Profoundly Antiracist Questions About Schools
by David A. Fuentes - February 02, 2022
There are deeply ingrained structural inequalities in schools that require immediate action. As antiracist educators, we must ask questions about school equity to disrupt the inequality of school outcomes we continue to see today. Who teaches the students? Who gets new schools? Who graduates from high school, and who goes to college? Who gets labeled and sorted? What can (antiracist) educators do? These questions are profoundly antiracist because they are overwhelmingly multicultural. By asking profoundly antiracist questions about schools today, I highlight areas and issues of schooling that require immediate action, antiracist efforts, to address the inequalities that exist as evidenced by educational statistics. Based on the analysis of school outcomes presented in this research note, it becomes clear that Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) students continue to experience disparate school outcomes in America. Such inequalities reveal that BIPOC children are taught by underpaid teachers, learn in schools that are falling apart, are labeled and sorted at disproportionate rates, and endure a curriculum about other people, and generally are being underserved in schools, as evidenced by the school outcomes. Educators must take immediate antiracist actions to ensure that school equity does not continue to be defined by racial inequality.
In 2002, Sonia Nieto asked educators, school leaders, and policy makers profoundly multicultural questions about school and equity in the United States. Looking closely at educational statistics and asking stakeholders and practitioners to take a long hard look at equity and the promise of equal opportunities, Nieto effectively argued that the concept of equity in schools had become a fiction. Though called multicultural, these questions were profoundly antiracist at the time and are meaningful for us to revisit today, 20 years later, in hopes that we may see improvements in school equity as evidenced by school outcomes. Thus, I ask profoundly antiracist questions about schools 20 years after profoundly multicultural questions were asked to see how we have progressed, if at all.
Who teaches the students? Who gets new schools? Who graduates high school, and who goes to college? Who gets labeled and sorted? What can educators do? These questions are profoundly antiracist today. Similar to the multicultural educator, an antiracist educator today refers to the intentional efforts made to create equitable opportunities for all students (Kendi, 2019). As Kendi suggests, an antiracist is someone who expresses the idea that racial groups are equals and none needs developing and is supporting policy that reduces racial inequity (p. 1). Thus, antiracist educators must ask questions that seek to uncover inequalities in schools and actively work to undo them, particularly when it has been revealed that such inequities fall along racial lines.
The comparison in this research note focuses on distinctions and disparities between urban schools and suburban schools. According to USDA zoning guidelines, the intent of the focus is based on the notion that 75% of U.S. public school students live and learn within urban city limits and go to school in urban areas. Rural schooling outcomes are more closely related to urban school outcomes for similar reasons; lack of resources, school funding, geographic size and resource-sharing all place strains on students and schools in rural areas. This situation has recently given rise to the term high-needs schools, which encompasses rural and urban schools. The key distinction for me has to do with population and numbers of students residing urban and suburban districts. There are simply so many more students studying in urban schools, and the disparities are so stark between more affluent suburban schools and urban schools that I believe the emphasis on suburban and urban is a warranted and justified focus for this research note.
Antiracist educators adhere to antiracism as a descriptive term, one defined through action in the moment. As opposed to racism as something static that someone is, antiracism sees actions as either racist or antiracist as they occur in the moment. As such, one is not racist or antiracist as a cognitive act in perpetuity; rather, their actions in each moment can be one or the other. To be antiracist, one is choosing to actively work against racism in the moment. In one moment, an educator can be actively working against inequity, espousing that all groups are equal, making their actions antiracist. However, in another moment, while reflecting on the shortcomings of Black and Latinx students, the same educators actions can be racist. Hence, antiracist educators are those whose actions consistently seek to address issues of equity and seek to further understand aspects of school structures that promote disparate outcomes and stifle equal opportunity and equity of school outcomes.
Being an antiracist educator requires action, praxisit is not a static way of being. One is not antiracist regardless of their actions; it is not a mindset, but a set of perpetual actions toward a common goal, the elimination of racist actions in schools. Put simply, inaction does not and cannot lead to the act of antiracism; only antiracist acts can do that. Thus, to be antiracist, educators are required to engage in a sustained set of actions aimed at undoing systemic racism in schools and society.
