Tag Archives: Race

The Error of Our Ways: Education and Mass Incarceration

Originally published on Bellwether and The 74’s live blog of the DNC.

In 1996, Hillary Clinton, in support of her husband’s sweeping crime bill, gave an interview in which she invoked the “superpredator,” a criminal so corrupted that they were irredeemable. That narrative stoked the fear that has driven two decades of prison and jail expansion, militarized local police, and zero tolerance school discipline policies. But times have changed.

prison-370112_960_720In just the last few years, we’ve watched the tide turn in our national discourse on incarceration, and it’s clear that the speakers at last week’s convention have joined the call by Education Secretary John King and others to shift resources away from the criminal justice system and into our schools. It’s not just our federal leaders in a crisis of conscience, states, school districts, and charter schools are rethinking their approaches to student behavior. They’re spurred by a realization that they have been complicit in a broken system.

Dr. Maya Angelou once reflected, “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.” During the primary campaign, there were loud voices insisting that Hillary’s 1996 comments were fair game for criticism. And they were. But if we as a society take the principles of growth and redemption seriously, then we need to take a close look at what’s different about this campaign and how Clinton has changed in the last 20 years. If you believe in second chances, then that stuff matters.  

Hillary has spoken explicitly about racial justice, mass incarceration, and the need to invest in supportive services in communities. Kate Burdick, a long-time education advocate, Eric Holder, and the students of Eagle Academy, joined the lineup of speakers at the DNC last week to talk about Hillary’s focus on education and justice reform. And in his speech last Monday, Bernie Sanders credited Hillary Clinton with understanding that we need to make sure that young people “are in good schools and in good jobs, not rotting in jail cells.”

While Hillary shouldn’t be accountable for her husband’s policies, she is responsible for her own words — words that she now publicly regrets. If she follows that up with real action on education like her platform suggests, it could be a demonstration of the self-aware leader who does better once they know better and an example for us all.

What Should An “Empowering Girls of Color” Initiative Look Like?

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.

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Photo by Noah Scialom

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.

Really NYT? Harmful Stereotypes About Women and Math?

Hidden Figures

Image from “Hidden Figures” – from empireonline.com

I’m not a big movie buff, but I’ve been fascinated by Hidden Figuresthe 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

California Has a Chance to Fix Its Teacher Diversity Problem

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.

CA teacher diversity SY14-15

Source: DataQuest, California Department of Education, http://dq.cde.ca.gov/dataquest/. Continue reading

Progress Not Perfection: Overcoming Your Hesitation to Talk about Race and Equity at Work

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