There's No Excuse for Schools Not to Tackle Teacher Racial Bias

Dec 28, 2016 12:00:00 AM

by Nadra Kareem Nittle

This is the third part of a four-part series on the writer’s experience and research on the achievement gap in her hometown of Evanston, Illinois, a diverse suburb north of Chicago and home to Northwestern University. Read Part 1 here and Part 2 here
  Race and class alike factored into how teachers treated me when I attended Evanston schools, and I’m sure they continue to factor into how teachers treat students today. While giving families the support they need to help their children succeed in Evanston schools is commendable, placing the onus mostly on Black families to close the achievement gap misses the point. It implies that dysfunction in the Black community has created the achievement gap, overlooking the district’s history of racial segregation and the effect systemic racism continues to have today on Black students, be they in struggling, single-parent homes or middle-class households with both parents present. It absolves the school district of responsibility. Why should District 65 take any steps to address the learning divide if the real problem is that Black folks don’t value education or know how to raise children? Such insinuations overlook my parents’ decision to relocate to Evanston to provide me with a quality education. They overlook people like my first kindergarten friend, who lived in Chicago but enrolled in District 65 by using a relative’s address in Evanston. They also ignore the affluent Blacks who live in Evanston, like the doctor and nurse couple for whom I babysat during middle school.

The Blame Game

The fact that studies on Evanston schools reveal that even high-income Black students don’t perform as well as their White peers reveals that [pullquote position="right"]the gap can’t be blamed on poverty alone[/pullquote] or on the preposterous idea that Black parents wouldn’t dream of reading a book to their children. Even as a small child, it was clear that my classmates from prominent families had the most influence with teachers. The children of judges, news anchors and the grandchildren of President Jimmy Carter attended my school in upscale and overwhelmingly White Southeast Evanston. I lived in the neighborhood, but in a two-bedroom apartment on Sheridan Road rather than in one of the sprawling lakefront homes on the street. My mother was a preschool teacher, my stepfather worked for the U.S. Postal Service and my father was an entrepreneur who lived out of state. At Lincoln, upper middle-class White students who did not come from famous families wielded influence because their homemaker mothers had the time to attend PTA functions, school bake sales and class field trips. These mothers befriended teachers and curried favor with them. Some of them filled in as subs when teachers called in sick. Other than one Japanese-American mom, I don’t recall any mothers of color spending time at school during the day. These women had to work. My preschool teacher mother had to work.

Criminalizing Behaviors

And I had tense encounters with school faculty. When I turned in a book report in fourth grade, a teacher accused me of copying the report from the synopsis on the back of the book. I insisted I hadn’t, but the teacher didn’t believe me. I eventually found the book so she could compare my book report to the summary on the book jacket. When she saw I hadn’t plagiarized, she didn’t apologize. She didn’t praise my writing skills. She simply told me to get back to work, as if she hadn’t just questioned my integrity because of her own low expectations for me. On another occasion, which still stings decades later, a teacher punished me for forgery. She had just passed out field trip permission forms to the class. I quickly wrote my name down on the form and then wrote my mother’s name in pencil. I had every intention of bringing the slip home for my mother to sign and at no point tried to turn it in to my teacher. I was a fourth-grader and wrote my mother’s name to practice my cursive. Because I’d written her name in pencil, I didn’t think I’d done anything wrong, but my teacher passed by, saw the signed slip on my desk and accused me of forgery. It didn’t matter that I lacked a clear understanding of what forgery was or a motive to commit it. I had no reason to think my mother wouldn’t have signed the form, since she’d permitted me to go on every previous field trip. None of this information swayed the teacher. [pullquote position=“right”]She criminalized my behavior[/pullquote], like the behavior of so many Black boys and girls in schools across the country. The teacher indicated that I’d broken the law and when the field trip to Shand Morahan, then Evanston’s tallest building, took place, she forced me to stay behind and essentially serve an in-school suspension. Rather than push me out of class, she could have given me the opportunity to have my mother sign the form and call my home afterward to make sure. She could have explained the seriousness of forgery. But just as it was easier for my second-grade teacher to casually suggest I had a reading disorder, it was easier for this teacher to regard me as a lawbreaker in need of punitive discipline instead of the benefit of the doubt. I went on to earn a teaching credential and a master’s degree in education. I now write about education as a journalist, and this teacher’s approach continues to puzzle me.
An original version of this post appeared as Sorry, Poverty and Parenting Does Not Absolve Suburban Schools From Tackling Racial Bias on Head in the Sand.
Photo from RePublic Charter Schools.

Nadra Kareem Nittle

Nadra Kareem Nittle is a Los Angeles-based journalist. She’s reported on education for the Los Angeles News Group, the Atlantic, EdSource and others.

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