Being antiracist (and racist) is a choice that each of us is capable of making as educators at every moment. Choosing to believe that all people are equal and acting in ways to support policies that reduce inequalities is something we must do actively, not passively. There is no such thing as neutral when educators chose to act or not when confronted with instances of racism, including the outcomes of school policy and practice. By asking profoundly antiracist questions about schools today, I highlight areas and issues of schooling that require immediate action, antiracist efforts, to address the inequalities that exist, as evidenced by educational statistics.
WHO TEACHES THE STUDENTS?
Teachers are a unique demographic group in the United States: overwhelmingly female and white, and overwhelmingly middle class (Bristol, 2016). According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES, 20172018), 89% of all elementary school teachers are female, and females make up 76% of teachers overall. In a recent article in Education Week, the question was asked, Who is the average teacher? (Will, 2020). While the answera 43-year-old white woman with 10 years of experiencewont surprise many, a closer look at who is teaching the children reveals some interesting trends. In the past 20 years, for example, the percentage of Hispanic teachers has grown from 7.8% to 9.3%, a modest increase in teacher diversity (NCES, 20172018). Currently, about 7% of the teacher workforce identifies as Black, indicating no change (less than 1%) in the past 20 years. While the number of diverse teachers has grown to some extent in the past 20 years, it has failed to keep pace with the increasingly diverse population growth of students, leading to an increased gap in parity (Villegas et. al., 2012) between who teachers are and who students are. Coupled with a growing body of evidence that indicates all students benefit from having more diverse teachers (Albert Shanker Institute, 2018)particularly Black and Latinx students, males in particular, who are at the greatest risk of being failed by schools (Gregory et al., 2010)there is undoubtably a great need for more teacher diversity (Bristol & Martin-Fernandez, 2019).
Nationwide, just under 50 million students are enrolled in public schools in urban areas (NCES, 20172018). Similarly, according to the same data, just under 20 million U.S. students are enrolled in public schools in suburban districts. Roughly 2.5 times more U.S. students are enrolled in urban school districts than suburban school districts. Whereas there are roughly 958,000 teachers in urban schools, there are 1,098,000 in suburban schools. In other words, there are more suburban teachers despite there being far more urban schoolchildren. Similarly, the average schoolteacher salary in suburban schools is $58,470, while the average urban schoolteacher makes $54,860. We have a larger, better paid teacher workforce servicing suburban America than we do urban America, suggesting that the teaching of suburban children is of greater value. Despite the larger number of students in urban America, we invest more in teachers in suburban schools in terms of both numbers of teachers and pay disparities.
WHO GETS NEW SCHOOLS?
Recent interest in ventilation systems and air circulation in schools has raised the question: Who gets new schools? Despite our recent interest in school buildings, long-standing patterns reveal disparate, unequal structures around school infrastructure. The average school building in the United States is 45 years old (NCES, 2013). However, for cities that share an industrial historical background, schools are, on average, 6070 years old. For example, nearly half of Baltimore City public schools were erected before 1960, and just 3% have been built since 1985 (Cohen, 2018). The resulting difficulties around who gets new schools precede the Covid-19 pandemic; countless urban schoolchildren have historically endured cold temperatures in winter and sweltering heat in summer while in school. The patterns we see in Baltimore are unfortunately dispersed across high-needs areas spanning the United States, resulting in various problems associated with inadequate school buildings; these include poor ventilation, inadequate climate control, mold, asbestos, crumbling conditions, and an inability to add on classroom space despite population growth.
Despite the widespread nature of school facility shortcomings, there remains a paucity of attention paid to these problems as education policy experts frequently choose to focus on curricular and other issues (Zhao, 2009). Seemingly the expectation here is that children who are learning in cold schools that are falling apart should simultaneously pull themselves up. Considering that the vast majority of U.S. students study in urban areasareas that have historically prospered during a past manufacturing timeit would seem that this has now become a national school infrastructure crisis and should be a serious policy concern. Perhaps this is a school funding issue; roughly 80% of school capital costs fall on local budgets, with less than 20% coming from states, and 12 states provide no funding whatsoever (Filardo, 2016).
WHO GRADUATES FROM HIGH SCHOOL, AND WHO GOES TO COLLEGE?
