Locating Black Girls in Educational Policy Discourse: Implications for the Every Student Succeeds Act
by Venus Evans-Winters, Dorothy E. Hines, Allania Moore & Teresa Lawrence Jones - 2018
The enactment of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) in 2015 by President Barack Obama increased accountability requirements and was designed to reduce achievement and opportunity gaps, and racial disproportionality in school discipline. Despite the implementation of ESSA, Black girls still continue to experience hypercriminalization and policing, and when disaggregated by race and gender, they still receive the highest rates of disciplinary punishments in school and out of school. In this article, we discuss how Black girls in the Pk–12 public school system are invalidated and ignored in educational policy discourse and in school reform. In our discussion, we argue that ESSA tends to focus on identity categories (such as race, gender, class, and linguistics), and not on the intersectionality thereof, or how race does not operate as a silo (race, gender, social class, and other parts of our identity are layered and form a mosaic). We draw from literature on Black girls, zero tolerance, and critical race feminism to examine Black girls’ disciplinary punishments in Chicago Public Schools, and ESSA’s effect on a national scale. In our analysis of quantitative data from Chicago Public Schools, we find that, in the third largest district in the United States, Black girls are disproportionally the recipients of out-of-school suspensions. Black female students received 78% of all female out-of-school suspensions during the 2016–2017 school year. A majority of the actions that Black girls were punished for were minor in nature and not due to violence or criminal offenses. We find that when Black girls are made invisible during the policy process and made visible when they are recipients of bias punishments, they will be more susceptible to receiving hyperpunitive disciplinary outcomes. Therefore, this article recommends that schools, policy makers, and researchers examine how harsh discipline and exclusionary policies affect Black girls as racialized and gendered beings while not ignoring the needs of Black female students during the school reform process.
In 2015, President Barack Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. ESSA provisions amended No Child Left Behind (2001) with the intent to increase accountability of states to close achievement and opportunity gaps, use evidence-based innovations to promote communityschool engagement, increase graduation rates, and reduce racial disparities in school discipline. Nationally, more attention has focused on identifying factors that contribute to racial disproportionality in school discipline while addressing the impact of punitive discipline polices in Pk12 schools. For example, zero-tolerance policies and exclusionary disciplinary practices have contributed to negative schooling outcomes and to social conditions that have adversely affected Black students and children from low-income and marginalized communities. This includes increased rates of incarceration, the school-to-prison nexus, and criminality stereotypes that have left Black children in a perpetual state of hypercriminalization.
In this discussion, we focus on the effects of punitive discipline policies on the academic achievement and schooling outcomes of Black girls in Pk12 schools. More specifically, in this discussion, we assert that Black girls fall through the cracks in most analyses of school policy reform and that such policies, like ESSA, tend to focus on racial and class categories, linguistic minorities, or even special education status (i.e., students with dis/abilities) with minimal or no attention to intersecting identities. For example, a Black female student can encounter racialized discrimination before, during, and after the disciplinary process because of the intersection of her race, gender, and class. Additionally, she can face different forms of vulnerability if she is identified as having an intellectual and/or emotional disability. We argue that on a national scale, and in the Chicago Public Schools more specifically, Black girls are made vulnerable in Pk12 schools because of racially biased disciplinary policies, class oppression, and gender discrimination. Policy actors (teachers, administrators, and school staff) are often tasked with implementing policies that affect Black girls but may pay little attention to the oppressive conditions that foster a climate of educational disregard and academic neglect.
In this discussion, we raise the following questions: In what ways will the implementation of ESSA address the problems of zero tolerance and harsh school discipline policies that unfairly push out Black girls? How will the state of Illinois implementation of ESSA in Chicago Public Schools impact the educational outcomes and experiences of Black female students who have been traditionally marginalized in K12 school settings? How will ESSA serve to mediate the harsh realities of poverty, gender discrimination, and racial oppression that threaten school resilience and the individual and collective agency of Black girls? We conclude with implications for policy makers and Black girls who are being disproportionately impacted by exclusionary discipline policies.
