Improving education for low-performing groups of students shouldn’t be a zero-sum game. DC Public Schools (DCPS) have drawn attention (some of it negative) for their Empowering Males of Color initiative, which includes a new all-boys high school. But girls of color need specialized supports, too, in DCPS and nationwide. The graduation rate for black girls in DCPS is 20 percentage points lower than that of white students.
What should a high-quality support system for girls of color look like? DCPS shouldn’t open an all-girls high school across the street from the boys’ school and call it a day. Here are some focus areas for DCPS and other school systems to consider:
- Support girls of color in STEM and CTE. Black girls are less likely to take AP courses in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) subjects, and less likely than white men or white women to graduate college with a degree in a STEM field. In recent NAEP Technology and Engineering Literacy results, girls beating boys by three points made headlines, but black and Hispanic girls still lagged behind white boys and girls by 20-30 points. Schools should encourage girls to take advanced courses in STEM subjects and enroll in career and technical education (CTE) programs linked to high-earning careers in traditionally male-dominated fields.
- Confront racial and gender bias in school discipline. Racial gaps in school discipline impact all students of color, but boys and girls experience it differently. In DC schools (including charter schools) in 2011-12, 13% of black girls received out-of-school suspensions vs. 1% of white girls and 2% of white boys. While good data on discipline causes are scarce, researchers suggest that girls of color are more likely to be punished harshly for minor behavioral issues, such as dress code violations. More data on discipline by race and gender are needed, as are better school policies and resources to show educators how to respond to behavioral challenges fairly.
- Enhance pregnancy prevention and support for teen parents. Teen pregnancy and parenting are cited as key factors among 38% of black girls and 36% of Hispanic girls who leave school. In DC, efforts to reduce teen pregnancy have been very successful, and the number of teen births fell by 20% from 2009 to 2012. DC is already doing more than many jurisdictions to prevent pregnancy and keep teen parents in schools: comprehensive sex education is the norm, condoms are available in all high schools from the school nurse and student volunteers, educational programs aimed at supporting teen parents are available in DCPS high schools, and the DC Department of Human Services sponsors pregnancy prevention education in afterschool programs.
- Acknowledge other family responsibilities. Girls are more likely than boys to be responsible for caring for younger siblings or other family members. This kind of care is not as well-documented as teen pregnancy, but it can be just as stressful. DC has the most expensive childcare in the country, and struggling working parents have to rely more on informal care, like teen sisters. Policymakers should expand the availability of high-quality affordable child care, and school leaders should allow for more flexible attendance/scheduling policies, transportation assistance, and other educational supports for girls who need to get their siblings to school or help siblings with homework.
- Target bullying and sexual harassment that disproportionately affects girls. Girls cannot learn successfully if they feel unsafe. A national survey by AAUW found that 56% of girls in grades 7-12 experienced some kind of sexual harassment in the 2010-11 school year. And girls from low-income families were more likely to stay home from school in response to harassment. Girls also experience bullying in ways that may be less visible: girls are more likely to be the victims of cyber-bullying and relational bullying (where someone is ostracized or gossiped about, rather than being directly confronted). School policies on bullying and sexual harassment should address these different experiences, and educators should be trained to recognize signs of distress and trauma in girls.
- Break out the data. One of the most basic things all states can do is publish easily accessible “cross-tabs” of key achievement metrics, so communities can see how boys and girls are performing across racial/ethnic and socioeconomic lines. Separate data on gender, socioeconomic status, and race/ethnicity tend to be more accessible, but going deeper, to look at black students by gender or gender groups broken out by socioeconomic status, is not common or consistent even though state data systems would support it.
Schools should intervene to help students who are struggling most, and in most school systems, that means supporting boys of color; initiatives like Empowering Males of Color could be a good start. But girls of color need unique supports, too. If schools go the route of gender-differentiated strategies to close racial achievement gaps, they should articulate plans for both boys and girls. This is not a meaningless gesture to give the appearance of fairness, it’s about recognizing that intersections of race and gender and lots of other factors can affect students in different ways and demanding strategies that are responsive to students’ experiences. This can have real positive effects on student learning — just don’t leave girls out of the picture.
