Why We've Got to Talk About Race If We Want to Achieve Education Equity

May 25, 2018 12:00:00 AM


Our inability as a nation to engage in difficult conversations about race has left us with a lack of agreement on how to define equity. Yes, equity is about closing achievement gaps between White students and students of color and between upper- and lower-income students. It is also about improving graduation and college-attendance rates, and about how we allocate resources, including funding, teachers and materials. Fundamentally, equity means giving each student exactly what they need when they need it. Only then will all students, regardless of their background, have the chance to reach their true potential. But we can’t let equity be just about inputs and outputs. If we consider insights into the student experience that recent scandals at both traditional district and charter schools give us, and if we consider research on mobility from poverty, we can start to acknowledge that true equity is about much more than resources and needs to be tackled with race at the center. True educational equity is about providing learning environments where all students feel a sense of belonging and purpose in school. All students should be able to see themselves represented in the content and in the people around them, and should be able to engage in meaningful work that’s relevant to their aspirations, their communities and their humanity.

Students of Color Don’t Get Enough of the ‘Good Stuff’

The research is clear: We learn best when we are physically healthy and well-nourished, when we feel physically and psychologically safe, and when our brains are not distracted by worry and anxiety. But you know what? This is simply not the educational experience for the majority of students of color, who happen to make up half of all public school students. Reams of data show us that students of color don’t get enough of the good stuff— great teachers; rigorous coursework and advanced opportunities; aligned and culturally relevant textbooks, assignments, and materials; extracurricular options; counselors, social workers, and school nurses. Data does show that they get too much of the bad stuff— armed guards; oppressive/restrictive dress-code and behavior management policies; suspension and expulsion; low expectations; racism. Collectively, these messages—both implicit and explicit—communicate to students of color that they don’t belong and are not valued.

The Stereotype Threat

For decades, research in social psychology has shown us why this matters. Take Claude Steele’s pioneering research on stereotype threat. First published in 1995, he found that stereotypes— both perceived and real—alone are a contributing factor to long-standing racial and gender gaps in academic performance. Stereotype threat arises from a situation (like telling girls they’re bad at math right before they take a math exam), rather than from an individual's personality traits or characteristics. Repeated experiences of stereotype threat can lead to a vicious circle of diminished confidence, poor performance, and loss of interest in the relevant area of achievement. It is not enough, though, to understand that students of color experience these types of disadvantages as a result of environmental factors or stereotypes. Or that students—like the rest of us—need to develop self-management skills such as impulse control, stress management and goal-setting in order to respond appropriately and productively to different situations in school and life. We must also understand that students of color are full of assets, too. [pullquote]Our kids are tremendously resilient, our families have a strong sense of community and trust, and want to learn, are able to learn, and deserve to learn.[/pullquote] What does this all mean for education and education “reform?” To make substantive progress, we must look beyond academics toward the social and emotional domains of learning and focus efforts on fixing the learning environment, not fixing the student. We must stop assuming that we can bring reform to communities of color. We need to let students, families, and communities set the vision for education and we need to adopt a “nothing about them, without them” approach. Most importantly, we must look beyond the safe space of income inequality and talk about race and racism in our schools and education systems.

Danielle M. Gonzales

Danielle M. Gonzales is managing director with the Education & Society Program at the Aspen Institute, which recently released Pursuing Social and Emotional Development Through a Racial Equity Lens: A Call to Action. In this role, she leads efforts to convene senior education leaders at all levels of education to tackle the most vexing issues in education, to develop and foster partnerships with a diverse range of education leaders, and to write and develop publications and resources associated with professional learning; social, emotional, and academic development; and educational equity. Prior to this, Danielle was a senior program officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation working to advance the Foundation’s K-12 strategy in key states and developing the Foundation’s strategy for engaging faith communities in education reform. Danielle has over 15 years of experience in education philanthropy, policy and advocacy in both pre-k and K-12 education and at both the state and national level. She began her career teaching fourth grade in Brownsville, TX.

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