Morgan Chilson, Hutchinson News, May 2, 2019
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
Ball said movement must be made to address inequity in schools.