A REVIEW: THE EFFECTS OF FEDERAL EDUCATION POLICIES ON BLACK GIRLS
BLACK GIRLS V. BOARD OF EDUCATION
Brown v. Board of Education (1954, 1955) declared that separate was inherently unequal. However, as explained by Smith (1998) in the Howard Law Journal, many Whites were opposed to school integration; thus, policies and practices were put into place to control, disregard, and intimidate Black students. For example, after Brown v. Board of Education (1954, 1955), Black children systematically endured corporeal punishment and were labeled as emotionally and behaviorally disturbed, diagnosed as having a learning disability, and suspended and expelled from school (Howard, 2013; Moody, 2016; Smith, 1998). Even after Brown, Black children continue to be disproportionately disenfranchised by the public educational system post de jure segregation. Today, research shows that African American girls have higher rates of suspension than all other student groups except their Black male counterparts (Crenshaw, Ocen, & Nanda, 2015; Morris, 2016). Even more, recent research suggests that Black students receive harsher punishments than non-Black students for similar behaviors at school (Elias, 2013; Hines-Datiri, 2015; Moody, 2016). By systematically dismantling schools that served Black students and abolishing Black people from the teaching profession, the nation began a legacy of deculturalization processes and harsh disciplinary practices in schools (Evans-Winters, 2017b). Besides replacing Black teachers and administrators with White female teachers and administrators, deculturalization also entails the marginalization of Black students cultural traditions at school by implementing curriculum that is reflective of the dominating groups culture and history, and ridiculing, reprimanding, or penalizing Black children for speaking in their own language or dialects.
We further asseverate here that schools are designed to strip Black girls of their racialized, gendered, and cultural identity in order to impose a White middle-class Eurocentric standard of beauty, morality, and behavior(s). Further, we posit that when Black girls do not conform to White Eurocentric feminine standards of how an educated girl/woman behaves and how a girl/woman looks, she is penalized in school. Consequently, various Supreme Court decisions and federal policies ranging from Brown to zero tolerance have adversely affected Black girls livelihood in schools.
ZERO TOLERANCE OF BLACK GIRLS
Similar to their Black male peers, Black girls have been the victims of harsh discipline policies in schools as a result of zero-tolerance policies. As the literature has identified, zero-tolerance school polices disproportionately affect Black students (Hoffman, 2014). Although the majority of mass school violence occurs in predominantly White communities at the hands of White males, Black and Brown students from lower income and working-class communities are most impacted by zero-tolerance policies. Zero-tolerance policies are a residual effect of state-sanctioned violence against racialized and gendered bodies.
For instance, zero-tolerance policies evolved from propaganda under the Reagan administration as a war on drugs and continued with the Bush administration. William von Raab, who was serving as the U.S. Commissioner of Customs during the war-on-drugs era, had a reputation for holding a strong position on drug trafficking and for his controversial antismuggling program that was called Zero Tolerancewhich was one of the first early uses of the term (Henault, 2001). At the time, the main targets of zero-tolerance drug policy were individuals caught transporting drugs across U.S. borders. As a drug policy, the zero-tolerance campaign was meant to serve as a combination of warning, punishment, and deterrence to drug traffickers and others involved in the drug and gang industry. Like many racialized policies in the United States, eventually zero-tolerance propaganda found its way into Black and Latin@ neighborhoods and school environments (Evans-Winters, 2017b).
Specifically, it was circa 1989 that zero-tolerance drug policy crossed the line into educational policy discourse. At that time, Congress passed the Drug-Free Schools and Campuses Act of 1989. Reportedly, the law was designed to create safe school environments and protect faculty, staff, and students. As a punitive policy, school sites, including colleges/universities and vocational schools, risked the loss of federal aid if they failed to enact zero tolerance and impose disciplinary action against those who violated the policy by distributing or being in direct possession of drugs and alcohol while on, or in proximity of, school property. At the risk of losing funding, educational institutions enacted and enforced the punitive policy.
Such punitive actions over the course of nearly two decades have led to what has been referred to as the school-to-prison pipeline and the school-to-prison nexus. Whereas middle-class White youth found to be in violation of zero-tolerance policies (which is subjective, given that it can include any acts of subordination or perceived threats of violence) tend to be assigned to counseling or receive a slap on the wrist for violation of school code, non-White youth are more likely to come in contact with police officers and, consequently, the juvenile correctional system. Research suggests that many Black youths first encounter with the criminal justice system occurs after a report by school officials to police authorities. Sadly, recent research suggests that zero tolerance and harsh school discipline in many public urban schools contribute to school pushout, a school-to-prison-pipeline, and engagement in sex work for far too many poor Black girls (Morris, 2016).
Fortunately, many professional teacher organizations have spoken out against zero-tolerance and exclusionary disciplinary practices in schools. In particular, the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, the National Association of Elementary School Principals, and the National Association of Secondary School Principals have all publicly acknowledged their concerns with the way the policy was written and implemented (Boylan & Weiser, 2002). After review of 10 years of research by a task force sponsored by the American Psychological Association, it was concluded that the implementation of zero tolerance has had an unintended burden on certain student groups (American Psychological Association, 2006).
