The following essay — one of four to be published this week — appeared in the recently released 2018 KIDS COUNT Data Book, Taking Stock: Considering the Future of Child Well-Being and Family Opportunity in Connecticut. It is published by The Connecticut Association for Human Services (CAHS), an affiliate of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s KIDS COUNT network, a group of child advocacy and research organizations using data to promote smart policies on issues affecting children and families. CAHS tracks and reports on indicators of child and family well-being.
Without intervention, the U.S. racial “achievement gap,” also known as the “equity gap,” will close roughly by the year 2266. Year after year, news of Connecticut’s own intractable “achievement gap” has become a familiar story for those fighting for educational equity. Far too often, blame is assigned to students and families, and efforts are focused on “fixing” students of color and low-income students. Student performance data is collected in an effort to measure learning and instruction, but does not examine systemic and institutional inequities themselves. Without addressing institutional inequities, students of color are unable to access the same benefits that white students receive.
Teacher preparedness and cultural competence
Teachers represent the single most influential factor in a child’s educational experience. Research on teacher experience concludes that teachers with some experience are more effective than new teachers. In 2015, Connecticut’s Equitable Access to Excellent Educator’s Plan determined that increasing the percentage of experienced teachers and principals in “high-poverty/high minority” schools is a central piece of the State’s work to institutionalize equity. The Connecticut State Department of Education (CSDE) Talent Office found that students in these schools designated as “high-poverty” and “high-minority” are “more likely to be taught by inexperienced teachers and led by inexperienced principals than students in “low-poverty”, “low-minority” schools.” Moreover, 9.1 percent of Black students and 4.6 percent of Latino students in Connecticut attend schools with more than 20 percent of teachers not yet certified, compared to 0.6 percent of white students. These are the 7seventh and eighth highest rates in the country, respectively.
Teacher racial bias has a profound effect on student achievement. The impact of racial and cultural bias or judgments about a child’s intelligence, ability, and behavior has a deeply damaging effect on a student’s self-esteem, motivation, and achievement. Despite the existence of CSDE Standards for Professional Learning in Cultural Competence, and available frameworks such as Equity Literacy, school districts seldom create institutional structures that support and prepare educators to teach students of color.
Research shows that employing and retaining black and brown teachers offers an array of solutions to address the equity gap. The presence of black and brown educators ameliorates the negative impact of implicit bias and racist attitudes held by some white educators. Teachers of color serve as role models and advocates, and help students engage and connect with school through strong teacher-student relationships.
National efforts to increase teacher diversity have resulted in only a 5 percent nation-wide increase in teachers of color from 1987 through 2012. In an attempt to close the enormous gap, the CSDE initiated the Minority Teacher Recruitment Committee in 2014 —however Connecticut continues to employ an overwhelming 91.4 percent of white teachers, while educators of color account for only 8.3 percent of the state’s total teaching staff.
As Connecticut continues to struggle with the recruitment and retention of black and Latino teachers, national research shows that building a diverse teaching staff is complicated. “The issues that stifle the development and empowerment of [teachers of color] are so deep-seated that it will take honest and critical examinations of school cultures and systemic processes for school and district leaders to not only diversify the workforce, but to build an educator workforce more representative of its population and more capable of serving an increasingly diverse population of students.”
Discipline and the school-to-prison pipeline
In U.S. society, cultural biases assign threat and criminality to Black boys, and lack of innocence to Black girls as young as 5 years old. The dehumanization and “adult-ification” that Black and brown students experience in school environments strip them from the protections many white children have from the violence of the criminal and juvenile justice systems.
The school-to-prison pipeline is maintained by educators and administrators lacking basic cultural competence and equity literacy skills; leading to harsh responses to misunderstood behaviors of students of color. Severe and exclusionary practices like suspension, expulsion, and school arrest replace options like communicating with parents and using restorative practices. As a result, students of color lose instructional time, experience social isolation, are exposed to the juvenile and criminal justice systems, and lose trust in educational institutions resulting in further alienation and disengagement.
Data on racial disparities in school discipline shows that punishment of students of color begins when children are alarmingly young and continues throughout their educational life. In 2016, the Yale Child Study Center found that “Black preschoolers are 3.6 times as likely to receive one or more suspensions relative to white preschoolers.” While Black children are a mere 19 percent of enrolled preschoolers, 47 percent of all preschoolers suspended one or more times are Black children.
In the 2016 – 2017 school year, Black students in Connecticut were suspended at nearly four times the rate of white students and Latino students were two and a half times more likely to be suspended than white students. It is critical to note that studies have shown that when white students and students of color commit the same “offenses” at school, students of color are receive harsher punishments.
The standard, 20th century, Eurocentric curriculum and instructional practices are not only failing all students, but also perpetuating violence against students of color. The vast and varied histories, narratives, and contributions to modern society of the countless ethnic groups that have shaped our world’s history are trivialized, simplified, and erased. “Curriculum violence occurs when pertinent cultural values, messages, and historical truths are suppressed or omitted in aims to continue oppression among minority groups.” Research continues to show that a curriculum centering on the perspectives and history of white people causes “students to disengage from academic learning”, a significant cause of absenteeism.
One of many facets of a meaningful multicultural curriculum includes “ensuring content is complete and accurate.” In 2011, Connecticut was graded “F” by the Southern Poverty Law Center in terms of the scope and quality of its standards for teaching the civil rights movement. A report published earlier this year identified that teachers feel uncomfortable teaching about slavery and do not find support in the state’s curriculum or standards.
Textbooks and curriculum tend to gloss over white supremacist ideology —the bedrock upon which slavery was instituted; overlook the lived experiences of enslaved people; and largely ignore how the North directly participated in and profited from the institution of slavery. In addition to student disengagement, failure of Connecticut schools to teach all students the full and accurate history and present-day reality of racism and slavery can reinforce existing notions that we live in a post-racial meritocracy, and heighten bias and prejudice.
Positive school climate is essential in aiding student’s ability to learn. Studies show that having a positive school climate can “decrease absenteeism, suspensions, substance abuse, and bullying, and increases students’ academic achievement, motivation to learn, and psychological well-being.” Micro-aggressions create an environment that hinders black and brown students’ ability to learn.
Micro-aggressions are “the brief verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities that communicate hostile, derogatory, denigrating, and hurtful messages to people of color.” These routine manifestations of unchecked bias from educators are a major source of discord between students of color and their white teachers and are emblematic of how stereotypes, biases and low expectations are perpetuated.
Direction for the Department of Education and Connecticut school districts
In conclusion, the CSDE and Connecticut school districts should:
- Invest in creating conditions to attract and retain teachers of color in its schools.
- Require all school personnel to receive ongoing and extensive anti-racism, cultural competence and equity literacy training.
- Design and implement a meaningful multicultural curriculum.
- Adopt a policy requiring all graduating seniors to take one race and ethnic studies course, as is done in Bridgeport Public Schools.
- Bring conversations about educational inequities into community spaces; and provide data and research tools to students and families.
- Center the voices of those most marginalized, by supporting grassroots organizing led by youth and people of color; emphasize community assets and inter-generational wisdom instead of trying to “fix” students, families, and communities.
- Collect, analyze, publish, and highlight more data focusing on key equity measures in Connecticut schools —such as the implementation of ethnic studies; professional development on cultural competence, equity literacy and anti-racism; school climate from the perspective of students with marginalized identities, etc.
- Implement equity teams in all schools statewide, using the Seattle model.
Cristher Estrada-Perez, Varun Khattar, Emilia Skene and Ellen Tuzzolo are on the staff of the RE·Center Race & Equity in Education
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