Image from “Hidden Figures” – from empireonline.com
I’m not a big movie buff, but I’ve been fascinated by Hidden Figures, the forthcoming film about the largely unknown African-American women mathematicians and engineers whose calculations were crucial to enabling the Apollo moon missions. Their contributions are particularly monumental since they came at a time when segregation and racism constrained educational and professional opportunities for so many black Americans. So I was excited to read this weeks’ New York Times profile of the movie.
That said, I couldn’t help being put off by how the article reported on the math aversion of the film’s leads. The opening sentence reads:
Taraji P. Henson hates math, and Octavia Spencer has a paralyzing fear of calculus, but that didn’t stop either actress from playing two of the most important mathematicians the world hasn’t ever known.
The article continues to reference Henson’s and Spencer’s discomfort with math as if it’s slightly endearing, without ever questioning the educational and life experiences that might have led these two highly accomplished women to hate math.
Why is it acceptable and cute for grown adults to say they’re not comfortable with math? Why do we treat discomfort with math as something to be taken for granted rather than the result of our education system’s long-running failure to teach math effectively, combined with low expectations for women, girls, and students from historically underserved racial/ethnic groups and low-income families? Continue reading
Could tackling California’s teacher shortage also increase the state’s teacher diversity? It’s no secret there are vast race differences between California’s students and teachers. More than half of K-12 students in the state are Latino or Hispanic, but less than one in five teachers share their racial/ethnic background. This is troublesome because teacher diversity matters: Diverse teachers may provide more culturally relevant instruction and could have a greater impact on improving academic outcomes for students of color.
Source: DataQuest, California Department of Education, http://dq.cde.ca.gov/dataquest/. Continue reading
The Shaman by Pedro Paricio via Halcyon Gallery
Is it a prerequisite that you feel fluent in the language of race, inclusion, and equity before tackling such issues in your organization?
This is a question I’ve been working through myself. Acting to resolve a sensitive issue we may be met with silence, confusion, denial, or resistance. If not communicated tactfully, we might unintentionally offend colleagues. In the worst case scenario, we might encounter marginalization, reprimand, or even termination. Scary stuff. So, initially, my intuition said that we should get good at talking about sensitive topics before launching into action to avoid complicating an already complex situation. Reaching a level of conversational proficiency where we feel confident to handle any situation before intervening in an equity issue seemed like a logical pursuit.
More recently, I’ve come to think that this is a recipe for delay, paralysis, and, ultimately, the perpetuation of the status quo. Waiting for everyone to reach proficiency won’t work because everyone’s starting from a different place. More importantly, as a sector and as leaders, we’re late to the game on this and it’s time to report for duty.
As an education leader, you have two roles: lead and provide space and support for others to grow. The same is true when making equity part of your daily dialogue. It’s important to acknowledge that people all have different levels of comfort and sophistication with discussions about race and equity. For instance, when we talk about race, there are often stark differences between people of color and whites. Continue reading
Another tragic racially motivated hate crime has taken place, this time at Emanuel AME church in Charleston, South Carolina. In the wake of too many brutal shootings of unarmed black men captured on video and thus exposed to the world, the event in Charleston elicited a range of reactions: outrage, grief, solidarity, disgust, resolve. But a common sentiment of weariness has emerged in many of the articles and commentaries that I’ve read.
Singer Solange Knowles poignantly expressed her fatigue this way:
To some degree, the recent spate of highly publicized race-based tragedies has elicited weariness in anyone invested in social equity. Waking up to these headlines is emotionally draining. But there’s a stark difference between the exhaustion experienced by people of color and whites that deserves attention if we are to find motivation to move forward together in these moments.
Tawnya Denise Anderson, a Presbyterian minister and author of this fantastic post, puts it this way:
I wish I could help non-Black folks understand what it’s like to be inundated with stories and experiences like this. It scars the psyche. You go from anger and indignation to depression and dejection and back and forth and back again until you’re inevitably numb. When news of Kalief Browder’s suicide broke, many of my White friends expressed their anger about it and the system that facilitated it. I told them they could be angry all they wanted. As for me, I’m exhausted.
This expression of collective weariness reminded me of a candid conversation with a colleague about our reactions to the Michael Brown shooting. She expressed her experience confronting and then battling racism this way, “I’m sick and tired. And then I get sick and tired of being sick and tired.” Continue reading