As early as 1975, evidence suggested that students of color are at a greater risk of being expelled from school (Verdugo & Glenn, 2006). More recently, it is been documented that the rate of suspension and expulsion for students of color is far greater than for any other demographic (National Association of School Psychologists, 2011). The removal of these students from their home schools often denies them the opportunity to continue with their educationthus eventually denying them access to a higher levels of education, affordable housing, higher wage employment, adequate health care, and other financial means.
BLACK GIRLS AND SCHOOL DISCIPLINE: PREK-12TH GRADE
As early as preschool, Black children become targets of harsh discipline practices and policies. According to the U.S. Department of Education (2016), 18% of Black children of preschool age share 48% of the number of out-of-school suspensions. As of 20112012, data revealed,
Black students represent 16% of the student population, but 3242% of students suspended or expelled. In addition to these numbers, the Department of Education identifies that a student of color is three times more likely to be suspended or expelled compared to their White peers. In comparison, Black girls are 12% higher than any other race to be suspended, and this includes most boys. (Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, 2014)
Research confirms that out-of-school suspension can severely disrupt a students academic progress in ways that have lasting negative consequences. For students attending similar school environments, a single suspension or expulsion doubles the risk that a student will repeat a grade. Being retained a grade, especially while in middle or high school, is one of the strongest predictors of dropping out. For example, Heitzeg (2009) cited one national longitudinal study in which it was discovered that youth with a prior suspension were 68% more likely to drop out of school.
Research on the schooling experiences of Black girl students (Evans-Winters, 2011; Henry, 1998; Ladner, 1971; OConnor, 1997; Winn, 2010) reveals how the family, community, and school, as well as individual agency, can influence Black girls positive academic development. Nonetheless, what we have limited understanding about is how educational policy itself influences Black girls long-term academic development and opportunities. For example, attention has been given to the so-called achievement gap between non-White and White students (Darling-Hammond, 2010); however, the challenge confronting Black girls is the need for educational policies that consider their intersectional needs.
Education scholars, policy makers, and teachers have a responsibility to ponder how race and gender and social class shape the unique educational needs of Black girls. When researchers and educators narrowly focus on the racial achievement gap between Whites and Blacks, or males and females as a group, attention is speciously directed at other areas that influence Black girls unique socioemotional needs. Without equal access to educational opportunities, even our most talented young Black women are at higher risk of poverty, underemployment, or economic instability (Evans-Winters, 2016).
NO BLACK GIRL LEFT BEHIND
Most policy makers and education practitioners are familiar with the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001 passed under President George Bush, Jr. NCLB encouraged states to disaggregate student level data by race to close achievement gaps. The NCLB Act mandated local education agencies to address achievement based on standardized test scores in math, science, reading, and graduation rates while allowing for sanctions (that were often used to humiliate schools and administrators) for not complying with the policy. Needless to say, NCLB was criticized by educational advocates and school districts because of its reinforcement of racial stereotypes and its inability to impact institutionalized practices and polices (whether formal or informal) that perpetuated systemic inequities.
For many, Obamas authorization of ESSA forced school districts and states to examine research-based factors that mediated the effect of educational actors abilities to serve low-income students and Black children, and meet the learning needs of all students. Considering that ESSA is in its beginning phase of implementation, it is essential that education scholars begin to raise critical questions about the utility of ESSA for racial/ethnic and linguistic minorities, students from lower income families, students with an identified dis/ability, and those attending schools in high-poverty neighborhoods. However, we further concede that it is important, because of the growing body of literature on the state of Black girls education in the United States, to extend this discussion to include Black female students, especially those from lower income and working-class families and communities. Such a complex, yet nuanced, analysis is needed because Black girls intersecting identities (as students and citizens) can assist policy makers and practitioners alike in identifying potential gaps in ESSA objectives and outcomes. In the ensuing section, we discuss critical race feminism and its utility as a framework for understanding the impact of ESSA on Black girls in Pk12 schools.
CRITICAL RACE FEMINISM IN EDUCATION AS AN INTERPRETIVE FRAME FOR ESSA
There is no doubt that it can be argued that school discipline polices were enacted to shield White students (and teachers) in desegregated spaces from their racial/ethnic peers. From an interest-convergence perspective, desegregation never posed a real threat to the status quo because coupled-together special education (overrepresented with racial/ethnic minority students) and gifted and talented programs (overrepresented with White students) keep each racial group in its respective educational track and racially segregated from one another (Evans-Winters, 2016). Unfortunately, harsh discipline policies continue to segregate and exclude Black bodies from school settings.
