While students and teachers across the country itch to reenter the classroom, superintendents report many of their Black students prefer staying at home.
"They’re saying to me, 'We good. I’m good,'" said Luvelle Brown, superintendent of New York's Ithaca City School District. "When I push them, they say, 'I haven’t been to the [principal's] office in months. I’m reading material that is responsive to things I want to read about.' Our young people are in a culturally responsive environment at home, and they’re saying, 'We're good.'"
Gregory Hutchings, superintendent of Virginia's Alexandria City Public Schools, reported a similar story in looking at his engagement data during closures. The data, in a rare occasion, suggested there was no discrepancy or disparity in engagement between Black, Latino and white students.
"Typically our Black and brown students don’t feel as engaged as their white counterparts. This is the first time that we’re seeing no disparity," Hutchings said. "That to me is concerning because it means many Black and brown kids who don’t feel safe in school are feeling more welcome now, [while] remote. That is shocking."
As schools shuttered across the country and transitioned to remote learning, many predicted worsening achievement gaps and lower engagement for Black students. With recent protests, increased trauma has been added to that list.
But as schools reopen and leaders discuss bridging the achievement gap in the fall — along with addressing a host of other disparities — Black educators are reminding colleagues to not make the problem worse.
Identifying the problem
Standard diagnostic testing, remedial programs and a return to standard grading procedures after using a feedback system during distance learning, for example, could lead to widened disparities once school is back in session.
"I fear that as we are re-imagining public education, as we are providing more voice and choice, as we are providing additional options ... that we're going to offer that up for the folks who have privileges to advocate, who have access to educators unlike those who have been traditionally marginalized," Brown said, adding that parents who advocate and have access to educators will be the ones to benefit from new technology and learning models.
He predicted that students who have traditionally underperformed are going to be pushed into remedial programs and "be told what to do" instead of allowed the advantage of hybrid learning models.
And with discussions around assessments once students return, Brown said it's already obvious where the gaps will be. "Quite frankly, we can look at our data and predict where young people are, based on what they look like and where they’re from," Brown added.
In a House Committee on Education and Labor hearing this week, Chairman Bobby Scott, D-Va., gave educators a sense of where those gaps lie. "Our country’s history of educational inequity tells us which students lose the most during these school closures," he said. "Today, the pandemic is exposing and worsening achievement gaps for students of color, students with disabilities, English language learners and students from low-income backgrounds."
Only 60% to 70% of students in schools serving predominantly Black and Latino students are regularly logging in, Scott said. And he pointed out continued reliance on local property taxes to fund education — which "has ensured that public schools with the highest need are forced to do more with less" — will only make achievement gaps worse.
But as educators discuss these predictable differences, a new study confirms discourse about the achievement gap could also feed the problem if it is framed as a student outcome issue instead of one related to structural racism.
“Past U.S. presidents and education secretaries have framed the racial achievement gap as 'the civil rights issue of our time,' and publicizing between-group achievement inequalities is often part of a strategy to make educational equity a national priority,” said University of Southern California Assistant Professor David M. Quinn, whose findings were published in the journal Educational Researcher. “However, researchers have expressed concern that by focusing on student outcomes, rather than on structural inequities that lead to the outcome disparities, this framing assumes a deficit orientation that reinforces stereotypes and has a detrimental effect on public support for policies aiming to end structural inequities.”
Framing the conversation as a systemic problem
In the wake of protests following George Floyd's killing and COVID-19's disparate impact on the Black community, Black educators have instead suggested shifting the conversation to first take a look at the policies and practices that contribute to inequities.
Black students receiving harsher punishments than their white peers, curricula that doesn't reflect their culture and a lack of representation among education leadership, they say, contribute to the problem. And according to another new study, Black and female assistant principals are less likely to be promoted to principal than their white and male colleagues, although past studies have shown that students of color benefit when they attend schools with educators of the same race.
Whitney Weathers, assistant principal at Manual High School in Denver, said the lack of representation is also present in positions of academic power.
"Right now, if you are Black, you are pushed to be a school leader or a district leader for social-emotional learning. But when it comes to academics, we are missing," Weathers said. "Have we created the conditions conducive for change? Absolutely. But unless people of color are put into positions where their voices can be used, then this will be a paragraph in a white-washed history book."
Meanwhile, parents of color are also noticing systemic differences in how their children are treated. According to a new parent poll released last week by the National Parents Union, 55% of parents of color say they worry a lot or some about their children being impacted by discriminatory or unjust police actions at school. Nearly half (49%) worry about their children being impacted by racist comments or actions by staff at school.
A study published in April also found that teachers are just as likely as others to show explicit and implicit bias.
And parents of all backgrounds have identified possible solutions for improving racial inequities. Their top recommendations overlap with priorities Black educators' have also listed, including:
- Implicit bias and cultural awareness training for teachers, administrators and staff.
- Trauma-informed school guidance and counselors.
- Culturally inclusive curriculum.
- Ethnically and racially diverse school boards, administrators, teachers and staff.
- Using alternative disciplinary practices instead of suspensions and expulsions.
"There's no accountability around what happens to Black bodies," Weathers said. "Until people are comfortable calling out their colleagues about the inequities that they are facilitating, then things won't change."
Heading back to school, an opportunity for structural change
While many hope for a return to normalcy, some educators of color are hoping for the opposite.
"I’m more concerned about how we don’t retraumatize our babies when they come back. And if we’re not careful, we’re going to do that," Brown said. "We’re going to use our policies and our practices in a way that’s not culturally inclusive and not equitable."
Cultural inclusivity, he said, ranges from what paint color is used in the building to books included in the school library and images on the wall.
At Purdue Polytechnic High School in Indianapolis, for example, Head of School Scott Bess said a project-based curricula that reflects students' interests is leading to higher engagement and a majority of his junior class is on track to graduate. His school is "diverse by design" and serves traditionally marginalized students.
Hutchings said he is planning to provide training for everyone, including the school board.
“We’re going to have to start educating our board so that the policies that we have in place are not contributing to the achievement and opportunity gaps,” he said. “People who can’t handle it are going to have to find another place to work. Nobody has the right to be comfortable.”
Weathers said if hiring educators of color is not an option, "have an honest conversation of where you stand with rigorous and authentic culturally responsive assessments" and "be unafraid to admit [your] bias."
"Don't try to hide students from their reality," she said of educators who might be trying to create "safe spaces" for students. "My job is not to protect you from the world. My job is to teach you about the world so that when you get in it, you're not blindsided."
While recent events are spurring statements of anti-racist solidarity and discussions of equity at all levels of the education system, some are still skeptical about their authenticity or the possibility of effective change.
“That oftentimes means nothing gets done,” said Verjeana Jacobs, chief equity and member services officer for the National School Boards Association. “It’s one thing to have a statement, and another thing to commit to it and change policy."
Anything short of “the most extreme” changes, like abolishing the police from schools, would just continue to keep racist structures in place, said William Anderson, a Denver Public Schools teacher leader.
"The biggest problem with it is that the education [system] already started those conversations prior to this happening, so they think all they have to do is continue doing the things that they were already doing," said Anderson, adding that "buzz words" like "achievement" and "inequities" stymie real change. "Their solutions are already inept to the problems that we are facing."
Hutchings in Alexandria repeated what a lot of advocates — and parents — have been saying about this fall and beyond.
"I think the biggest thing is that, as a country, we need to understand that public education can’t go back to how it was prior to COVID-19," he said. "We were not serving the needs of every single one of our students. This is our opportunity to get it right."