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Racial Inequities: What Schools Can Do, Part 2

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 discusses changes that districts and schools can make in the areas of professional capacity, school climate, school-family-community partnerships and teaching and learning in order to address the problem of racial inequities in education. See part 1 of the article for an overview on the issue of school-based racial inequities, along with leadership-related strategies for addressing the problem.

Professional Capacity

The need for highly qualified teachers is clear and legislatively mandated, and educators must master educational content and techniques. Professional capacity includes the attitudes and practices that are considered by many to be “just good teaching.” However, racial and cultural differences can impact the application of good teaching, since “we can’t teach what we don’t know.” In his book by the same title, Gary Howard suggests that educators engage in deep and sustained self-reflection in order to become effective at implementing these practices.

Phinney (1990) and others suggest that to maximize professional capacity, these educators must be willing and able to reflect on the impact of their cultural and racial identity on their practice.

Educators should work collaboratively to:

  1. Identify the role race and culture play in driving the systems, policies, and practices that educators use to inspire student performance (instruction, assessment, and intervention);
  2. Heighten their awareness of how cultural and racial identity underscore their own behavior and the behavior of their students and how both impact student performance; and
  3. Develop the skills to engage in racial discourse that challenges traditional norms, traditions, and dispositions.

This cannot happen in isolation. Educators must develop a deeper level of racial consciousness to challenge not only their own practices but also school practices and instructional decision-making. They must have the support of a school community that provides the structures, resources, and tools necessary to allow everyone to engage in this reflection and critical thinking about the impact of the adult mindset on student performance.

School Climate

Central to systems change is climate. Absence of relationships in school may prompt students to redirect their attention toward seeking out people and places where they can connect. Noguera states that “[g]enerational differences, especially when compounded by difference in race and class, often make it difficult for adults to communicate effectively with youth.” It has become increasingly important for educators to construct learning environments that provide a variety of connecting points for all students, and especially students of color where the links don’t already or obviously exist.

When relationships develop reciprocally, when there is a mutual knowing of and respect for one another, the core identity of both teachers and students remains intact and their talents are valued. The lack of response, conscious or unconscious, to racial and cultural differences can present a barrier for recognizing students’ strengths, and therefore a barrier to relationship building. By examining and enhancing the relationships between educators and students, educators and families, and students and students, educators will be able to:

  1. Get closer to students’ realities and better understand their needs;
  2. Collaborate with the students and their families to develop a network of supports; and
  3. Establish norms and systems whereby all stakeholders use efficient routines, common language, and a vision for success to meet agreed-upon performance goals.

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.

School-Family-Community Partnerships

A positive school climate – which values and honors the students and families served – establishes the foundation for well-defined school-family-community relationships. These partnerships begin with the understanding and awareness that families from all races and all cultures have strengths and play a critical role in their children’s educational success. Families are their children’s first mentors, educators, and support system. Effective school-family-community partnerships are grounded in these understandings, mutual trust and respect, and shared responsibility for the educational success of children.

Research by Mapp and Hong (2009) and others demonstrates that “culturally responsive,” “culturally appropriate,” and “culturally congruent” and effective schools have high levels of parental engagement and improved academic achievement for all students regardless of the racial/ethnic, cultural, and socioeconomic background of students.

Quite simply, families and communities are at the heart of students’ identities and experiences. The Center for Collaborative Education (2011) notes that a school or organization will not achieve equity and excellence for all of the students in its care if it does not acknowledge, understand, and include the families and communities of all students.

As indicated by the CT Parent Information and Resource Center (2009-10), there are three elements critical to building mutual trust, respect, and shared responsibility for education among home, school, and community that have a direct positive impact on student motivation, participation in programming, and success across subjects:

  1. Intentional actions to engage families to strengthen student learning;
  2. Teacher efforts to become knowledgeable about students’ cultures and the local community that are employed in their lessons; and
  3. Endeavors to strengthen the network among community organizations to expand services for students and their families.

The relationships among schools, families, and communities are to be transformative and reflect the contributions of all races in a co-responsible community of support with a richly diverse group of peers, mentors, and allies, who ensure that children succeed in school (Howard, 2006). Creating these relationships among families, schools, and communities is not always easy. It requires honesty, true commitment, and time.

To achieve the results of these partnerships among families, schools, and communities, partners must ensure that:

  1. Families have access to all educational reform decisions that affect their children’s success;
  2. Families become collaborative partners within the educational decisionmaking process;
  3. Educational systems acknowledge the valuable contributions and multiple perspectives of the families; and
  4. Educational systems create better opportunities and learning for all students.

The outcomes of these efforts – highly achieving students and successful schools – can be significant. Research by Johnson (1996) and others shows that when families understand the educational system and its challenges, they become a source of support, understanding, and advocacy that education must not undervalue.