Also, empirical data show that teacher expectations are typically lower for Black girls than for White girls, and Black girls attitudes and behaviors tend to be harshly and negatively judged by White teachers (Blake, Butler, Lewis, & Darensbourg, 2011; Campbell, 2012; Francis, 2012). Sadly, research in the social sciences reveals that Black womens bodies, inside and outside of school environments, are policed, controlled, and heckled, while at the same time being a site of spectacle (Collins, 2005; Evans-Winters, 2011; Roberts, 1997). One only has to look at any popular media site and witness how images of young Black women are narrow and distorted (e.g., scantily dressed, fighting, dancing provocatively) for public consumption and ridicule.
Education researchers do know that popular culture influences how adults in schools perceive Black girls behavior. Because they are coping with stereotypical beliefs about their attitudes and behaviors from teachers and peers, Black girls are disproportionately disciplined at higher rates than their peers. For instance, in 2010, Black girls were twice as likely to repeat a grade, to be suspended, and to be expelled than their White female and White male peers before acquiring a high school diploma (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2010). These high discipline rates do not make sense, given that, theoretically, boys behavior is typically viewed as more aggressive than girls behavior.
Thus, critical policy theorists can conclude that racism and sexism intersect to shape young Black womens experiences and overrepresentation in school discipline referrals and out-of-school suspensions. Black girls experiences in schools differ from the experiences of boys of color and young White women. As evident here, a CRF lens in the examination of the schooling experiences of African American female students allows for the avoidance of gender and racial exclusion in educational policy and discourse. More needs to be researched on how these educational trends have an effect on Black girls overall educational development.
EVERY STUDENT SUCCEEDS: DO BLACK GIRLS COUNT?
Fortunately, ESSA gives some attention to historical patterns of school exclusion and inequities in school discipline practices. The policy insinuates that discipline practices in schools contribute to school underachievement and school dropout rates, and such policies disproportionately affect the achievement of racial/ethnic and linguistic minorities, economically disadvantaged students, and students with disabilities. ESSA (2017) stated,
the State educational agency will support local educational agencies receiving assistance under this part to improve school conditions for student learning, including through reducing (i) incidences of bullying and harassment; (ii) the overuse of discipline practices that remove students from the classroom; and (iii) the use of aversive behavioral interventions that compromise student health and safety. (p. 39)
According to research, Black girls are adversely affected by the overuse of discipline practices in schools that remove them from the classroom because of suspension or expulsion, and they are disciplined in schools at rates higher than their White male and female peers. In addition, recent research by Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality suggests that harsh discipline does affect Black girls academically as well as their overall socioemotional health (Epstein, Blake, & Gonzalez, 2017; Morris, 2016). Thus, policy makers and practitioners have the opportunity to utilize ESSA as an analytical and practical tool begin to understand how Black girls are falling through the cracks of school reform.
Further, ESSA called for explanations from states on how the local educational agency will support efforts to reduce the overuse of discipline practices that remove students from the classroom, which may include identifying and supporting schools with high rates of discipline, disaggregated by each of the subgroups of students, as defined in section 1111(c)(2) (ESSA, p. 51). At this point, to be in compliance with ESSA, schools must demonstrate efforts to reduce the overuse of discipline practices that remove Black girls from the classroom. States have a responsibility to identify schools with high rates of discipline disaggregated by each of the subgroups of students.
However, here is where Black girls fall through the cracks of school policy reform discourse. ESSA identifies subgroups as the following: (a) economically disadvantaged students; (b) students from major racial and ethnic groups; (c) children with disabilities; and (d) English learners. Of course, Black students may be disadvantaged, are identified as a part of a racial/ethnic group, and may or may not have a disability (or be an English learner). However, what is missing in this matrix of subgroups is gender and gender and race. In other words, Black girls multiple identities and membership within and across multiple vulnerable student groups are made invisible in policy discourse and, in particular, in ESSA.
With the aforementioned observation, we attempt to assess how the state of Illinois measures up to ESSAs call for school-based action to protect students from exclusionary school practices. Overall, does the state of Illinoisand in particular, Chicago Public Schoolsprotect its Black girls from the overuse of discipline practices that remove them from the classroom? Do schools in Illinois engage in aversive behavioral interventions that compromise Black female students health and safety? How can ESSA be used in the state of Illinois to actively identify and support schools with high rates of discipline that adversely affect Black girls in particular?
