very white,” which can impact the way students see themselves. Books, movies, lessons that teach all white perspectives, that don’t highlight the communities and successes of other races, are a problem.
She called it “the danger of a single story.”
“I think that the danger of that hidden curriculum that refers to unwritten or unofficial, untended values and perspectives that students learn every day, brings the importance of being aware of implicit bias or bias when selecting the curriculum and the textbooks for schools and students,” Caswell said. “We have tools and strategies to address that. I just don’t know if everyone is aware of those tools and strategies.”
Caswell said the Kansas Department of Education is undergoing a redesign process right now, and it’s a perfect time to have conversations about the types of things being integrated into the curriculum.
Changing the way teachers are trained is an important step in changing what happens in classrooms, Ball said.
“Up to this point, we’ve done too much just acquainting people with the fact that our society is unequal and has many patterns of racism,” she said. “We haven’t done much in helping teachers change patterns.”
Tiffany Anderson, superintendent of Topeka Public Schools, said her district is diving into understanding equity through its Equity Council, focusing on culturally relevant and culturally responsive teaching.
“The work that we’ve done within the district, at least over the last three years, has really been focused on creating access and opportunity,” she said, adding that a new plan started in 2017.
“One of the pillars of the plan is equity and climate and culture, which is just wonderful,” she said, adding that addressing equity affects grading, academics, facilities, customer services and the language used.
The district has been working with all staff to raise awareness of issues through partnerships and education.
“We recognize that race, socioeconomics, gender, do not dictate and should not dictate the outcomes for students,” she said. “The practitioner in front of the students dictates how much access and opportunity and what learning can look like. Having that foundational piece of knowing possibility and hearing it from a research perspective has been critical.”
Courageous conversations, Anderson said, lie at the foundation of the work, and then it’s necessary to move beyond conversation to action. It was necessary to take a hard look at data, so the district purchased a data warehouse in 2016 to tell them about students enrolled in honors classes, a demographic breakdown of graduation and discipline issues, and other facts.
A trip to a juvenile detention center was a way to bring home the challenges.
“Seeing that 80 percent of those students in the juvenile detention center were foster kids, kids from poverty and kids of color,” she said. “From that, we also looked at microaggressions and language, what are the things that we say.”
Much education is necessary, Anderson said.
“This is my third year laying the groundwork, from the lens of, first, helping all of us to seek to gain a greater understanding of equity and what that means and when there are disparities, how does that show up,” she said. “Not assuming that people understand what implicit bias is and microaggressions or even internalized racism.”
Discussions about racism and what happens in classrooms are sometimes difficult discussions to have with teachers, both Ball and Caswell said.
“Sometimes the work becomes kind of stalled because when you start trying to talk about race in this country, you hit kind of a roadblock,” Ball said. “White teachers can feel defensive, feel as if it’s about them individually. I think we’re on the edge of understanding that you have to get past that individual defensiveness.”
Instead, she said, it’s about patterns that are much bigger than them, and there are options to do things differently at an individual level.
“It does start with thinking about oneself,” she said. “Eighty percent of teachers are white, a very large fraction are women. A person like me who has been a teacher, I have to understand that being a white woman means that there are preferences I have about behavior, things that I assume, things that are part of my growing up in this society, that are not exactly my fault, but I have to understand that I’m bringing them.
"When I’m teaching, and I get irritated that a black boy in my class is laughing hysterically during instruction. But a white boy is also doing that. What is leading me to kind of land on the black boy? I need to start noticing that I’m doing that.”
It’s challenging work to do, to dive in and examine those biases, recognize them and then change them.
“I think we live in a world where failure or being wrong is always seen as such a negative,” Caswell said.
It’s important, she said, to embrace mistakes and be aware of biases and the ways we think so that we can move forward in a different way.
“I think if we choose not to talk about it, then we’re just continuing to contribute to that system of oppression,” she said. “If we choose to talk about it and address it, then we are lessening the oppression within that system. We have to hear from everyone’s voice in order to have that conversation.”
Ball said movement must be made to address inequity in schools.
“The problem is that we see that even 65 years after Brown (v. Board), the many things that led to this point, that schools are really in many ways just as segregated, more segregated than they’ve been in a long time,” she said. “The patterns that led to, for example, disproportionate punishment practices or disproportionate assignment of brown children or black children to special education, underassignment of those same children to gifted programs, those are all part of larger patterns in which stereotypes and biases kind of reflect through actions.
“I think the key to this, in my point of view, is helping teachers understand the patterns are much bigger than them.”
All of us, said Anderson, can be uncomfortable having conversations about race, gender bias and other topics. The district’s role is to help teachers unpack that, so education can move forward to a more equitable place.
“When there is a lack of equity" she said, "you have not only a lack of opportunity, but voices that may be less willing to be heard.”