The status dropout rate in America has improved significantly in the years between 2006 and 2018, decreasing from 9.7% in 2006 to 5.3% in 2018 (NCES, 2019). While this growth is overwhelmingly positive, a closer look reveals disparate outcomes along racial and demographic lines that require our immediate intervention. The status dropout rate is defined as the percentage of 16- to 24-year-olds who are not enrolled in schools and have not earned a high school credentialeither a diploma or equivalency or GED certificate. In 2018, the overall number of status dropouts was 2.1 million nationwide. The status dropout rate, however, varies by key demographics, including gender and race. The dropout rate for Asians in U.S. schools is 1.9%, lower than the 4.2% for their white peers. The dropout rate for Black students is 6.4%, Hispanic students 8.0%, Asian Pacific Islander students 8.1%, and American Indian/Alaska Native students 9.5% (NCES, 2019). The status dropout rate for students who are white is lower than for all racial groups except Asian, non-Pacific Islander. The percentages of status dropouts have decreased for Hispanic and Black students between 2006 and 2018, from 21% to 8% for Hispanic students, and from 11.5% to 6.4% for Black students (NCES, 2019). While the percentages have decreased in this time, the coupling of population growth paints a bleak picture, illustrating a growing overall number of Hispanic students, for example, not graduating from high school and presumably not going to college. These numbers similarly reflect disparate school outcomes regarding who graduates from high school and, presumably, who goes to college.
Between 2000 and 2018, the percentage of all students who went to college increased based on key demographics of race and gender. This growth was particularly noticeable among Black (31%38%) and Hispanic (22%36%) college-enrolled students. Despite these positive developments, we continue to see disparate school outcomes based on race and gender today. Asian students enroll in college at the rate of 64%, white students 43%, Black students 38%, Hispanic students 36%, and Pacific Islander students 36% (NCES, 2018b). Similarly, we see disparate rates of college enrollment among the same groups by gender. Black males and females enter college at rates of 33% and 41%, respectively; Hispanic male and female students at rates of 32% and 40%; and white male and female students at rates of 39% and 45% (NCES, 2019b). While percentage growth in high school graduation and college enrollments have both increased in the past 20 years, the population growth among Hispanic populations, for example, represents a growing number of Black and Hispanic students being underserved by U.S. public education, as evidenced by school outcomes and college admission.
WHO GETS LABELED AND SORTED?
Although white students outnumber Black students in U.S. public schools at a ratio of more than 3:1, with 24.1 million white students and 7.7 million Black students (NCES, 2019), Black students are far more likely to receive selected disciplinary actions, such as corporal punishment (53,069 instances for white students and 40,023 for Black students); external suspension (1,036,590 for white students and 861,194 for Black students); and expulsion (49,144 for white students and 33,557 for Black students) (NCES, 2019). These alarming statistics illustrate that Black students are far more likely than white students to be physically abused, suspended, and expelled from schools. Educators must also take immediate antiracist actions to ensure that school discipline does not continue to be defined by race and racial inequality. Antiracist educators who become aware of such school disparities are compelled to actively work against school policies that create and maintain such unequal outcomes.
In addition to disparate selection for discipline in schools, BIPOC students are labeled and sorted disproportionately for special education (SPED) and English learner (EL) services at an alarmingly high rate. Black children, despite being outnumbered 3 to 1 by white peers, are identified at significantly higher rates for SPED services than white peers (16% and 12%, respectively). The overall number of students who were served in U.S. public schools under IDEA was 6.7 million, or 13% of the overall student population (NCES, 201516). The percentages also vary by race; American Indian/Alaska Native students are disproportionately represented, at 17%; Black students at 16%; Hispanic students at 12%; and white students at 14%. The overrepresentation of American Indian/Alaska Native, Black, and Hispanic students receiving SPED services stands in stark contrast with the overall population of students and represents a complex set of dynamics that point to the overidentification of BIPOC students for SPED services in U.S. public schools. As antiracist educators who espouse that all children from all races are equal and that none is in need of further development in comparison with another, these statistics must be met with alarm and mark an opportunity for policy and practice to more equitably reflect equality and antiracist beliefs that all groups should be valued.
ELs, a population that has seen growth in the past 20 years, are also sorted and frequently removed from learning in the least restrictive environment at a disparate rate in comparison with white and monolingual English-speaking peers. The number of ELs in U.S. schools has grown from 3.8 million students in 2000 to just over 5 million students in 2017 (NCES, 2019b)a number that represents about 10% of all students, up from 8% in 2000 (NCES, 2019b). Moreover, the percentage of ELs varies by school type, with roughly 1.5 times more ELs attending urban schools than suburban ones14.7% and 9.6% of the overall student population in U.S. schools, respectively. For the antiracist educator, these statics are troubling, given that previously indicated disparities around school infrastructure and teacher pay inequities point to a far less than equal opportunity based on being an EL and living in an urban areatwo characteristics that overwhelmingly impact BIPOC children and families.