Families and community members are “funds of knowledge” about children, and building strong school-family-community partnerships allows educators to access the information that family and community members possess. Such partnerships have been shown to have a positive impact on academic achievement. However, these partnerships will not develop without authentic efforts to include families and community stakeholders in the change process.

When families gain knowledge and become active participants in their children’s education, they become motivated. This motivation leads to a collaborative environment in which families can share their expertise, their personal stories, their culture, and, most importantly, their commitment to action.

Practitioners have to ensure that all children have access to equitable and just educational environments that respect and account for their personal stories. Parental voice, very often missing from the educational realm, has a great impact in the success of children and society.

Teaching and Learning

Instructional guidance systematically organizes curriculum content for students in a scope and sequence that is aligned across grade levels. The three elements of instructional guidance identified by Bryk et al. (2010) -- (1) subject matter and pacing, (2) intellectual depth expected of students as they engage in learning experiences, and (3) pedagogical strategies, materials, and tools – are necessary for fostering and sustaining high student achievement.

Most strategies to close gaps in achievement for students of color are short-lived or ineffective without a strong system of instructional guidance. Comprehensive reforms are necessary to transform schools and support the teaching strategies implemented in the classroom.

James A. Banks (1996) describes systemic reforms needed to create a school culture that empowers all students. Variables that need to be examined are grouping practices, the social climate of the school, assessment practices, extracurricular activities and participation, and staff expectations and responses to students from diverse cultural, ethnic, racial, and income groups.

Educators must create an educational system that will foster a just and inclusive pluralistic society that all students and groups will perceive as legitimate. An important aim of the school curriculum should be to give students the knowledge, attitudes, and skills needed to help construct and to live in a public community in which all groups can and will participate:

a curriculum that incorporates only the knowledge, values, experiences, and perspectives of mainstream powerful groups marginalizes the experiences of students of color.... Such curriculum will not foster an overarching American identity because students will view it as one that has been created and constructed by outsiders, people who do not know or understand their experience.

By developing a culturally responsive comprehensive system that accounts for each of the five critical elements--Leadership, Professional Capacity, School Climate, School-Family-Community Partnerships, and Teaching & Learning--we strongly believe that equity in education can be achieved. To do it requires both talk and action of a transformational nature.

Ending institutionalized racism is about the individual and collective commitment of policy makers and school leaders to change the results that systemically impact the lives of our children and families of color. It is essential that race is included in the discourse and that we make a collective commitment to actively deconstruct the practices that would otherwise guarantee that students--both students of color and White students--are educationally ill-prepared to function in a diverse and global society.

References (in order of mention)

Howard, G. (2006). We can’t teach what we don’t know: White teachers, multiracial schools. (2nd ed.) New York: Teachers College Press.

Phinney, J.S. (1990). Ethnic identity in adolescents and adults: Review of research. Psychological Bulletin, 108(3); Helms, J. (1990). Black and white racial identity development: Theory, research and practice. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers. We also recommend Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Herder and Herder.

Noguera, P. A. (2008). The trouble with black boys:... And other reflections on race, equity, and the future of public education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Mapp, K., & S. Hong. Debunking the myth of the hard-to-reach parent, in the Handbook of school-family partnerships (2009) by S. L. Christenson & A.L. Reschly, Eds. New York: Routledge; Johnson, R. (1996). Setting our sights: Measuring equity in school change. Los Angeles: The Achievement Council; Allen, J. (2009). Effective home-school communication. Family Involvement Network of Educators (FINE) Newsletter, 1(1); and Kesner, J.E., & McHenry, P.C. (2001). Single parenthood and social competence in children of color. Families in Society, 82(2).

Center for Collaborative Education. (2011). Turning points: Transforming middle schools: Creating partnerships, bridging worlds: Family and community engagement. Boston: CCE.

CT Parent Information and Resource Center Annual Performance Report, Budget Period 4 (2009-10), submitted to the U.S. Department of Education; and Henderson, A. T., and K. L. Mapp. (2002). A new wave of evidence: The impact of school, family, and community connections on student achievement, annual synthesis 2002. Austin, TX: Southwest Educational Development Laboratory.

Johnson, R. (1996). Setting our sights: Measuring equity in school change. Los Angeles: The Achievement Council; Allen, J. (2009). Effective home-school communication. Family Involvement Network of Educators (FINE) Newsletter, 1(1); and Kesner, J.E., & McHenry, P.C. (2001). Single parenthood and social competence in childrenof color. Families in Society, 82(2).

Bryk, Anthony S., P.B. Sebring, E. Allensworth, S. Luppescu, & J.Q. Easton. (2010). Organizing schools for improvement: Lessons from Chicago. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Banks, J.A. (1996). Multicultural education, transformative knowledge, and action: Historical and contemporary perspectives. New York: Teachers College Press.

Related resource

See part 1 of this article for an introduction to the topic of racial inequities in education, and a discussion of leadership-related strategies that educators can use to address the problem.


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