BLACK GIRLS IN CHICAGO PUBLIC SCHOOLS
According to the African American Policy Forum (Crenshaw et al., 2015), Black girls across the United States are suspended 6 times more often than White girls. By comparison, Black boys are suspended 3 times more often than White boys. In contrast, only 2% of White girls were subjected to exclusionary suspensions, compared with 12% of Black girls. Unfortunately, in Chicago Public Schools, the racial and gender inequity in education appears much more dire. CPS is the third largest district school district in the United States. By the 20162017 school year, there was a total of 381,349 students by the 20th day of the school year. Among that total, 17.17% were bilingual, 13.66% received special education, and 80.22% received free/reduced lunch (Chicago Public Schools [CPS], 2017). African Americans make up approximately 38% of the student population, Hispanics 47%, and Whites 10% (CPS, 2017). Although Black students are not the majority of the student population, they constitute the majority of discipline infractions; thus, Black girls are at higher risk of harsh discipline and punishment in the Chicago school system than their White and Latin@ peers.
In fact, during the 20162017 school year, almost 72% of the out-of-school suspensions were among Black students. Specific to race and gender, Black girls in Chicago Public Schools constituted 78% of all female out-of-school suspensions, compared with 20% for Hispanic girls and1.45% for White girls (CPS, 2017). Most of these out-of-school suspensions were due to vaguely interpreted minor infractions (as outlined in the Student Code of Conduct; see http://cps.edu/Pages/StudentCodeofConduct.aspx) such as:
failing to attend class without a valid excuse;
failing to abide by school rules and regulations not otherwise listed in the student code of conduct; or
persisting in serious acts of disobedience or inappropriate behaviors; and
defying (disobeying) the authority of school personnel. (CPS, n.d.)
Given the relationship between harsh discipline policies and the school-to-prison pipeline, it is important that the state of Illinois, and Chicago public schools in particular, give attention to its pushout problem for Black girls. The citys high poverty rate, racial segregation, and number of students with disabilities place Black girls at higher risk of school pushout/dropout, criminalization, and segregation from the formal economy.
For instance, as research indicates, Black girls with an identified disability are suspended at higher rates (22.5%) than White and Latino males with a disability (U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, 2014). As noted, CPS has a high number of students in special education placement. As it relates to the school-to-prison pipeline, Black girls receive more severe sentences when they enter the juvenile justice system than do members of any other group of girls, and they are the fastest growing population in the criminal justice system (Crenshaw et al., 2015; Morris, 2016). Based on the aforementioned statistics and criminalization patterns, it is especially important to begin to add Black girls into conversations about school reform and educational policy discourse.
CONCLUSION: SITUATING BLACK GIRLS IN SCHOOL REFORM
In sum, Black girls are systematically left out of discussions about school reformmainly because binary thinking about race, class, and gender shapes how we frame educational issues, problems, and solutions. Consequently, educational policy often overlooks the very individuals and social groups it should advocate for and protect. It is important to seek to understand early where ESSA or any social policy fails its most vulnerable populations. Black girls represent multiple identities within our schools. If we are able to locate them within policy discussions, we are able to locate similarly situated student groups (e.g., Latina students, Black girls with dis/abilities).
Last, we must reference the ESSA (2017) policy statement:
. . . designing and implementing a locally-tailored plan to reduce exclusionary discipline practices in elementary and secondary schools that (i) is consistent with best practices; (ii) includes strategies that are evidence-based (to the extent the State, in consultation with local educational agencies in the State, determines that such evidence is reasonably available); and (iii) is aligned with the long-term goal of prison reduction through opportunities, mentoring, intervention, support, and other education services, referred to as a youth PROMISE plan. (p. 221)
We call for school leaders, with the inclusion of parents, to design and implement school-based policies and practices that serve to significantly reduceand, it is hoped, eradicate altogetherexclusionary school policies. We further call for evidence-based practices that consider the needs of Black female students as members of a distinct cultural group (i.e., Black/African American) with a rich history and diasporic traditions.
More important, understanding that many Black girls confront serious social issues due to generational racism, class oppression, gender exploitation, and community- and societal-induced trauma, we call for more research to look at how school exclusionary practices contribute to the criminalization of Black girls and push them toward undesirable social behavior (e.g., sex work, drug trade, early pregnancy); serious attention to prison reduction begins with such nuanced studies. In other words, more needs to be known about how harsh sanctions and exclusionary school discipline affect Black female students as racialized and gendered beings. In sum, ESSA has some promise for Black girls, but until Black girls and other racialized girls are viewed as a unique student group, Black girls will continue to be lost in the shuffle. Intersectional approaches are needed and are overdue in educational policy development, implementation, and school reform.
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