WHAT CAN (ANTIRACIST) EDUCATORS DO?
One of the most profoundly Antiracist actions that can be undertaken in schools is to center a curriculum based on the lived experiences of BIPOC students and inclusive and responsive teaching methods that empower all children to succeed. A decolonized curriculum, coupled with inclusive pedagogical approaches that embrace students cultural and racial identities as assets and view the knowledge each child brings into the classroom as valuable and equal to more privileged Eurocentric forms of knowledge, marks a pedagogical and responsive action that is inherently antiracist (Harper & Davis, 2012). A pedagogy that excludes the historical and cultural contributions of all groups other than European colonizers does not provide an equal opportunity to see oneself reflected in school curricula and cannot lead to equity as it overtly positions white supremacy front and centera message reflected in the school outcomes we continue to see today. The reluctance of or inability for school curricula to accurately reflect the contributions of BIPOC in the United States in the arts, economics, history, culture, science, mathematics, social studies, literacy instruction, and all areas of knowledge production threaten to continue the pedagogy of the oppressed (Freire, 1972), which has defined public education since the 1970s.
Similar to curricular changes and the need for a decolonized curriculum, pedagogies that leverage confidence, self-efficacy, choice, empathy, love, care, and stronger and more positive relationships between students, teachers, and families are also concrete antiracist actions for educators to make. Positive affect and relationships (Howard, 2014) that demonstrate respect and rapport are the cornerstone of effective teaching and learning. Just like it is hard for one to learn when cold, scared, or wet, it is easy for one to learn when engaged, having fun, and feeling valued and included. A pedagogy that imbues student success is an antiracist action that must be taken seriously in schools today. The way we teach is just as important as what we teach. Responding to the lived experiences of students with love and care, and creating and maintaining safe and affectively positive learning environments where all children feel safe, important, and included also represent antiracist actions that educators can ensure today.
Nieto (1994) defined multicultural education as an antiracist education that is firmly related to student learning and permeates all areas of schooling. From this perspective, we can see how the recent energy and movement around antiracism has been firmly rooted in education research and literature, and perhaps continues a legacy of the pursuit of liberation that has attempted to hold accountable the promise of an American education and democracy for the disparate outcomes we have long observed in U.S. schools. While an inclusive pedagogy is one avenue that can be taken within schools, it by no means represents the greatest and most profound of structural changes needed to dismantle the disparate school outcomes that we continue to experience in schools despite our best intentions. An inclusive pedagogy is one action that can be undertaken by school practitioners and supported by school leaders through policy and practice, and it has potential to decrease disparate school outcomes. It is important to note that schools do not create the social inequities that give rise to the disparate school outcomes that we continue to see in U.S. schools. Schools are sites that reflect the broader society, for better and for worse, and the broader sociocultural and sociopolitical contexts that undergird U.S. society are reflected in schools in a variety of ways. However, it is incumbent on us, as school practitioners, school leaders, and policy makers, to be aware of the disparate school outcomes we continue to experience so that curricular and policy changes can be responsive to the needs of students, and that responsiveness be measured in terms of school outcomes.
An antiracist teaching and learning philosophy, one that centers school outcomes and equity in policy and practice, is needed today to continue to guide the pursuit of equitable schooling in America. It is needed to ensure that the democratic promiseone that embraces the assets that all children bring with into the classroom, one that equally values the contributions and knowledge of all cultures in a pluralistic and multicultural society such as these United States of Americais more than a fiction. Demanding an equity of school outcomes is as inherently antiracist as it is overwhelmingly multicultural. When we ask profoundly antiracist questions about schools today, and the answer reveals disparate school outcomes for children based on race and gender, the antiracist educator is forced to act. Put simply, inaction does not and cannot lead to the act of antiracismonly antiracist acts can do that. Thus, to be antiracist, educators must engage in a sustained set of actions aimed at undoing systemic racism in schools and society. Our pursuit of equity in schools has the potential to restore a dream deferred (Hughes, 1994) if and only if we are able to ask and successfully answer these and other profoundly antiracist questions about schools.
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