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Racial Inequities: What Schools Can Do

EducationWorld is pleased to present this resource shared by the State Education Resource Center (SERC) in CT. This adapted material originally appeared in the SERC document Equity in Education: A Transformational Approach.

This article offers an overview of the problem of racial inequities in education and discusses changes that can be made in the area of leadership in order to meet this challenge. See part 2 of the article for additional strategies in the areas of professional capacity, school climate, school-family-community partnerships and teaching and learning.

W.E.B. Du Bois wrote in 1903 that “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line—the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea.” Over 100 years later, we continue to see that problem of the color-line in our schools today: incredible disparities between the educational outcomes of children of color and their White counterparts. “In nearly every category associated with positive academic outcomes,” according to Pedro Noguera of New York University, “students of color typically are underrepresented, and in categories associated with negative outcomes, they are overrepresented.”

The State Education Resource Center (SERC)
, as part of its commitment to improve the achievement of Connecticut's children and youth, provides professional development and information dissemination in the latest research and best practices to educators, service providers, and families throughout the state, as well as job-embedded technical assistance and training within schools, programs, and districts.

The state of Connecticut and the nation as a whole are currently confronted by what is being called the civil rights crisis of our time: the loss of our students of color to the racial predictability of the achievement gaps. But students of color are not failing; our educational system is failing them.

For centuries, we have avoided discussing institutionalized racism and its detrimental effects on our students of color as well as their White peers. Such avoidance is mainly due to the uncomfortable feelings and reactions brought about by racial discourse. Feelings of resentment and guilt are some of the most common emotions experienced by people who engage in racial discourse.

Conversations about race and culture are not meant to be easy, but without them we will never begin to understand the root causes of our racial disparities and challenge our current thinking.

Educators within our school systems ask repeatedly for prescriptive strategies that will help them improve the academic achievement of students of color on high-stakes tests. What we need is a pedagogical approach that focuses not on racialized instructional strategies but on creating an educational environment that is culturally relevant and respectful. Based upon the work of researchers and practitioners in the field, SERC [State Education Resource Center in CT] defines a culturally relevant and respectful environment as having the following elements:

  1. Teachers who are highly aware of their own beliefs, attitudes, and biases and those of others;
  2. Students who are empowered to use their own cultural characteristics, experiences, and perspectives for academic success; and
  3. A curriculum that engages and affirms both students’ and teachers’ identities, cultural and experiential reference points, and world views in the process of learning.

Only when instructional strategies are implemented in a context of mutual respect will we begin to see the impact of our efforts. A culturally and racially relevant approach allows educators to relate to students and allows students to connect to the curriculum and demonstrate their knowledge in meaningful ways.

Potential Solutions to Addressing Systemic Inequities

Creating equity at the district, school, and classroom levels requires this systemic and culturally relevant approach. The literature is replete with information on the essential elements of educational reform. Based upon the work of the Consortium on Chicago School Research, SERC has considered five critical elements: Leadership, Professional Capacity, School Climate, School-Family-Community Partnerships, and Teaching & Learning. These elements are essential in order to achieve systemic transformation in education and ensure an equitable education for all children.


According to Hilliard (1995), in order to eradicate the racial predictability of the achievement gaps, leaders must have the skill, will, and knowledge to uproot the underlying factors that contribute to them – qualities that are often overlooked. Educators need to examine the structural practices that perpetuate the isolation of students of color in an educational system that historically was not created for them. This requires leadership positioned to provide the necessary pressures and supports for the development of this skill, will, and knowledge.

Almost every approach to educational reform acknowledges the role of leaders in directing efficient and sustainable change. Therefore, educational reform efforts must begin with leaders who demand high expectations for all students. Any tendency of a district, school administration, faculty, and/or staff to rationalize the failure of students of color as “normal” must not be tolerated.

Whether that rationalization is one of complacency because of a history of persistent and pervasive failure, or abdication of responsibility because of poverty, or a misperception that certain families do not value education, does not matter. Leaders must challenge any attitudes and beliefs, including their own, that accept the failure of students of color.

To move to a climate of high expectations and achievement for all students, leadership must focus on assessment and instruction that are effective for all students and ensure that results are continually monitored against the goals set forward to improve academic outcomes. Leaders must facilitate opportunities for members of their staff and community to courageously dialogue about the intersection of race and education. The understandings generated by such dialogue will serve as the platform to develop structural systems, policies, and practices that lead to higher student achievement. Leaders must assist school personnel and community members to clarify their understanding of what the Aspen Institute Roundtable on Community Change (2004) referred to as the “forces that maintain the racial disparity status quo and constrain the potential success of strategies for change.” We refer to this understanding as professional capacity.

References (in order of mention)

Du Bois, W.E.B. (1903). The souls of black folk. Chicago: A.C. McClurg & Co.

Noguera, P. A. and J. Y. Wing, Eds. (2006). Unfinished business: Closing the racial achievement gap in our schools. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

State Education Resource Center. (2009). Culturally responsive pedagogy working definition. Middletown, CT: SERC.

Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago (CCSR). (2010). Organizing schools for improvement: Lessons from Chicago. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hilliard, A. (1995). The maroon within us: Selected essays on African American community socialization. Halethorpe, MD: Black Classic Press.

Aspen Institute Roundtable on Community Change. (2004). Structural racism and community building. Washington, DC: Aspen Institute.

Related resource

Part 2 of this article offers additional systems-level strategies--in the areas of professional capacity, school climate, school-family-community partnerships and teaching and learning--that can help eliminate racial inequities.


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