Fix What’s Broken: Affirmative Action in Higher Education

Aug 7, 2023 10:18:03 PM

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You broke it; you fix it. 

That was the straightforward message from Academy Award-winning director Taika Waititi at The Hollywood Reporter’s Raising Our Voices luncheon regarding diversity in filmmaking, and it applies to creating anti-racist and culturally inclusive learning environments.

Many of the points Waititi made in his speech line up with conversations I had with BIPOC teachers during my time on the Educators for Excellence team in Los Angeles. As Digital Communications Manager for a teacher-advocate organization, I met with people with deep roots in their communities. I listened as they described the spider web of effects created by racial bias among educators.

Those conversations reverberate in my mind loud and clear after the United States Supreme Court ruled in a 6-3 decision on June 29 that race cannot be a factor in college admissions. But, if race is no longer considered, who will fix the reasons behind the creation of Affirmative Action in the first place?” 

The answer is long and complicated, but one part of it involves overworked teachers taking on more work to develop the skills they need to identify bias in themselves, in their students, and in their curriculum to create the type of classrooms we need so that one day we forget Affirmative Action was ever necessary. 

Best-selling author and Boston University professor Ibram X. Kendi shared his thoughts about this need in an interview with EdSurge in 2020 — a year obviously full of events that left little cover for people to hide from these topics, and yet it remains a contested issue three years later. He called on all educators, including himself, to be constantly vigilant for bias and learn how to address it.

“I would say the most efficient way we can do that is making sure we ourselves are striving to be antiracist. Because if we as individuals are really ensuring that we are being antiracist as individuals, then that’s going to come across in how we act as an educator. That’s going to come across in how we teach our students.”

Two years after Kendi’s EdSurge interview, I met an educator in LA striving to help provide teachers with training to become antiracists. She worked with a group of teachers to create a micro-credential program that should be available next school year for LAUSD teachers to enroll. 

“Educators need to learn new skills to be agents of change for our most vulnerable students,” she told me. 

Educators for Excellence’s annual national survey of 1,300 teachers included the question: How often is your school meeting the needs of the following students? The answer for students of color was 50%. 

The survey showed that educators overwhelmingly support teaching about racial inequality and systemic racism in the classroom. They also strongly believe in creating welcoming learning environments and that students should learn about themselves.

There are plenty of examples of teachers leading with equity in mind and challenging themselves to improve their antiracist skills, but to change a system the solution has to reach the roots of the bias.

John Pascarella is a professor at the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education and chief academic officer of the USC Race and Equity Center. He urged all school leaders to stay focused on what they can do to address inequities and bias in a post-Affirmative Action landscape. 

“Professional development experiences designed to increase recognition of racial bias have not been eliminated by the court’s decision. Decades of scholarship have well documented the evidence of implicit bias in teachers’ instructional habits and school leaders’ disciplinary decisions. Research on implicit bias also shows that teachers of color are more likely to receive lower evaluation ratings from supervisors than their white peers. Training in diversity and equity that provide concrete tools for disrupting the unconscious associations playing out in classroom and workplace interactions can reduce barriers to learning opportunities for students of color and increase retention of teachers of color. Don’t cut those programs now.”

When the Supreme Court struck down Affirmative Action, it reversed 45 years of legal precedent. I want to focus on the “45 years” concerning Pascarella’s point. Our education system has faced this problem for a long time, and patience is running out.  

I’m reminded of conversations with another LAUSD teacher months before the Supreme Court’s decision when she shared her concern that progress wasn’t happening fast enough to keep families of color in public schools. This teacher is proud of the Black Student Achievement Plan in LAUSD (a program that attempts to address the “unique needs of Black students in the district), but she also had a mother take her black son out of the district last year because of how often he was being disciplined. In the teacher’s opinion, the student missed a significant amount of school because of the bias of white teachers who characterize misbehavior by black students as more severe than by white students. 

Affirmative Action was one tool meant to help compensate for how dramatically a student’s academic experience can be affected by systemic racism.

Universities may no longer factor race into their admissions decisions, but bias in classrooms nationwide didn’t disappear with the Supreme Court’s 6-3 vote.

Jacob Rayburn

Jacob Rayburn is the former Digital Communications Manager for Educators for Excellence-Los Angeles. He has demonstrated a commitment to elevating education for all students and eliminating systemic inequities through his work for E4E, journalism career, and private volunteer efforts. At E4E-LA, he worked alongside teachers to empower them to use their expertise in the classroom to promote student-first education policies. A reporter for more than seven years, Jacob started his career writing stories that were often ignored in small towns in southeast Fresno County — home to low-income, impoverished communities of mostly Hispanic farm workers. It was there he first witnessed the enormous gulf in the resources available to students separated by only a few miles from one town to the next. He enjoys reading, binging a good show, and spending time with friends and family.

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