Education Must Be Part of the Movement for Black Lives and Social Justice

Jun 1, 2016 12:00:00 AM

by James E. Ford

Over the past few years the nation has become familiar with the phrase Black Lives Matter. This is a declarative statement. An assertion of humanity that shouldn’t have to be said in the first place. It is also a grassroots activist movement emerging at least in part as a response to extrajudicial violence against unarmed Black people by law enforcement and vigilantes. It has raised the visibility of abuses of power visited upon Black bodies and exposed the underbelly of institutional racism in our nation. Sadly, the education sector is not exempt. Thus far, most of the movement’s energy has understandably been directed at the criminal justice system and reforming its practices. But this is just one institution within a complex web of several that disadvantages Black people. As the movement for Black lives continues to expand its reach, [pullquote]education must be central to the discussion of racial justice.[/pullquote] Earlier this year the U.N.’s Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent released a preliminary report about the treatment of African-Americans in the U.S. It looked at many forms of structural inequality but directly implicated our education system in perpetuating the problem. While education is marketed as the “great equalizer,” we fail as a nation to equalize educational opportunity for everyone. Race continues to be a significant factor in determining student outcomes. Breaking this color-coded system of advantage is going to require adopting a racial equity lens in at least a few areas of education. As we work towards reforms in education, here are some areas we have to consider.

The Opportunity Gap

While people typically reference the achievement gap when discussing the difference in academic performance between Black students and their White peers, it’s more reflective of a gap in overall opportunity. Black people tend to rank at the bottom of most quality of life measures—such as income, health care, housing, food security, etc.—causing a negative cumulative effect on student achievement. This proves that it’s not just the “well of education” that is toxic, the groundwater is contaminated, too. Efforts must be made to combat underlying social problems as a way of closing the opportunity gap for students.


Sixty-two years after Brown v. Board of Education declared that separate is inherently unequal, many of the nation’s schools are resegregating based on both race and class—this is occurring not only in traditional public schools, but charters as well—despite the fact that 50-plus years of evidence has shown that integrated schools help close gaps and improve outcomes over a lifespan.

Discipline Disparities

Nationally, Black students are suspended or expelled from school at a rate three times that of White students (the rate is six times higher for Black girls). This is especially prevalent in the South. The gaps in discipline are not only disproportionate but disparate since many of the punishments are for subjective offenses (i.e., insubordination, aggressive behavior, etc.). These are essentially judgment calls and relative to a person’s perception. Implicit racial bias likely plays a major role in the differential treatment of Black students, as they are routinely disciplined more harshly and fed into a school-to-prison pipeline.

Special Education

Black students have been overrepresented in certain categories of special education for some time now. They are two to three times more likely to be categorized as emotionally disturbed, intellectually disabled and mentally retarded than their White counterparts. This is significant because it is likely the result of misdiagnoses, rooted in stigmas about the intellectual ability of certain racial and ethnic groups.

Access to Rigor

The belief gap prevents many Black students from gaining access to the most challenging coursework. Students of color are underrepresented in rigorous courses and programs—such as gifted, Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate—even when controlling for the level of readiness or aptitude. Outdated identification systems based on teacher referral leave room for stereotypes to influence who is and is not seen as capable.

Teacher Diversity

Since 2014, the majority of students in public education are non-White. Yet, 82 percent of the teaching workforce remains White, with only 7 percent of all teachers being Black, and only 2 percent being Black males. It is important for students of color to see themselves reflected in the profession as it not only offers tangible role models but helps improve academic performance as well. Greater efforts must be made to recruit and retain Black teachers and make the teaching force more representative of the students.

Culturally-Responsive Pedagogy

With the rapidly changing demographics of the student body, teachers often find themselves in classrooms with students whose culture is radically different than their own. Many are often ill-prepared for how to relate to their students and teach in a way that is both rigorous and relevant to their lives. Making the learning space one that recognizes and dignifies the backgrounds of students is necessary for content delivery to be effective. Without it, schools take on a colonial feel where cultural indoctrination is part of the hidden curriculum. While it’s no surprise that many of the most visible leaders of Black Lives Matter are themselves educators, the community must embrace a broader educational platform to ensure this powerful confession rings true. Contrary to the ongoing debate that school reform movement has become too focused on social justice, schools are not divorced from the structural reality of racism. Educators have an ethical obligation to wrestle with it. It is more a practical matter than a partisan one. Race-consciousness belongs in the educational space, because [pullquote]color-blind reforms keep reproducing color-coded outcomes.[/pullquote] Elevating it as a focal point of education and applying an equity lens when evaluating data, practice and policy is essential for diminishing its significance.

James E. Ford

James E. Ford is the 2015 North Carolina State Teacher of the Year and a member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year. He currently is the Principal Consultant at Filling the Gap Educational Consultants and is a first year doctoral student at UNC-Charlotte. Ford earned a bachelor of science in mass communication from Illinois State University in 2003 and a master’s degree in teaching from Rockford University in 2009. Before deciding to become a teacher, Ford’s early career cemented his connection to children and youth. He worked as a truancy intervention specialist in high schools and director of a teen center that provided educational and after-school activities for youth at risk of dropping out of school. Ford was recognized as Charlotte Magazine’s Charlottean of the Year, and the National Alliance of Black School Educators’ Teacher of the Year.

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